Everything You Need to Know About Eating for Pleasure, From Registered Dietitians

Woman enjoying spaghetti

Eating is one of the greatest pleasures in life, but for some people, truly enjoying food can be a complicated affair. A disordered relationship with food, needing to follow a restrictive diet, or eating to manage health conditions can add layers of stress, guilt, and grief to even the most delicious meals.

If you are currently struggling to make food a pleasurable part of your life, there is hope. Rooting out negative thought patterns and getting creative in your cooking can take food from an enemy to a very good friend. Here is what dietitians recommend for regaining pleasure from food for specific health issues, plus a few simple steps that can boost the enjoyment of meals for anyone.

Why Eating for Pleasure Is Important

Food can nourish your body in a lot of different ways. In fact, experts often indicate that eating for pleasure not only fuels the body but the mind as well. When people feel satiated, they are less likely to feel deprived or restricted.

What's more, some research suggests that when people become too focused on nutrition, they are unable to enjoy the experience of eating. This is particularly true of people whose diet is limited due to medical conditions or that feel restricted in some way because of allergies or sensitivities. Instead, of focusing on the enjoyment of eating, they focus on the fact that they feel deprived or controlled.

For this reason, eating for pleasure becomes even more important. Eating for pleasure has also been linked to making nutritionally sound eating decisions. When people enjoy what they are eating, they are less likely to make decisions later that derail their nutrition goals. What's more, a growing number of experts recommend emphasizing tastiness and eating for pleasure when promoting nutrition.

Eating for Pleasure with Health Concerns

Whether you are coping with a chronic health condition, have allergy concerns, or suffer from dental problems, there are times when eating can cause discomfort and make it difficult to enjoy food. Below we discuss how you can make eating more pleasurable in spite of your limitations. Here is what you need to know about learning to eat for pleasure.

Chronic Health Conditions

When you have a chronic health condition you are trying to manage, eating for pleasure can sometimes feel like a thing of the past. But, getting pleasure out of food is still possible with a little effort and creativity.

“When managing a health condition like diabetes or heart disease, the food you eat can have a significant impact on how you feel in the moment and your short and long-term health,” says dietitian Kelsey Lorencz, RDN. “But that doesn't mean you can't eat foods you love that may only taste good and not be health-promoting.”

Kelsey Lorencz, RDN

Most foods can fit in a medically necessary diet with a little modification to the portion size, the foods they're paired with, or ingredients used to make the food.

— Kelsey Lorencz, RDN

Instead, look for ways to modify what you are eating so that you can still enjoy your favorite foods. For example, if you are following a carb-controlled diet for diabetes, make it a hobby to experiment with low-carb versions of favorite recipes until you find some that please your taste buds. The key is to look for creative ways to enjoy your favorite flavors and tastes.

“Most foods can fit in a medically necessary diet with a little modification to the portion size, the foods they're paired with, or ingredients used to make the food,” Lorencz says.

The act of savoring can also make smaller portions nearly as satisfying as larger ones. If you are craving a salty burger while on a low-sodium cardiac diet, try one or two really great bites—instead of a whole burger—focusing your attention completely on the taste and texture as you eat.

Allergen-Free and Other Special Diets

On some diets, it is absolutely necessary to keep entire food groups off the menu. People with food allergies cannot simply eat dangerous foods on a whim.

Likewise, those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity must eliminate gluten. When this is the case, dietitians typically recommend a shift in mindset to boost pleasure from eating.

“Instead of focusing on the foods that you cannot have, focus on the foods you can," says dietitian Amanda Liptak, RDN, CA. "Embrace healthy alternatives and try new recipes. You may be surprised by the new dishes you create.”

This mental reset can even create positive thinking about your nutrition goals in general. It also can help you appreciate the changes you are making to keep your body safe from food allergens.

“On those hard-to-accept days, reframe your thoughts around why you are [making changes] in the first place,” Liptak says. “Celebrate the fact that you are allowing your body to heal and that there are big wins in being compliant with eating certain foods that will ultimately make you healthier in mind, body, and soul.”

Weight Management

There are times when a healthcare professional will advise a weight management program for health reasons. Perhaps you have diabetes or cardiovascular issues, whatever the issue, you know you have to make some changes.

Amanda Liptak, RDN, CA

Too often we want to lose weight so badly that we adopt food rules that don’t serve our bodies. This creates a lack of trust that our body actually knows best.

— Amanda Liptak, RDN, CA

Most eating plans designed for weight loss naturally involve some form of change, whether in terms of caloric value or specific foods. Depending on the method your healthcare provider has recommended, you might feel like all the foods you once enjoyed are now off-limits. But many dietitians warn that overly restrictive eating plans are a recipe for failure.

