Many of us struggle with weight. Food is one of those things that we tend to reach for to deal with stress, to feel comfort, to reduce boredom or to pick us up when we are exhausted.
Over the years my weight has fluctuated. I've starved myself to drop 10kg and then overeat for a period of time only to gain it all back. The cycle continued like that for many years. But for the last four or so years it hasn't fluctuated too much. I'd love to be a few kilograms lighter (don't most of us!), but I'm comfortable in my clothes and feel light within my body most of the time. My blood readings are good. The relationship I have with food has and is still improving with every day.
Things began to improve when I did a little digging into why I actually reach for food. And when I changed viewing food as being 'good' or 'bad'.
In Karen R. Koenig's book 'The Rules of "Normal" Eating, she describes a normal eater as someone who doesn't think in terms of 'good' or 'bad' foods. They are aware that there are high-and-low-calorie foods but they don't base their choices solely on how many calories or fat a particular food has.
The basic rules of normal eating are:
- Eat when we are hungry or have a craving
- Choose foods we believe will satisfy us
- Stay connected to our body and eat with awareness and enjoyment
- Stop eating when we are full or satisfied
So essentially a "normal" eater is someone who is able to tune into their body's signals that they need food or fuel, or have a craving for something in particular. And saying yes or no to food is no big deal. If they overeat at one meal it's not the end of the world, they simply eat lighter for the next meal.
How do we develop a healthy relationship with food?
First I'll say that I'm not a dietician. But can only give my thoughts based on my belief for my own body, what I have researched on the topic, and my discussions with various medical practitioners along the way. I'm lucky that I'm free from most intolerances. I can eat most foods without too many dramas. But I know my limits. I know that my body doesn't respond so well to particular foods. I still enjoy them sometimes but I'm aware that too much of it isn't great for how I feel. So I keep the portion size smaller than what I'd usually eat.
If there are clear intolerances, allergies, or serious health issues that require eating a certain way, then of course listen to the advice given by qualified health professionals.
If the main concern is mostly related to the relationship with food, then perhaps these thoughts might shed some light and be of some help.
My thoughts on improving our relationship with food:
- Say fuck it to the diets
They are often short-lived and hard to maintain. The key to eating healthy is eating in a way that is healthy long-term. The same goes for exercise. Fads never last and often result in a feeling of failure because we couldn't keep it going. Which can start over the cycle of binge eating.
Having said that I do feel that as we age our bodies require different things. Not necessarily a strict diet but an adaptation to how we are already eating to keep us as healthy as possible. It might be less dairy or more fibre or iron, or whatever. It's natural for our bodies to require different things at different times throughout our lives.
- Learn to tune in to how much food we need to feel satisfied
This is where mindfulness comes into play. It's so easy to overeat if our attention is on the TV or our devices. But when we sit down at a table away from these distractions, we tend to tune in to our bodies more. I also find when eating with others I don't overeat as much.
This goes for meal structuring as well. Some people do better with three fixed meals a day, others do better with two. Some need to snack to keep blood sugar stable, others can go without. We are all different and our bodies have different requirements. It can tell us what we need. We just need to listen.
- Change our thoughts on food as being 'good' or 'bad'
Food isn't evil. Yes there are foods that are more nutritious than others. But if we eat a burger we are craving then enjoy it and move on. Eat more nutritious foods for the majority of our meals. But allow ourselves to enjoy the not so nutritious foods occasionally without attaching guilt to it.
- Learn about what foods work best for our body, and eat those most of the time
This is why I don't think fad diets work for many people. We are all unique. Our insides, and outside respond differently to one another. So perhaps the 'Paleo' diet isn't going to make us feel as good as it claims it will. I know for myself that I feel like shit if I eat heavy meat or rich food. Just as consuming a lot of fruit will send my blood sugar soaring and leave me shaking for the rest of the afternoon.
It's important to listen to our own body and how it responds to what we eat. Enjoy those foods that leave us feeling light, satisfied and energised most of the time. So we can function optimally in daily life.
I think that there are other things at play when it comes to being out of balance with our eating. Some are listed below, but there are no doubt others that I haven't mentioned.
