If you’ve spent any time at all standing in a grocery store line over the last 10 years then you’ve been overwhelmed with information on magazine covers concerning the latest diets and what is the newest “good” food or “bad” food. To the common consumer this barrage of food information can be very confusing.

Could it be that all of this attention on what to eat and what to avoid puts too much focus on food? Since most of us have been trained as children to clean our plate; could it be that many of us were “groomed” to overeat? Frequently, children are given food as a reward for obedience. After successful performances—such as school plays or basketball games—consuming food is the typical means of celebration. Therefore, we learn to associate food with positive experiences. As adults we often self-medicate with food when we feel anything unpleasant. We’ve learned to associate food with emotional comfort. We eat because we’re bored, lonely, sad, angry, anxious, overwhelmed and stressed. All of this grooming can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and could even be blamed for our obese society.

Food seems to have an ever-increasing power over many people. Is it simply the nourishment our bodies require to sustain life? For many, the answer is no. Food is viewed as a friend. This relationship with food is one that can quickly spiral out of control and become unhealthy. Eating food is a behavior which causes a pleasure intense enough to mask any unpleasant feelings during the course of that behavior. While eating, those uncomfortable feelings become almost nonexistent. But eating does not permanently eliminate those feelings; it only distracts us temporarily. As soon as we stop eating, the feelings return. The desire to eat again can become overwhelming not because we are hungry, but because we want to mask the unpleasant feelings again.

This pattern of behavior can quickly become habitual. Soon, we are overeating out of habit as well as for the purpose of masking unwanted feelings. For some, this is the beginning of problems such as food addiction, eating disorders and uncontrolled emotional eating. Redefining our relationship with food and gaining a different perspective on our intake of food, can progress toward a balanced approach to eating. Rather than solely focusing on dieting to lose weight, work toward making healthy life changes that will give you the outcomes you desire to accomplish.

Here are some suggestions to assist you in moving toward your goal of healthy life changes in your relationship with food:

Take small steps. Making permanent life changes takes time. Expecting oneself to make them all at once is unrealistic. Pick one or two that are easier and start there. Focus on just one or two at a time. Once you have experienced success you will gain momentum. After feeling confident that your first life change is becoming a consistent pattern, move on to the next life change.

Eat only when you are hungry. Stop eating when you are satisfied. Our bodies give us the hunger signal with a growl or ache in the stomach. This is the sign that our bodies need nourishment or energy. Any food eaten when your body is not calling for nourishment will be stored for later use.

Eat slowly. It takes our brains about 10 minutes to get the message from our stomachs that we have eaten enough food to satisfy our hunger. If we eat quickly, it is easy to overeat and feel stuffed. When we eat more than what our body needs or we proceed past a satisfied state, our body stores the extra for later use. Take a 10 minute break after eating a moderate portion size. If after 10 minutes you still feel hungry, take another small portion.

Reduce portion sizes. Start with cutting everything in half. Wait 10 minutes. You may be surprised at how satisfied you feel with half the portion. If you are still hungry take another small portion.

Increase enjoyable physical activity. If weight loss is your goal, food intake should be decreased and energy output (physical activity) should be increased. The difference between energy in (food intake) and energy out is measured in body weight. More energy in than out, you gain weight; more energy out than in, you lose weight. Physical activity is not only an aid to weight loss but it also enhances physical and emotional health.

Get a good night’s sleep. The body has hormones that stimulate appetite and hormones that reduce appetite. The less sleep we get, the higher the level of appetite-stimulating hormones and the lower the level of appetitesuppressing hormones. A good night’s sleep will help reduce those episodes of emotional eating.

Find an accountability partner. Being accountable to another person gives us motivation to stop and think about our actions at that moment. Having a support system can be very encouraging and may keep you on track long enough to make a permanent life change.

Focus less on food. Once you become aware of it, you may be surprised at how many times a day you think about food. We tend to focus on what we are going to eat, when we are going to eat, where we are going to eat and with whom. All of this focus on food leads to more consumption of food. Practice replacing food thoughts with calming, pleasurable thoughts of your favorite person, place or experience. Your body will tell you when it is time to attend to food.

Give yourself a break. Remember, making lifestyle changes takes time and it isn’t easy. If you fall back into old habits occasionally, accept the “fall” as a temporary relapse. Don’t give up. Commit to starting over the minute after you fall back. It is never a bad time to start a new habit. Berating yourself for minor slips only increases negative feelings which put you at risk for using food to self-medicate.

Laugh more often. Joy is a choice. When we choose to see the positive in the situations in our lives instead of focusing on the negative, it improves our overall outlook on life. Our brain produces the “feel good” chemicals when we laugh and have a positive attitude. This assists in reducing the risk of engaging in emotional eating.

The primary focus for treating emotional eating emphasizes self-acceptance, a healthy relationship with food and increased enjoyable activity. A positive focus on a healthy relationship with food can be experienced as a relief to many who experience the shame and guilt of diet failure. Such a change in focus allows us to experience a greater sense of harmony with our bodies rather than being at war with them.

What a sense of liberation for the person who formerly lived to eat but is now eating to live! Are you on that path? If not, today is a great time to begin the journey. tpw