A healthy relationship with food encourages holistic well-being and supports positive behavior change.
When you signed up to be a registered dietitian—and when I say signed up, I mean worked really hard to complete the course work and internship, and to pass the RD exam—you likely were told dietetics is a combination of working with food, nutrition, and people. The dietetics curriculum hits hard on the science and how to conduct nutrition education, MNT, foodservice, and more, but one thing I found to be missing was talking to clients and patients about how they relate to food.
I truly believe working with clients on their relationship with food is some of the most important and fulfilling work we can do as dietitians. Nutrition and food is far more than what we eat. It’s the center of celebrations, memories, nostalgia, and culture. And there’s no arguing that nutrition plays a role in managing chronic disease states such as diabetes and heart disease. But food also creates pain, stress, body dissatisfaction, and internal struggle in so many people. Helping people foster a healthy relationship with food is key for encouraging positive health behaviors and overall well-being.
You may have thought working with clients to improve their relationship with food is only for dietitians who work in the eating disorder niche. But no matter what realm of dietetics you work in, you WILL come across someone who suffers from disordered eating, chronic dieting, a full-blown eating disorder, or food rules that stop them from living a fulfilling life. Here are three tips for helping clients work on their relationship with food.
1. Listen to their story. Holding space for talk about their history with food is key for your clients to begin their journey toward a healthy relationship with food. If a client or patient is opting to meet with you, it’s likely that they have some form of disordered eating patterns such as a history of dieting or feelings of guilt and shame around food.
2. Say “all foods fit” and mean it. Labeling food as “good” or “bad” isn’t helpful for anyone and leads to moralization of food. When food becomes moralized, clients can internalize the message assigned to certain foods and think of themselves as being good or bad based on what food choices they make or what they eat. What’s more helpful is working with clients around concepts of variety and flexibility and focusing on how foods make them feel. This will encourage clients to consume many different foods, including fruits and vegetables.
3. Meet them where they are. When someone is struggling with food, showing them compassion and understanding is really helpful. Part of being compassionate is empathizing with clients about how hard it can be to reframe negative thoughts around food and body image. Asking “What can I do to support you?” or “What would be a feasible small step toward a healthy relationship with food?” can help clients feel heard and give them understanding that they’re right where they need to be in this moment.
— Hannah Turnbull, RDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist, certified group fitness professional, and owner of NourishedwithHannah.com. Her work empowers people to nourish and accept their bodies with an intuitive eating and Health at Every Size philosophy.