• We might feel the pull of New Year's resolutions – a time to start anew – but how can we proceed with self-care in mind?

  • Therapist Harriet Frew offers five alternative resolutions that prioritise wellbeing and help you build a happy relationship with food

  • If you have difficulties with food or body image, we have therapists and counsellors who can support you – find yours here

When you’re feeling stuffed to the brim with mince pies and Quality Street, feeling lethargic and weary of Christmas cheer, the seduction of the January makeover is a tempting one. In your heart, you know that embarking down this road is only a quick fix, being a fleetingly enjoyable journey in the novelty of week one, when motivation is high, and vegetables are a welcome relief to gooey-centred chocolates. But by mid-January, the miserable reality of restrictive eating, in the cold and dark days, hits you full force. Plans are quickly abandoned and comfort eating understandably takes over.

No eating regime or exercise plan alone can fix your inner psyche, although our culture might have you believe otherwise, with weight loss offering the promise of boosted self-esteem and confidence. It is tempting to clutch tightly to some form of control in these turbulent times, and controlling calories or numbers on the scales, can feel like the tangible solution, to feeling better.

Of course, this approach is cruelly limited in its success. Rather than raising self-esteem and creating inner joy, the target numbers change, and goal posts move, with nothing ever feeling enough, as the body is under scrutiny and the rules are harsh to adhere to. Anxiety spirals higher as you strive to claw back control, mood dips and self-loathing rears its ugly head.

Instead of the January body-blitz, surely mental wellbeing goals need prioritisation right now, to include a kinder and more accepting relationship with food. Although this feels a far less sexy endeavour, compared to the possibilities of a dietary overhaul, the self-investment in mental health can reap rewards that bring a genuinely calmer and happier self.

Here are five suggested New Year's resolutions that could support a happy relationship with food:

1. Connection

It’s unbelievably hard to feel strongly connected to the people you love, with the numerous Covid restrictions in place. But the people in your bubble, the online connections or the one-to-one walks still have momentous value. For a human being, feeling understood, listened to and valued by others brings enhanced fulfilment and contentment over and above most other things. Connection brings a wave of oxytocin and wellbeing that calms anxiety and lifts spirits. Historically, you may have channelled your January energy into step counts or My Fitness Pal, but this year, prioritise your precious reserves into your relationships, and reap the benefits.

2. Body respect

If you have a body that can move ably, lift items from a shelf and run for a bus if needed, then you’re winning. We are all guilty of neglecting to appreciate the value of good health, only acknowledging this, when falling sick and awakening to the realisation of previously robust wellbeing, taken for granted. Start today, by focusing on what your body can do and its amazing physiology, rather than chasing an aesthetic goal. In 10 years’, time, you will likely long for the body that you have today. So, shift perspective, to one of valuing and respecting your body, and this will ultimately support your motivation to take better care of it too.

3. Food is a pleasure

Remember that food is a delightful pleasure and nourishment for your body. Feeling guilty doesn't serve your mental health and robs you of one of the basic gifts of a human existence - simply enjoying food. Wasting time berating yourself for the ‘crimes’ of eating is fruitless and destructive, only further damaging self-worth. Paradoxically, guilt may even trigger you to eat more, to punish or self-soothe, as an ease or distraction from guilt.

4. Joyful movement

Make moving your body enjoyable and fun, rather than a payback for eating. Exercise driven by calories burned is unsustainable and quickly becomes a weary and exhausting ‘should’. Instead, explore movement that is motivating and uplifts you, whether this be dance, walking, rock-climbing or something else. Here's hoping that this will all be possible again in 2021.

5. Genuine health

Look at centenarians and know that health is a greater sum, than just food and exercise alone. Connection, love, humour, self-compassion, movement and moderation in life, all count significantly more. Hold this broader vision close to your heart, knowing that one day, when reflecting on your life, the shape of your physical body will count for very little. Commit to doing the things that make your heart sing and burst with gratitude. Fill the self-care cup to the brim and overflowing, and your relationship with food and your body will only improve. A human being drenched with love and self-care is far less likely to harm the self through punishing restriction or stuffing down emotions with food. Your joy will spread in ripples to those around you.

Take steps to focus on mental wellbeing this year and reap the benefits. Wishing you a happy 2023 and a healthy and positive relationship with food.

Further reading

Shame, guilt and your relationship with food

Brain food: eating for a healthy mind-gut relationship

My journey in body awareness

13 secrets you keep about your relationship with food

How to create a trigger-free environment if you have a difficult relationship with food