In today’s society, food and diet have evolved as sources of confusion and frustration for many people. What is meant to provide us a source of nourishment and pleasure now leads to feelings of despair and anxiety.There are many variables that have contributed to this negative relationship with food- like our impossible expectations for a perfect body image, constant comparison to others, or an exhausting pursuit to achieve perfect health. I recently finished a book related to this topic that made a significant impact on my own relationship with food. The book is titled “Nourishing Wisdom” by Marc David. Today I want to share my key takeaways from the book and ways I believe we can restore our relationship with food and establish a mindset that cultivates complete food freedom.
#1. There is no such thing as “the perfect diet”
It’s no secret that our society obsesses over finding the perfect diet. New fad diets are constantly emerging promising that this diet is THE ONE that can finally work for you. But the real truth is, there is no such thing as the perfect diet.
Our bodies are constantly changing. We are not born with an exact framework of nutritional needs that remains unchanged over the course of our life. Nutritional needs shift and evolve over time as we age, adapting to our lifestyle, our environment, our health, and even to the seasons. Your needs change not just over the course of your life, but even from day to day. In addition to our nutritional needs, our diet should also reflect who we are as unique individuals. This means embracing your own genetic predispositions, cultural beliefs, and personal preferences as they relate to your diet.
Give yourself permission to let go of the pursuit of the perfect diet. Instead, learn how to listen to your body and give it what it’s asking for. This is the closest thing to a perfect diet you can find. What does it mean to listen to your body? It means having self-awareness towards your physical body apart from your thoughts, emotions, and environment. Make your mind be silent and take a physical inventory of how you’re feeling and what intuitive requests your body may be making.
#2. You eat what you are
In David’s “Nutritional Wisdom,” he calls attention to the familiar phrase, “you are what you eat,” referring to the suggestion that our bodies are essentially made of whatever we put into them. So, for example, if you eat mostly junk food, your body is going to function like junk food. However, this is only half the story. The other half is “you eat what you are.” This means that the way you view yourself will be reflected in how you treat your body and what you put in it. For example, if you tell yourself you have no willpower, you’ll probably find yourself succumbing to the temptation of whatever foods you believe to irresistible. Inversely, if you tell yourself you are incredibly disciplined, you’ll likely find yourself opting for healthier alternatives when opportunities arise. Similarly, if you view your body as necessary luggage to get you through life you may treat it differently than if you view your body as an advanced piece of intelligent or athletic machinery that deserves lots of TLC. The way your view yourself matters and will impact your dietary patterns.
Your self-image is a huge factor in establishing a healthy relationship with food and eating. To cultivate a positive self-image, positive mental and emotional health are critical. This was a key topic of my last post on holistic health. Protecting your self-esteem, battling negative thinking, and building emotional resilience are all great ways to promote a positive self-image.
Identify the traits that you want to embody (and can and do!) and affirm yourself daily that you ARE those traits. Remember that you are capable of anything and cultivate a mindset of strength and confidence. Treat your body like it deserves to be treated. Our bodies are incredibly complex and resilient- when you view your body with esteem, you will fuel it thoughtfully.
#3. Consider your mood-food connection
David defines the mood-food connection as the manner in which our mood affects the digestion and absorption of our food. Yes, your mood can impact your ability to digest and absorb food! Consider the effects of your autonomic nervous system. Your autonomic nervous system is responsible for control of bodily functions that happen involuntarily like your heart beating, your breathing, and your digestion. There are two branches of this system – sympathetic and parasympathetic. Your sympathetic system activates something known as your “fight or flight” response. The fight or flight response is activated under stress. Things like stress at work, relationship stress, anger, nerves, anxiety, worry, tense environments, etc. may all activate this hormonal response in your body. When your body is in fight or flight mode, digestion slows or sometimes stops altogether, your blood vessels constrict, and your heart rate increases. These physiological changes will impact the ability of the food you eat to actually nourish your body. In contrast, your parasympathetic nervous system is known as your “rest and digest” mode – AKA chill mode. This is our default mode and is ideal during times of eating because digestion and nourishment are encouraged.