A tendency of perfectionists is to binge because they have already done something that they consider to be bad or out of control. The thought pattern is something like "Well I've already screwed up my healthy eating today, I may as well keep going and start over tomorrow". It's a little like punishment for imperfection. An all or nothing belief.
If this is the case, it's helpful to understand why we are tempted to reach for more. The fact that we ate a piece of chocolate isn't bad. We were craving something to pick us up a little, we enjoyed it, and that's OK.
I'm in it most days (with two young children) so I know what this one is like. Sleep deprivation is a killer. It messes with us in so many ways. Our mental state, emotional state, energy levels and overall health. When I'm tired I reach for chocolate and caffeine. Others may reach for something different - carb heavy meals or sweet drinks. Sleep really is so important for eating well. When we feel rested we tend to eat better, and less. We don't depend on food as a pick-me-up so much.
Low self love
This is similar in ways to having perfectionistic tendencies. When we beat ourselves up for not living up to our own expectations, it can leave us feeling unhappy. Like we are failing ourselves. When we work on improving our relationship with ourselves, that is when the other facets of our life begin to work in harmony together.
Sometimes the help of a qualified professional is needed to help us feel a greater love within. I know myself that seeing a clinical psychologist, which initially was to help deal with my mother passing, has helped me in other areas of my life. And now I feel a greater respect for myself. A lot of it has to do with reframing our thoughts. About learning how to trust that inner voice and be kind to ourselves.
It's not uncommon to reach for food when we are stressed. And not 'bad' if we do it from time-to-time. But if it happens a lot, then that's when we know things are out of balance. And when we know we need to make a few changes to bring our stress levels down. Bring the stress down and we are more likely to choose a healthy activity than reach for that bag of chips to gorge on at night after we get home from work.
When hormonal we can feel drawn to comfort foods. Around 'that time of month' in particular for woman. Hormones can mess with your mental and emotional state. And lead to reaching for something to soothe. In those times I think it helps to be kind and understanding to ourselves. To acknowledge that we are perhaps craving certain foods more than we would usually. And that it is again - OK. When hormones begin to even out then we can start to bring those nutritional foods back in more.
I think that perhaps this one starts in early childhood. When children are bored, a response is to give them a snack to distract them. Many parents do. I'm guilty of it myself at times. When a child is screaming in your ear and you are at breaking point, that cracker will help keep them quiet. Albeit only momentarily. But this behaviour can potentially form a long-term habit, if done frequently enough.
To summarise so far:
There are times when we will reach for foods that aren't as nutritional based on a number of possible circumstances. And that is OK. It doesn't mean that we are hopeless with eating well and nurturing our bodies. When we feel it is becoming a habit to reach for those not so nutritional foods on a regular basis and we really would like to break it, then perhaps it might help to dig a little deeper.
A theory on breaking habits
Charles Duhigg explains how habits are formed and maintained. And this can be related to how we interact with food. There are basically three components to how a habit is formed - an environmental cue, a behavioural response, and a reward.
Cue – behaviour – reward
So for example:
Maybe when we get home from a stressful day at work we head straight for the cupboard to eat a handful of chocolate coated almonds. We do this every day and have formed a habit, to the point of it attributing to weight gain over time. The cue is the stressful day at work. The behaviour is eating a handful of chocolate, the reward is that helps us feel happy and relaxes us a little.
To break the habit we need to create a new cue
That might mean looking into another job that is less stressful, approaching management to ease your work load a little, or cutting back yourself on how much you try to achieve in a day. If we arrive at home feeling less stressed then we might be less likely to eat that handful of chocolate almonds as we enter the door.
Having a healthy relationship with food isn't easy, otherwise we would all be within our healthy weight range and obesity wouldn't be so high. But it is possible. With each step we take it moves us towards having a greater respect for ourselves. And we don't live in fear each day over what we put into our mouths.
Enjoying food can be a beautiful experience. It encourages togetherness. Engages the senses. And inspires conversation about how flavours work together in harmony. When we begin to be kinder to ourselves, and our relationship with food improves, it can have a flow-on effect to many other areas of our lives.