Growing up in a Greek family, food adopted many different roles. It wasn’t just for fuel or nutrition. Food brought family and friends together. Food was the most precious gift you could offer a guest. Food was for pleasure.

Entering adolescence in the mid-2000s warped my relationship with food. The media started to have a significant effect on me and tricked me into believing that food was dangerous and dirty. That in order to be healthy and happy I had to look a certain way. And the way to do so was to diet. This paved the path toward a tumultuous relationship with food and eating. I became obsessed with my image. I dieted. And I developed anorexia, a serious psychiatric illness, as a result. I was deeply, deeply unhappy.

It’s taken me years to rediscover what it means to practise a healthy, balanced diet. I’m now able to dissect the messages of the dieting industry and question their motives. Now, after five years of an unhealthy and abusive relationship with my body and food, I have compiled my top 5 ways to practise healthy eating.

1) Ditch dieting and never go back

Ditching diets forever has been the most liberating decision of my life so far. I’m going to be honest with you now and tell you that the diet industry doesn’t care about your health. Like every business, they’re in it for the money. They will target your deepest insecurities and manufacture a solution to encourage you to sign up to their regime or purchase their product.
Going on a diet may decrease your weight short term and provide a “quick fix” but they will not satisfy you long term. Relying on a calorie deficit is not sustainable in the long run. Your energy levels will noticeably decrease and your mood will also deteriorate as your body is not receiving the appropriate energy required to function. Going on a diet or a “detox” does not equate to a healthy lifestyle. If your long-term goal is to achieve a healthier lifestyle, dieting is not the place to be.

When I start to get bombarded with dieting messages through the media I remembered how I ate as a child. My relationship with food and eating only started to sour in high school. My attitude toward food was the healthiest at pre-primary school level. I ate when I was hungry and I stopped when I was full. I sought variety naturally. I didn’t fuss over calorific information or whether something was full fat or skim. I experimented with different tastes.

As we get older we overcomplicate food. Return to your childhood state and rediscover the joys of intuitive eating and ditch the diets.

2) Get rid of the guilt

“Clean eating” has taken off in the past couple of years. The list of what we “can” eat seems to be getting shorter while the list of what we can’t eat is growing by the day.

Should we be paleo? Should we be gluten free? Should we quit sugar? Is bacon giving us cancer? Are we allowed to eat anything anymore?

If one food is considered “clean” then another food must be considered “dirty.” And I’m sure if I asked you to compile a list of “naughty” foods some of your most favourite foods would be on that list. Labelling a food “naughty” automatically sparks a sense of guilt within us, making us believe we are doing something immoral or wrong. When we “indulge” in a food we love, we feel like we deserve retribution.

I, Sophia Hatzis, am giving you permission to stop feeling guilty about what you eat. What you eat does not determine who you are. It does not define you.

For me, the key to rediscovering healthy eating was to reject the guilt completely.

I have removed the words “treat”, “dirty” and “naughty” from my nutritional vocabulary.

Instead, there are “everyday” foods and “sometimes” foods. For example, I eat vegetables every day. They are my “everyday” foods. I’ll add vegetables to most meals. They add colour and crunch and nutritional value. I’ve always been a vegetable lover so complimenting my meals with veggies has never been a problem. If you’re not a fan of certain vegetables, find a way to incorporate them into your favourite meal. I love adding chopped carrots into my Spaghetti Bolognese.

But I also ensure that I enjoy “sometimes” foods without any judgement or guilt.

3) Listen to your hunger signals

Your body is an incredible beast. It’s developed your bones. It takes you from one place to another. It pumps blood to your heart which keeps you alive. Your body is a well-oiled machine and it knows what it wants.

Imagine you’re swimming. You dive into the water and after some time has passed your lungs start running out of oxygen. You need to breathe. Do you stay in the water or do you listen to your body’s signals and go up for air? You’d go up for air.

