What does it mean to change your relationship with food? It is common this time of year to talk about changes in self-care and eating habits, but it is less common to talk about changing relationships with food. Yet unless one’s relationship with food is fundamentally changed, hoped-for new eating patterns are not likely to work out. Why is that? Well, let’s first step through how it usually works.

Here we are, facing another transition from the old year to new year. Same ol’ good intentions leading to the same ol’ resolutions, followed by the abandoning of these resolutions within a matter of weeks. If not days. They fail for all sorts of reasons, but the reasons that I’ve noticed people quitting on their self care resolutions are linked, and pretty easy to identify.

First, let’s call resolutions what they really are: commitments to start living following new, assumedly healthier, habits. But new habits, especially when it comes to things like diet and exercise, are notoriously hard to establish. Unless you have someone standing over you and forcing you to follow new behavior paths, following new habits is only a matter of you choosing to do so. And if you choose to do something, it is usually just as easy to choose not to do something. So if resolving to change habits feels a bit, oh let’s say arbitrary, the truth is it is a bit arbitrary.

Adapting new habits usually means following new rules. Rules generally define the boundaries for the choices we make, (and often keep us safe; consider road traffic rules) but sometimes rules feel oppressive. New rules, especially when it comes to food-based rules, might even elicit a “Oh yeah, sez who?” response from people at the mercy of those rules, even if they actually made the rules for themselves. Food rules are most often based on deprivation of sorts. “Eat this! Don’t eat that!” While would-be resolution-makers have their highest hopes and expectations in mind when they decide on adapting a new habit, the spirit of deprivation threatens to ruin the well-intended plans. (If you don’t believe deprivation is a major deterrent to success in following the new rules, just imagine a resolution to eat ice cream or cake every day instead of sprouts. That resolution seems a bit easier to follow, no?)

“But if trying to make a habit of eating better is doomed to defeat because its arbitrary, rule-based and rooted in deprivation,” I can almost hear you thinking,  “why even bother trying to change the way I eat?”

To which I might suggest, don’t change the way you eat… just change your relationship with food!

This suggestion is more than simple wordplay, it gets at the core of change. A new relationship with food logically brings with it a new way of eating. Let’s realize that real growth- oriented change comes in two connected components: changes in ways of doing, and changes in ways of being. In order to create meaningful, ongoing change, it is difficult to imagine achieving one part of the doing/being dynamic without the other. And I believe the way in to this change is to first transform the habits on the being-side of things.

To create change, I counsel clients to first give the desired shift some thought and connect with the benefits of the change you wish to manifest. Imagine how these changes would affect not only your eating habits but how you perceive yourself. I’ve long maintained that changing our relationships with food also means changing our relationships with ourselves. And anyone who knows me will not be surprised to hear that my first step to changing these relationships is to embrace mindfulness.

Mindful living can be achieved through taking time for awareness of what you are experiencing from moment to moment and then feeling gratitude for those aspects of these experiences for which you feel grateful. With mindfulness grows your own inherent sense of intuitive eating. As you become more cognizant of what your body is feeling you cannot help but become more aware of your own hunger and fullness feelings. As your hunger and fullness feelings become more present, they can become the signals that determine when you start eating, and when you stop eating. Eventually, this approach does away with the somewhat arbitrary rule-based approach of dieting.

But not having to rely on a rules-based eating approach is only half of what makes intuitive eating so profoundly valuable…  the strongest benefit is that intuitive eating means that there is no sense of deprivation; and it is the feeling of being deprived that often dooms resolutions regarding hanging eating habits.

Here’s what I mean:

In a conventional diet, a person’s inner dialogue–slightly exaggerated to make the point–might go like this, as they were offered a piece of chocolate cake, and turned it down:

“Oooh! Chocolate cake for dessert. Boy, I do like chocolate cake. But I can’t eat cake. The rules of this diet is no chocolate cake. So I won’t have some. Aw, but it looks so good. No, I really shouldn’t. I really want some, but I can’t have any. Ugh! Darn it!”

Perhaps in reading that, you felt frustrated and got a sense of sacrifice they were feeling, even a tinge of resentment. It would not be a mystery why this person eventually gave up on their diet, as most New Year’s resolution dieters tend to do.

But now, let’s imagine the inner dialogue–slightly exaggerated again, to make the point–of someone following an intuitive eating approach as they were offered a piece of chocolate cake that they turned down:

“Oooh! Chocolate cake for dessert. Boy, I do like chocolate cake. And I can have a slice now if I really want it. But do I want a slice? How will I feel if I eat it now? I can always have one tomorrow if I want. Or next week. Or next month. Or whenever, because when I decide to have chocolate cake, it’s my choice. At the moment I feel pretty full from dinner. So I think I’ll pass tonight, and have some another time, when I really want it.”

Can you see how turning down the cake in this instance was actually an empowering experience? Of course, our intuitive eater could have just as easily had a piece, or maybe a small taste, and that would have been fine, too. Because as they listen to what their body wants, they will tend to follow eating approaches that might not be perfect, but are good enough. After all, intuitive eating is all about flexibility. It is easier for most people to stick to a healthy approach than restrictive diets.

Finally, we have an answer to my question at the top of this page: changing our relationship with food through mindfulness and respect for what our bodies want can give us a healthy, empowering approach to what we eat without inflexible rules or feelings of restrictive deprivation. A great habit to form… for New Year’s… or anytime!