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How healthy is your relationship with food?


Count kilojoules, always eat breakfast, don’t eat carbs after 6pm.Whether it’s public health advice  or conflicting opinions in the media about nutrition, we hear a lot of messages about what and how we should eat.  But there’s one message that needs to be louder, says Gabriella Heruc, an Adelaide based Accredited Practising Dietitian – listen to your body’s hunger signals.

According to Heruc, who specialises in eating disorders and disordered eating, tuning into your body’s inner appetite signals is more useful than observing external food ‘rules.’

“People often get fixated on counting kilojoules, for instance, but learning to count kilojoules doesn’t teach you to listen to your body,” she says. “One characteristic of people who have a healthy relationship with food  is that they eat more intuitively and are more aware of their appetite. They rely on internal hunger and satiety cues to know when it’s time to eat and when it’s time to stop – and their reasons for eating are physical, not emotional.”  

But ignoring your body’s hunger and fullness cues, eating for emotional reasons, eating mindlessly or  having your eating choices dictated by food rules that demand you avoid certain food groups may be clues that your relationship with food isn’t healthy, she adds.

Why do so many of us develop troubled relationships with food?  

“The reasons are very individual and can include perfectionism, low self-esteem and poor body image. But they can also include the home environment, especially if there are frequent discussions around weight, appearance or diet in the home,” she says.  

“Non-hungry eating is very common and the availability of so much food is one reason. But we also know that emotions and thoughts can override our physiological appetite signals - research has shown that stress can increase hunger and food intake in some people – although it can decrease hunger and food intake in others.”

Nutrition information – and misinformation - in the media may also be playing a part.  In the past 10 years Heruc has noticed an increase in the number of clients whose disordered eating is driven less by concerns about body image and more by anxiety about particular foods.

‘I’ve seen many people who’ve had mild gut symptoms and who then self-diagnose a problem with wheat,  gluten or dairy and cut out these foods – and even if  the symptoms persist they still continue to avoid them  because of fears that  their symptoms would get worse if they went back to eating them,”  she says. 

 “So many people are cutting out carbohydrates from their diets thinking that they’re ‘bad’ – yet carbohydrates are the body and brain's primary source of fuel. They’re also an essential source of fibre that helps lower cholesterol, regulate blood glucose levels and optimise bowel function.”

Fat is another target, says Heruc recalling the client whose father had died of heart disease and who avoided all types of fat as a result.

“Fat is one of the most misunderstood nutrients. Yet fats are essential for optimal brain function and nerve signalling in the body, as well as hormone production – including production of hormones that are important for sending fullness signals from the gut to the brain.”  

How can we nurture a healthier relationship with food? Eat mindfully – besides making you  more aware of what you’re eating, it makes it easier to pick up your body’s hunger and fullness signals.

“So many of us eat in front of TV, at our desk or while talking to others, and don't pay attention to our food – most people have experienced looking down at an empty plate and being unable to recall even eating the food that was there,” she says.

Sometimes, but not always, the seeds of future eating problems are sown in early childhood but there are ways to help prevent that.

“It’s good if we can keep emotions and food separated so that food isn’t seen as an answer when someone’s upset,” she says. “Teach children to listen to their hunger signals as well as to love and trust their bodies.” 


58 comments so far

  • One of the more sensible and balanced nutrition articles I've seen for a while

    Date and time
    July 27, 2014, 7:05PM
    • Agree Jen. It's indeed refreshing to read a commonsense article of this nature. I don't count calories or the like, yet I'm a passionate believer in obeying the body's signals and never skipping a healthy breakfast. Naturally, I avoid junk food like the plague. How some people foolishly begin the day on nothing but a cup of coffee and a cigarette defies belief!

      Date and time
      July 28, 2014, 1:04PM
  • I'd agree if everything is normal.

    In the BBC Horizon doco -The Truth About Fat, Dr Gabrielle Western was shown how obese people do not have the typical hunger/satiety hormone signals.

    My suggestions for a healthy relationship begins with not demonising food. I'd also suggest
    growing as much of your own produce as possible.

    Learning to cook a variety of dishes - simple/fast and more complicated but satisfying
    Avoiding the notion that food is medicine by understanding the evolutionary marvel that is homeostasis.
    Ignoring most advertising/labelling as it's hardly designed to be helpful.
    Trusting that good quality home cooked food is just so much more satisfying/kg than rubbish food.
    Never eat anything from a can/packet unless you're camping or remote.
    Indian/Chinese grocery stores have awesome spices/staples at bargin prices.

    Accept that no matter how well intended, motivated or funded mankind will never truly fully understand everything to do with food and what our individual bodies need.

    Be skeptical about the next fad, celebrities spruiking vitamins or that antioxidants you consume actually do anything to curb intracellular free radical formation.

    Date and time
    July 28, 2014, 12:42AM
    • "In the BBC Horizon doco -The Truth About Fat, Dr Gabrielle Western was shown how obese people do not have the typical hunger/satiety hormone signals."

      Wasn't that because they'd over-ridden the signal so many times that their body changed the way it operated?

      Date and time
      July 28, 2014, 1:31PM
  • An important aspect of 'listening' to your body is avoiding foods that have been designed to mess with the messaging.

    No surprise that heavily processed foods pumped full of sugar, salt and greasy refined carbs are the worst offenders.

    Those foods are designed to induce over consumption.

    Keep them to a minimum and you will find the battle of the bulge a bit easier.

    On Twitter
    Date and time
    July 28, 2014, 8:25AM
    • Most serotonin, which anti-depressant medications seek to maximise in the synaptic cleft, is produced in the gut, enters the blood stream and crosses the blood brain barrier. Part of the problem is that doctors and dieticians don't work closely enough with psychologists who can assist in changing the behaviours rather than the peripheral effects.

      Date and time
      July 28, 2014, 8:39AM
      • What foods help with serotonin? Thanks

        Date and time
        July 28, 2014, 9:00AM
      • Hi - if you do some googling you'll see all kinds of advice on this, but I'm not sure how solid the  evidence really is. Here's a link to an earlier piece I wrote about food and mood which gives a bit of a snapshot of the evidence

        Date and time
        July 28, 2014, 9:25AM
      • "Most serotonin, which anti-depressant medications seek to maximise in the synaptic cleft, is produced in the gut, enters the blood stream and crosses the blood brain barrier."

        The evidence does not support this:

        "In mammals, serotonin is made in the CNS, in which it acts as a neurotransmitter, as well as in peripheral tissues, in which it acts as a hormone via serotonin receptors present in these tissues (3–5). **Serotonin does not cross the blood-brain barrier**; hence, **the 2 pools of serotonin may act independently of each other**. [my emphases]"

        Free access source:

        Dr Kiwi
        Date and time
        July 28, 2014, 10:40AM
      • Serotonin helps us to have a positive mood and a lack of it can be caused by diet but not necessarily directly. If you have fructose malabsoprtion and continue to eat fructose and to some extent fructans, the the body is likely to metabolilse the tryptophan from food less effectively. Without enough trypotophan, then the body is limited in being able to make serotonin. I found this out when I did a lot of research into my diagnosis and it fitted with the flat effect, lethargy and lack of care about 'here and now' that I experienced when I ate any decent amount of fructose.

        Date and time
        July 28, 2014, 12:40PM

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