Having a positive relationship with food, exercise and our bodies is a tough struggle for some people. Many of us battle with our body image and feel as though this is just a permanent feature of our thoughts and of our lives as a whole. It can feel like we are stuck in a vicious cycle, which is impossible to break. As somebody who is definitely prone to these negative thought patterns, I have been attempting to re-educate and rewire my brain over the past year. To do this, I have read about and become inspired by the power of other inspirational writers and activists who simply refuse to let so called 'Diet Culture' win. I have learnt that it really is the little things that make the biggest difference to our mindsets.
So, here I have compiled a list of healthy habits, helpful resolutions and top tips for improving body image as well as your relationship with exercise and food. Some are small, some are large, some are easier to achieve, some are downright hard. We each have our own goals and personal struggles but these are the things I strive to achieve in my own personal journey and I hope they may be able to help others too.
1. Challenge your own fat-phobia
This is one of the most important steps to take for both ourselves and for future generations. Unfortunately, we live in a world where we are taught that thin = good and fat = bad. Understandably, this fills us all with a fear of weight gain. Challenge this. Stop congratulating weight loss. Ditch the diet talk (even before you ditch the diet, it will help). Stop being negative about people in larger bodies. Stop viewing weight gain as inherently bad. All bodies are different and all deserve respect.
2. Banish the scales
Being obsessed with weight just leads to long term misery. It begins as a mission to get healthier but, before long, the number on the scales is dictating your mood. You don’t need that in your life!
The alternative is to pursue healthy behaviours, regardless of weight. After all, if you feel that you respect your body and focus on keeping it healthy through fresh food and exercise, then you will automatically feel more body positive. In the long term, you cannot control how your body looks; you can control how you treat it. Focus on the latter.
3. Appreciate and respect your body
Most of us are fortunate enough to have a functioning, healthy body. If you do, it is an amazing gift. Appreciate it instead of putting it down constantly. Treat it like your best friend, because it really is.
4. Positive self-talk
This is tricky but, as the old saying goes, fake it until you make it! If you don’t feel happy with your reflection at first glance then don’t even entertain those negative thoughts. Instead, turn it around rather than spiralling into self-loathing. Positive affirmations are powerful. Our own thoughts and words are what we hear more than anything, so shape them wisely. Remember, you are unique, so don’t compare yourself to others. Tell yourself what you do like (about yourself as a whole as well as about your body) and slowly you will learn to embrace the parts that you don’t. Even they are part of what makes you ‘you’ after all!
1. Find the exercise that you truly love
Your body is built to move and it needs to in order to fully thrive. However, this definitely doesn’t mean you should put yourself through those dreaded gym sessions that you loath. This is the opposite of wellness and self-care. Instead, find the forms of exercise that you truly enjoy. For me, it’s jogging, hiking and swimming. Find what does it for you!
2. Avoid the ‘all or nothing’ approach when it comes to exercise
Don’t put so much pressure on yourself to exercise harder or for longer. By pressurising yourself, you set yourself up to fail with feelings of guilt, shame and disappointment. Exercise on days when your body is feeling good and, if it isn’t, it’s OK to rest!
3. Find a better reason to exercise than to lose weight
For your mental health, to feel more energised, to feel proud of your body. These are three much better and more rewarding reasons for exercising than weight loss, and there are many more. Exercise should be a celebration of your body, not a punishment for it.
4. Disassociate food and exercise in your brain
Unless you are body building or running a marathon, food and exercise shouldn’t be interlinked. It is important to have a healthy relationship with both but, for the most part, they should be separate areas of a healthy life. Exercise should not be undertaken to ‘earn’ food, ‘burn’ food or to ‘make up for’ a big meal.
Food and Eating
From my experience, serial dieters tend to have an all or nothing mindset. We make food choices based on whether we are being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ that day which can result in a binge and restrict cycle. In order to develop a better relationship with food, try these approaches instead:
1. Honour your cravings
Dieting makes us lose touch with our body’s signals because, instead of eating what it is craving, we restrict and eat something that we think we ‘should’ eat instead. Our bodies are extremely clever and cravings are there for a reason. Listen to them! After all, once you’ve given in and eaten that pizza, the next day you will probably feel like eating some vegetables again.
2. Make mindful food choices
When making a choice about what to eat, think about how a certain food or meal will make you feel after eating it. Often, this thought process leads us to choose foods that are nutritious, nourishing and appropriate to what our body and soul need on that day.
3. Try not to restrict
Make sure you allow yourself to eat any and every food and try to avoid food ‘rules’. The more you restrict, the greater the urge will be to binge. If all foods are allowed, they don’t seem so tempting after all. So, keep your favourite biscuits in the house at all times, I implore you!
4. Talk 'adding in' not 'taking out'
Instead of always talking in terms of what we need to remove from our diet, talk instead about what we can add in. Rather than vowing to eat less bread, vow to eat more vegetables. Instead of swearing off chocolate, try to eat more fruit. This change in the narrative can make us see food in a more positive way as well as helping us to make healthy choices.
5. Challenge the idea of 'good' or 'bad' foods
In the modern day, we have the privilege of having an incredible abundance of food available to us. This can only be a good thing. Variety is key and no food is ‘bad’ also, on the flip-side, there is no such thing as a ‘super-food’. Food is given way too much power and we forget that it is actually just food. It is just energy in different forms with slightly different nutritional values. All foods have a place in a healthy diet.
6. Relax! Guilt should have no space on your plate
For the majority of people and with the majority of foods, what you choose to eat is not a moral decision. Yet, so often we describe ourselves as feeling ‘guilty’ after eating certain foods. Remember, each meal serves a different purpose. We should respect that sometimes a McDonald's on a long car journey is just what is needed to keep us going and some days we really need a kale and quinoa salad to make us feel at our best. In fact, it has been shown that stress which comes as a result of pursuing ‘health’, by pressuring ourselves to eat perfectly and control our weight, actually has an extremely detrimental effect on our mental health and well-being. So, relax and enjoy your meal!
And finally, some food for thought…
7. Food is a gift
It is so much more than just nutrition and fuel. It is community, fun, adventure, flavour, culture, family, joy, sadness, memories, travel, celebration… The list is endless...