3 steps to improve your relationship with food as a person with diabetes 

Here’s the problem: you can’t manage diabetes without managing food. You can’t think about diabetes without thinking about food. You can’t make a single decision regarding diabetes management without thinking about what you last ate, you’re about to eat, and what you’re going to eat a few hours from now.

From the moment we’re diagnosed, we’re taught that the “free” foods are diet soda, sugar-free Jell-O, sugar-free Angel food cake, lettuce, and frozen Cool Whip.

Avoid all the carbs! Oh...wait, except during low blood sugars when carbs will save your life. (Better seize the moment and eat all the carbs while you can! Right? Ehhhhh. What a mess.)

In other words, we’re being taught to limit, restrict, and “diet” rather than being taught to choose mostly real food or how to balance treats with the rest of our meals. We’re taught that some foods are bad for people with diabetes, and some foods are good. Which inevitably becomes internalized as “you’re a bad diabetic if you eat these foods” and “you’re a good diabetic if you eat those foods.”

Over time, your relationship with food as a person with diabetes becomes an exhausting game of trying to achieve an unrealistic idea of perfection. (Read more about the evolution of these emotional habits and patterns in my book: Emotional Eating with Diabetes.)

Here are 3 steps towards creating a healthier relationship with food as a person with diabetes:

  1. Write down your current relationship with food. What foods do you love that you’ve deemed “off-limits”? Do you ever find your binge-eating those foods? How often do you declare that you’ll “never eat bread again” and cut all the carbs out of your diet...then binge on all of those carbs a week later? How often do you eat light salads during the day and find yourself starving by dinnertime, ready to eat everything in sight? What’s the cycle around food that you keep repeating despite the fact that it never turns out the way you want it to? 

    • Why? While you might know in the back of your head that what you keep doing isn’t working, it can be really helpful to write it down, step back, and look at it in order to realize just how silly it is to keep repeating that same darn cycle over and over and over. 

  2. Buy a lot of the food you normally binge-eat after restrictive dieting. *If you have a history of eating disorder behavior, this approach is not advisable -- keep reading for an alternative ideaMaybe it’s ice cream or cereal or bread or chocolate. Do you eat a whole lot of it when you give up on that restrictive diet, and then try to finish it so you get it out of the house for good? Vowing to recommit to your super restrictive diet again by morning? Whatever food you normally turn to after depriving yourself and trying to follow a super-strict diet, I’m actually suggesting you go buy several packages or servings or containers of that food. If it’s Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, go buy 5 pints and put them in your freezer, front and center. 

    • Why? If there’s so much of it in the house that you couldn’t possibly eat all of it in one sitting after a week of deprivation, maybe it won’t be such a big deal anymore. In fact, I bet you might even get sick of it. Instead of the super restrictive diet, what if you made room for that particular treat once every few days, once a week, or even once every day? What if that food didn’t hold so much power over you because it was part of your long term plan for an overall healthier relationship with food?

    • OR IF THAT IDEA IS TOO OVERWHELMING: Buy one package of the food that holds the most power over you -- bread, ice cream, etc. -- whatever it is that you turn to after restrictive eating. Make a plan of when you’re going to eat that food. And repeat that ritual again in a few days or in a week. Give yourself permission to eat the food you’re constantly trying to hide from and avoid. Take away its power by including it in your life consciously and thoughtful.

  3. Embrace the 80/20 rule. You know there’s also the 90/10 rule, but I think we need the 80/20 in this scenario. 80/20 implies that 80 percent of your choices each day is healthy, wholesome, and ideally whole-food choices. This leaves 20 percent of those less-than-perfect choices like a dessert or a sandwich with (gasp!) bread. It gives you room each day to be flexible and free from the constant pressure to be perfect. Since you already know that trying to be 100 percent “perfect” doesn’t actually work for more than a few days, what if you actually planned to be 80 percent “perfect” for long-term success?

    • Why? I realize there’s an abundance of people on Instagram these days who are starving themselves for the sake of their next bodybuilding competition, but I can tell you...I’ve supported friends through those competitions and they don’t come out on the other side with a healthy or “perfect” relationship with food. Instead, they binge-eat but don’t share it on their IG posts of pre-competition 6-packs. Ignore the nonsense and be realistic. It’s okay to eat bread, it’s okay to eat cookies, it’s even okay to eat...pizza! Let go of the rules and decide to choose for yourself a balance of 80/20. 

Creating a healthier relationship with food isn’t going to happen overnight. Just like the habits in your thinking and behavior around food took a while to develop, it will take a little while to develop healthier ones in their place. But it can be done.

Step back and look at what’s been going on, what isn’t working, and what feels like a healthy and realistic relationship with food as a person with diabetes going forward. 

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