“Too often we want to lose weight so badly that we adopt food rules that don’t serve our bodies,” Liptak says. “This creates a lack of trust that our body actually knows best.”

Instead of trying to exert round-the-clock willpower and avoid eating certain foods, it is vital to make favorite foods a part of your overall eating plan—unless there is a medical reason to remove them. Granted, this may look like eating less of these foods or eating them less often, keeping them on the menu will help you realize that your nutrition goals are sustainable and tailored to your needs.

As you include well-loved foods in your weight management plan, be sure to give yourself permission to enjoy each bite. According to Liptak, this form of healthy balance will not derail your goals but will help you stick with them.

“By learning that it is OK to create boundaries for better balance, we can still achieve a healthy weight," Liptak says.

Disordered Relationship With Food

Many people with a history of disordered eating have trouble uncoupling food from a sense of control or pressure. While dietitians emphasize that it is important to seek help from a mental health professional for recovery from eating disorders, a few tips can set you on the path for reorienting toward enjoyment of food.

“One way that many find helpful is to really get in the mindset of enjoying the food instead of feeling rushed or pressured,” says Lorencz. “For example, this could mean ordering a dessert at your favorite restaurant and going home to really enjoy the food, taking your time, and allowing yourself to taste and experience it.”

Poor Dental Health

Anyone who has ever had a toothache knows how much dental pain can inhibit food enjoyment. Modifying textures is a useful tool for eating for pleasure despite oral discomfort.

“If dental pain is making it difficult to eat the food you love, find a way to get a similar flavor in a food like ice cream or pudding,” Lorencz suggests. “Once you’ve modified the texture, you can still savor and enjoy the taste and feeling of a food.”

Painful Digestion

Dental problems are not the only issue that may cause pain while eating. Gastrointestinal issues like indigestion, acid reflux, and complications from irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease can make eating an unpleasant prospect.

For people with these obstacles, experts again recommend taking pleasure where you can and viewing your circumstances as an intriguing challenge.

“GI concerns can create anxiety around food," says Lorencz. "But learning about how to make fun recipes with foods you can tolerate can be a fun adventure itself."

Making Mealtimes More Pleasurable

Whether you are working toward a health goal, overcoming a nutrition obstacle, or just looking for more pleasure in your life, you can benefit from taking steps to get more enjoyment from food. Try these simple strategies.

Limit Distractions

To stay present with the food in front of you, limiting distractions is key. Rather than attempting to couple mealtime with productive activities like answering email or making phone calls, allow the meal to hold your whole attention.

“One of the most important concepts to eating mindfully is allowing yourself to be present at the moment when you eat,” says Liptak. “Multi-tasking promotes mindlessness, not mindfulness. You may be physically eating, but if your mind is caught up in the day’s stress, it is very difficult to be in the present moment.”

Use All Your Senses

Although we usually think of eating as pertaining primarily to our sense of taste, our other senses can join the pleasure party, too. Look for ways to use your other senses to make mealtimes enjoyable.

“Pay attention to the way the meal smells, the textures on your plate, and the colors,” Liptak recommends. “Really take care to taste the food, slowing down the pace of your meal so that your body has time to feel full. This helps you avoid overeating and truly enjoy the flavors of your food.”

Tap Into Your Emotions

Our emotions are just as important as our senses in the effort to take delight in food. Consider which positive emotions you connect with eating and why.

Perhaps you feel thankful for the farmers who grew your potatoes, curious about the history of the pineapple in your fruit salad, or simply proud of yourself for making a delicious lunch on a weekday. If nothing else, when you are hungry, you can always feel excited to eat.

“It’s natural for humans to get excited about a meal,” says Liptak. “It’s critical that we honor this feeling because food is a part of everyday life. Instead of trying to go against the grain of the human body, work with it. This makes mealtime more enjoyable.”

Maintain Perspective

Following a nutritious diet is always a great choice. But a too-narrow focus on eating solely for health can actually remove the pleasure from food.

“When people are too concerned with eating for their health they often forget about the bigger picture,” says Lorencz. “We want to find a balance between enjoying food and life, feeling good, and enjoying the best health we can. Enjoyable and fun food can be a part of the health and wellness journey.”

A Word From Verywell

Whether you are struggling with a chronic health condition or making changes to your nutrition plan due to a food allergy, food can start to feel overwhelming and even anxiety-provoking. But it doesn't have to be this way. With a little effort and creativity, you can learn to enjoy eating again. Focus on slowing down, savoring your favorite foods, and adding some new ones to the mix.

If you find that, despite the changes you have made, you are still struggling with finding pleasure in your food, talk to a healthcare provider. You may benefit from working with a registered dietitian or even a mental health provider as you adjust to your new nutritional goals. With a little direction, you will be eating for pleasure in no time.

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