Before sitting down to eat, establish awareness around your mood, your environment, and how it could impact your nourishment. Avoid consuming meals during times where your “fight or flight” response might be activated. Try and let go of any negative feelings or emotions during meal time and focus on slowing down and being fully present.
#4. Cultivate positive willpower
Breaking habits is one of the primary sources of frustration when it comes to food and diet. Maybe you’re trained to have something sweet after every meal or you crave that soda every afternoon. Whatever it may be, approaching your behavior change or bad habit with an attitude of positive willpower may be your key to success.
Most people approach a bad habit they would like to change with an attitude of force, aggression, and fear. However, when we fight a habit, we only make it stronger. And ironically, the more we hate it, fight it, and fear it, the more it consumes and controls us. Rather than approach habits with negative willpower, cultivate an attitude of positive willpower. This means accepting your habit for what it is and shifting your perspective towards the positive. Decide to work FOR something, and not against something. For example, work FOR drinking an afternoon tea every day rather than AGAINST your afternoon soda. Rather than obsessing over what you’ve given up, focus on what you will gain. And if you fail and cave to your habit, relax, forgive yourself, and keep trying.
#5. There’s no such thing as “good foods” and “bad foods”
We are all guilty of labeling certain foods as either “good” or “bad.” However, no food is morally good or bad. There are a few reasons why labeling food this way may be hurting us. One is that we will always desire the “bad” food, it’s human nature. Tell us that something is forbidden and we immediately want to try it. Similar to negative willpower, we then fixate upon it, allowing it to control and consume us. In addition, when we eat foods on our “bad food” list, we then see ourselves as bad or experience feelings of guilt. Establishing a perspective that all food is morally neutral is key.
Do your best to drop any judgments or pre-determined beliefs about food. By doing this you’ll stop fixating on the “bad foods” you’re trying so hard to avoid and prevent projecting negative food labels onto yourself.
#6. Practice “whole body eating”
In western society, eating has become mechanical in nature. We find ourselves eating on auto-pilot, not fully present or even fully aware of why or how much we’re eating. The concept of “whole body eating” is simple. It’s the practice of eating with intention and complete awareness. David identifies five steps to whole body eating:
- Make a conscious choice to eat
Avoid eating on auto-pilot. Don’t just eat because it’s “lunch time” or because food is available or because you always eat at this time. Instead, ask yourself-
- Am I hungry?
- Will food satisfy my hunger?
- Will food truly nourish me in this moment?
- Do I choose to eat?
When you make a conscious choice to eat, accept it fully and be OK with it. Even if it’s a big a$$ piece of chocolate cake!
- Ask your body what it wants
Once you’ve made the conscious decision to eat, ask your body what it needs. This goes back to listening to your body as discussed above. Pay attention to what foods you’re feeling drawn to or what ingredients sound most appealing. Your body is the authority on this subject – trust the intuition it gives you!
- Eat with awareness
Be fully present and aware when you eat. Taste your food. Think of eating as an act of self-care. Eat slowly. Take in your environment, the company, the aromas, everything! Embrace it as an experience. Whether you’re alone on the couch or getting dinner with friends, this applies in every scenario.
- Listen for feedback
Learn to become aware of how you feel after a meal. Reflect on what you ate, how you felt, and what changes happened within your body. Reflection will help you discover which foods best serve you and which don’t.
- Release the meal
Once you’re done with your meal, let it go and move on with your day. Forget about healthy eating, food, or weight. Live your life and be fully present in other pursuits until the next time you get hungry and you make the conscious decision to eat again.
Establishing a positive relationship with food is an important foundational step in cultivating a healthy diet and lifestyle. While some of these tips may sound like a hall pass for eating whatever you want, the cumulative result is much different. The idea is that you CAN eat whatever you want. However, through a positive self-image, positive willpower, and practicing whole-body eating, we may all find that making healthier food choices is easier than ever before.