3 nutritional red flags to watch out for, according to dieticians

These dieticians are calling out the ’healthy habits’ that are actually red flags.

What does a ‘good’ relationship with food really mean? That’s what dieticians Rhiannon Lambert (aka Rhitrition) and Sarah Elder were discussing this month on Lambert’s podcast, Food For Thought.

Right now, that’s a loaded question, given that we know so much about the impact of diet culture but are simultaneously fed daily doses of unscientific pseudo-nutritional information. That means many people who might be struggling with their relationship to food might not know it.

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“Relationships with food are usually on a spectrum,” Elder says on the podcast. “That ranges from what people would class as normal eating for them, and within the family or social situation that they’re in right through to eating disorders, which are clinically diagnosed. However, we’ve got this middle part of that spectrum where people have disordered relationships with food, and we can define that as abnormal eating behaviours that are away from the social and cultural norm. That can include some types of dieting, attempts to eat ‘clean’, over-exercising or using other negative behaviours to influence food choices.”

As Elder notes, eating and exercise have become inextricably linked. This was never more true than during lockdown, she says, when “there were a lot of messages on social media that could be quite triggering and quite difficult for people who might have already had a little bit of a difficult relationship with food.”

“We saw quite an increase in… online exercise classes and there was loads of stuff all over the news telling people that they needed to go for a number of walks per day. There were so many things that [you’d struggle with] I think if you’d already had a very difficult relationship with food, and maybe with your body as well.”

The language around obesity and weight gain over lockdown was also unhelpful, to say the least. Our own prime minister, Boris Johnson, even said that we all need to exercise more to lose weight and be able to defeat Covid – without any scientific backing. It was a recipe for health and food anxiety.

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But this is an ongoing issue – not just a lockdown one – that both dieticians put down to the “products, advertising and society that we live in”. Elder said that one complaint from her clients is that they’ve “been given so many external food rules from social media, from family members, from health professionals and from people that [they] trust, and that’s what’s difficult.”

There’s clearly a lot to unpick here, but the podcast episode gives a great overview of some things to consider if you really want to work out what a ‘good’ relationship with food looks like. 

How to check your relationship with food

What and who are your sources of information?

One thing that both Lambert and Elder report seeing recently is a rise in food beliefs not matching the science. “We see it sometimes with personal trainers advising really high protein diets. But let’s look at what the research behind that is, and let’s make sure you’ve got that right information.”

If there’s a contrast between the advice and the science, Elder invites you to ask if it is “something that you’re wanting to continue to follow, or actually, do we need to modify that a little bit?… How might that be affecting you physically, socially and psychologically, and then we start to challenge some of those thoughts.” 

Focusing on one nutrient, like protein, could be a red flag

The impact of following nutritional advice from non-nutritionists is that they might not understand the science, explains Elder. “They don’t look at someone as an individual, but they might look at one piece of research and say, ‘Oh, this research had good outcomes, everyone should do this’ and then they push that one thing.”

But nutrition is much more complex, she explains, and it’s important for experts to give advice tailored to an individual’s goal rather than their own bias or the results of one piece of research.

Are you hyper-focused on one nutrient?

Protein is just one example of the glorification of a nutrient, but it’s also just as bad when fixating on avoiding one type of nutrient, such as dairy (without ethical or medical grounds, and without using legitimate, alternative sources such as soy) or carbohydrates. “People might develop nutritional deficiencies without even realising they were missing out on key nutrients within their diet,” warns Elder. “Sometimes that can lead to really difficult gut symptoms or it can lead to things like low calcium content within the body which can lead to osteopenia or osteoporosis. And, for some people, they might get energy and protein malnutrition, as well.” 

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Often, that’s because carb-free diets, or eating habits that focus mainly on proteins, lack fibre – making your digestive system unhappy. Other times, it’s the simple act of limiting your food groups that just means you miss out on the huge variety of macros and micros we need.

How is your day-to-day life impacted by eating?

It goes without saying that cancelling plans because you feel weird about eating out isn’t the sign of a healthy relationship with food. But there are more subtle ways that it can impact your day: “denying hunger signals” and “your relationship with food taking over your whole day” are just two examples, Elder says, of disordered eating. For example, if you spend all day thinking about your next meal, or trying to find ways to suppress your appetite that don’t involve eating actual food, you might want to think a bit more carefully about where these habits come from. 

What is a good relationship with food?

Elder defines a ‘good’ relationship with food as one that is “usually eating what you need, what you fancy, and what you want on whichever day that you’re wanting it.” That should take into consideration your personal, ethical and cultural needs and wants, too. Unsurprisingly, there’s no one size fits all for that, which is why generic advice doesn’t really work.

The good news is that Lambert and Elder conclude the episode by acknowledging that it is possible to remove the murky world of food rules and diets from your life. It might take some work, but noticing those red flags is the first place to start. 

If you’re worried about your relationship with food, visit eating disorder charity Beat at beateatingdisorders.org.uk or visit Mind, the mental health charity, at mind.org.uk

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