The same thing happens when your body requires food. Your body sends you physical and mental signals to notify you that you’re in need of more energy. Yet for some reason, we often ignore this physical cue.

Don’t ignore your body when it’s hungry. Pay attention to your hunger. That’s something I’ve had to work on. Sometimes I would get hungry before the conventional lunch time and would wait until a certain time to allow myself to eat. I’d then shovel the food down (because I was so hungry) or overeat and feel overly full. I didn’t take the time to taste each mouthful and enjoy the meal. Food isn’t just for fuel. It’s also for pleasure and taste. So take the time to eat when you’re hungry (not famished). I guarantee you’ll enjoy it more!

4) Healthy eating isn’t just what you eat, it’s your relationship with food

As I said earlier, food takes on a variety of meanings in our lives. It’s main purpose, of course, is to provide our body with fuel so we can function in our everyday lives. Food is also a way for people to connect. It’s a way to share experiences.

Healthy eating also encompasses eating with others and enjoying tastes and sensations. When I was growing up, one of the highlights of my week was visiting my Greek grandparents. They would put on a Greek feast for us. We would sit down at a long mahogany table to eat an array of foods that were fresh and home-made. I can recall how the house smelled of fresh bread and olive oil. I can taste the sourness of the olives and the tangy flavour of the Dodoni feta. We laughed and we chattered as we filled our plates. Food was a major part of that family bonding. Now, when I taste dolmades (rice wrapped in vine leaves) I’m reminded of my childhood.

A healthy relationship with food involves enjoying food in social situations and sometimes that will mean eating when you’re not hungry for the taste and the pleasure. That’s okay. Your body is an expert at processing food, it does it every day. If you eat more one day, it’s not going to affect you. Healthy eating involves accepting that food has a variety of purposes.

5) Don’t be afraid of carbs

When I was in high school, the “rage” was to avoid carbs. I remember watching “Wild Child” when I was in year 7 and the main character professed her distaste for carbs. As a teen, you’re susceptible to the messages in popular culture. I soaked it up without questioning it. Now, with some age, maturity and research I can debunk the no-carb myth.

Don’t be afraid of our old friend carbohydrates. Carbohydrates, or “carbs” as they’re commonly referred to, are the main fuel source for the body and are found in grains, cereals, breads, starchy vegetables and legumes. I was deathly scared of carbs because they’re dense in energy. Now, I’m the number one carb fan.

Healthy eating involves eating a balance of your three groups of macronutrients: carbs, proteins and fats; not restricting or cutting one group out altogether.

I found that as soon as I restricted a certain food group, I craved it more than ever. As soon as I limited what I could have I wanted it constantly. It limited what I could order at restaurants and eventually I stopped going out with my friends and family because my food rules were so strict. It damaged my social life, affected my energy levels and contributed to my anxiety.

As soon as I let go of my food rules and restrictions I noticed a huge improvement in all aspects of my life. I had energy again and I felt liberated that because food no longer dominated my life.

There are five main points to take away with you about practising healthy eating. The first is that dieting doesn’t work. Ditch it. Forever. I promise you’ll be happier for it. The second is to stop viewing food with negative connotations. Stop using the words “treat”, “dirty”, “naughty” and “clean”. Identify “every day” and “sometimes” foods but don’t feel guilty about what you eat. The third is to listen to your bodily signals. The fourth is to accept and embrace that food isn’t just for fuel, it has a variety of different roles in society. The fifth is to start loving carbs and stop restricting food groups.

Adopt this mindset and your relationship to food will be transformed.

Posted by Sophia Hatzis

Sophia is a Law and Communications student at UTS and has been a passionate writer her whole life. She runs a blog called The Beauty Breakdown which aims to educate young people about the importance of positive body image. Sophia writes openly about her struggles with mental health problems having battled with an eating disorder and anxiety for most of her adolescence. Sophia is a strong advocate for a holistic approach to health and wellness which is drawn from her own experiences.