Unfortunately, due to diet culture, unrealistic standards of beauty and other factors, it’s estimated that 50 percent of Americans have a disordered relationship with exercise, their body and food. Sadly, this way of thinking and feeling about our sense of self can begin in childhood and extend well into our adult years, according to Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University. Whether your family commented on how much you were (or weren’t) eating or your weight, your body image develops from a young age.
For me, puberty triggered my negative self-talk. Unlike most girls my age, I started developing breasts and a curvy figure when I was ten years old. Uncomfortable and unprepared for a woman’s body, I spent the better part of my teenage and 20s wishing I could be thinner. After going through countless diets and periods of intense exercise, I found balance in my 30s, and I began to heal how I viewed myself. In honesty, it’s an ongoing journey that requires daily intention to reframe how I think of my health and my appearance. Most importantly: it’s flipping my language from self-deprecating to celebratory.
If you have gone through stages of punishing yourself for eating ‘bad’ things, tried crash diets to drop weight quickly, or sigh when you look at your reflection in the mirror, you could be suffering from an unhealthy viewpoint of your health. Here, we spoke with experts — from therapists to nutritionists — on how to move forward with realism and self-love:
Find your ‘why’ for exercising.
After eating ‘clean’ all week, you enjoyed a few slices of pizza and two glasses of red wine on Saturday with some friends. Rather than being in the moment with your pals, you spent the evening stressing about how much you would have to work out the next day to burn off the excess calories. This isn’t a positive way to look at fitness, says Trista Greco, a personal trainer and nutrition coach at CHI-SOCIETY.
“When people start believing that all daily exercise needs to be high-calorie burners, muscle shaking, gasping for air and drenched in sweat it may be a sign of an unhealthy relationship with exercise,” she explains. Working out shouldn’t feel like a form of punishment for enjoying foods that you like. Instead, it should be fun.
“Start to think about your ‘why’ for exercise,” she suggests. “Reframe exercise as a way to build strength, make you feel confident, and give you energy.”
Do an audit of your social media.
Open your most used social media app, from TikTok to Instagram. Do a quick scroll through your feed or your ‘for you’ page. While you’re doing, this, count how many people you follow who promote diet pills, intense exercise, seem like they could photoshop their photos, or otherwise, promote ‘perfection.’ Now, consider how much better you would feel if you didn’t have those photos popping up throughout the day. Likely, it would feel like a relief.
As intuitive eating counselor Lauren McAulay says, it’s easy to get sucked into the obsession around diet and exercise when everything you see is about impossible workout plans, promises of weight loss and super-thin models or influencers. “This is why detoxing your social media feeds from diet culture, and anything that makes you feel like you need to change your body to have more worth is a small yet powerful way to shift your beliefs and mindset around what health truly is,” she continues. “Once you detox, add body-positive advocates, self-love messages, and anyone that makes you feel inspired and good to be who you are in this current body.”
Speak to yourself as you would your best friend.
Over 24 hours, write down everything you say to yourself. Likely, you’ll be unpleasantly surprised by the type of things you think. This language is usually rooted in feeling societal expectations on how we should look, what we should eat, and how we should exercise, according to Serena Poon, a celebrity chef and nutritionist. As she puts it, most of us can’t imagine telling a friend: ‘I hate your body, you must change it. If you give up all the food you love, maybe I will accept you.’
“This sounds terrible from this perspective, but people talk to themselves in this way all the time. This kind of negative self-talk really initiates and perpetuates a cycle of disorder and very rarely leads to improved health,” Poon continues. “By flipping this narrative upside down and approaching diet and exercise from a place of joy, curiosity and love, you can heal your relationship to your body and mind.”
Don’t let the scale rule you.
Poon says one of the main reasons people develop an unhealthy relationship to food and exercise is trying to reach a certain number on the scale. This can be a slippery slope since everyone’s body holds weight differently. And what 150 pounds looked like at the age of 28 before children might not be what it looks like at 35, after birthing two babies. By letting the scale be the end-all, be-all for your happiness, you’re more likely to restrict your caloric intake and struggle for months (and years) to reach a goal number. “Instead of focusing on trying to hit a specific number on the scale, I recommend setting goals that celebrate strength or nourishment,” she adds. For example, she says to set a goal to run a 10K or to release refined sugar from your diet for a week. These are attainable, good for you, and not solely focused on weight.
Reframe how you think about food and fitness.
When you think of a big bowl of pasta, topped with yummy cheese and served with freshly-baked bread, how do you label the food? Is it ‘good’, ‘bad’ or is it, well, just food? One effective way to heal your mindset is to shift from giving meaning to food. This can be done through a behavioral therapy technique called positive reinforcement and conditioning, says psychologist Dr. Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D.
For example, when you’re eating a protein bowl with a balanced amount of protein, fat and carbohydrates, start to list all of the ways it makes you feel. Maybe it fulfills a craving. Perhaps it fuels you for your next workout. Then, do the same thing with exercise. Focus on how much stronger you’re feeling, how excited you are to see a workout buddy, and how proud you are of yourself for sticking to a routine. This creates habits that turn into a lifestyle — and not a fad.
“When you keep participating in an activity and feeling good about it, that activity can naturally become part of your regular routine because you are subconsciously conditioned to keep going,” she continues. “This occurrence is referred to as positive reinforcement in which your behavior makes you feel good!”
Quit the extremes — physically and emotionally.
Remember: eating well and exercising are wise choices to make for long, prosperous life. However, there’s a difference between identifying a craving and choosing a healthy substitute and going to extremes, says Hanna Stensby, M.A., a licensed marriage and family therapist. Usually, this looks like restricting yourself never to experience pleasure through food or forcing yourself to work out when you’re hurt or exhausted. Instead, she says maintaining balance, moderation and compassion with yourself will help to cultivate a more healthy relationship with diet and exercise.
To do this, it’s best to avoid cycles of dieting and then to go overboard. “Rather than focusing on an extreme goal of giving up all sugar, start with a small manageable step,” she notes. This could be eating one more serving of vegetables or having two fewer drinks a week. Maybe it’s doing yoga once a week. Whatever it is, try to celebrate it.
Speak with a therapist.
Last but not least, if you feel like you have no control over your unhealthy body images, it’s worthwhile to speak with a trained expert who can help you improve. A therapist or mental health professional can help you identify the events that may have caused your unhealthy relationship, says Dr. Hafeez. “They can also teach you how to identify triggers and provide coping skills to deal with triggers, as well as give you tips on how to practice self-care,” she continues. “A therapist can also provide someone with additional resources such as nutritionists, medical doctors, and support groups.”