Why We Fail at Healthy Eating When We Only Focus on Food
There's something amazing that has been happening in recent years when it comes to the media and our quest for health. For the first time, there is an acknowledgment that we can be active participants in getting healthier. For the first time, concerns abut food, our activity levels, stress levels and lifestyle are at the center stage, and we are finally getting the message that we can actually make a huge difference in our lives and our own vitality. The downside to this health focused media frenzy, has two main issues I believe need to be discussed. The first is that health is sometimes confused with the quest for being skinny, having a "perfect body", fitting a certain societal ideal (for both men and women), seeing any body type that doesn't fit this ideal as the thing we need to fear and steer clear from. Make no mistake, health and fitting society's body ideals are two very different things. The second issue when it comes to this focus on health that I feel needs to be talked about, is that it has made us focus so much on the food itself. It has created not only food fears, but it has made us step away from the many different aspects of our lives that are behind our choices at the table. It's just not as simple as knowing what you need to know about food and nutrition and making sure you follow that to a tee. If it were only up to that, we'd be a society without diet related health issues, based on the amount of books, experts and diets out there. The truth is we are complex human beings, and when the focus is all on the food, trying to isolate it from all the other aspects of ourselves, it's a lost battle. Health, and healthy eating specifically, is much more than just the food on our plate.
You know who I'm going to blame for this right? As usual I'm going to blame our "magic pill/focus on one thing we need to fix and all will be good forever" way of thinking. We apply that laser focus to one thing, have it re-inforced daily by the media messages, and suddenly it's the official culprit and all we can think about. We lose sight of the bigger picture, we lose sight of the long haul, and we love that we can control food in the hopes that things will improve in no time. A few weeks later we're feeling overwhelmed, lost, in the aftermath of the new diet high, which is usually a very desperate post diet low. We have focused only on the food, and forgotten we're about so much more than just one little habit.
Today we're going to break this cycle of trying to find the number one cure, and I'm going to take you down the path I went through, in realizing that so many of my problems with food had to do with other aspects of my lifestyle, and that when I stopped looking for one thing to control (i.e. food), and found balance with all the aspects of my day, removed magic pill thinking, removed my food fears and obsessive control, everything started settling down into a place of balance. Only then did my eating really change.
Whenever I use the words healthy eating, I think it's very important we spend a couple of minutes defining it, since this term might mean different things to different people.
What does healthy eating mean?
When it comes to health in general, a doctor might tell you that health is the absence of disease, having normal levels in your bloodwork, experiencing vitality and energy. A psychologist might add to that definition, the fact that health is also the ability to adapt to life circumstances, having self awareness, social and emotional well-being. Ask a Buddhist monk and he'll add that health is also about being able to be present in every moment with ease of mind, being able to de-stress the body and find mental clarity no matter what your external circumstances are.
The same thing happens when we discuss eating healthfully. I've seen so many people define it when it comes to the pursuit of thinness or reaching fitness goals, others define it as the total absence of foods that don't pass a very strict "clean" guideline. After struggling with food issues for many years, I came to my own definition, based on what ended up actually helping instead of hindering, and what ultimately helped me improve my relationship with food and eating.
To me healthy eating means:
- Filling our plates with foods that contain the nutrients we need to thrive, but finding a balance between nutritious, whole foods, and also "play" foods, foods that make us joyous and happy and that are satisfying.
- Cooking more at home, having a close relationship with the foods that go into our bodies.
- Paying attention to our hunger and fullness signals and using these as our main tool to guide our choices and the moment of eating.
- Eating when we're hungry, and learning how to use coping mechanisms and self care to soothe other needs without having to turn to food when we're not experiencing actual hunger.
- Stopping when we're comfortably full, knowing that we can have these foods again whenever we'd like to.
- Taking diet rules out of the picture, and putting foods back in the category of neutral where they belong. Meaning, it's our eating habits that can take food to an unhealthy, unbalanced place. When we don't label foods as inherently "good" or "bad", we remove restriction and the need to overeat on the foods we love later. We can find balance with food, knowing it can all be a part of a healthy way of eating.
- It means fueling our bodies based on our physical needs and activity levels.
- It means not obsessing over calories, grams of fat, carbs or insert "fear food du jour" here.
- It means our bodies are full of health and vitality, and that may or may not include having a body that fits what society's beauty standards are.
- It means finding sanity with food, being able to enjoy it, and then set it aside to continue with all the other activities that fill our lives.
- To me, because of my personal choices and beliefs, it means not consuming animal products, not only because of the countless studies that now link these products to a myriad of chronic illnesses, but also because to me, healthy eating also has to do with how our choices impact the world around us, and how we start to benefit in countless ways when we realize that our actions really do matter and have an impact in the world. In the case of eating vegan, health also means the health of our planet, and the well-being of animals.
- It means not focusing on perfect, even with your veganism if that is your choice, and instead, it's about trying the best you can, being kind to yourself when you take steps back, because you will. It's part of being a normal, balanced, human being, and I happen to love mistakes and missteps, it's how we learn and grow, and especially, how we cultivate humility and self-compassion.
This is my definition after years of struggling with using other people's definitions as gospel, not realizing that our eating habits are influenced by so much more than just a list of allowed or forbidden foods, ounces allowed, or cups measured, "x" amount of meals or calories a day.
It's all these other lifestyle aspects that can affect our eating choices that we're talking about today:
Restriction and the aftermath
If you've read or listened to our episodes from the bikini revolution series (Part 1, part 2 and part 3), or our dieting chronicles series (part 1, part 2 and part 3), you've heard me talk about the role restriction plays in our eating habits. When restriction and dieting rules are a part of the picture, no matter how good our intentions are initially, or what measurable results we have, overeating will almost always follow. Conditions and habits like binge eating, emotional eating and overeating are always the downhill slope that follow restriction. If we want to find a happy and healthy relationship with food, restriction and external dieting rules need to be out of the picture, and the two series I linked to above will help you tremendously to understand why this is the case and what steps you can take to let go of this. We also discuss the inherent restriction present when you eat a vegan diet, and how you can navigate through that by viewing veganism in a different light.
For some reason self-love always sounded like this hippy-dippy, let's chant and hold hands kind of construct to me, but as I healed my issues with food, I realized I had to put my tail between my legs with that one, stop making fun of this term and try to really understand it. Self-love, and self-respect, are not about standing in front of a mirror repeating affirmations about ourselves until we're blue in the face and fake it until we make it, they are actually about accepting where we are right now and showing kindness to ourselves. No matter what weight, shape or health issues we have right now, the first step is to approach any changes from a perspective of self respect and love, not out of punishment or as a drill sergeant.
I like to think of self love as a conversation our current self has with our inner child daily. How would you talk to a 5 year old girl about her wanting to eat the entire bag of cookies because she's sad over something that happened at school? Would you have the bag of cookies confiscated and tell her about calories or carbs? Or would you perhaps sit with her and talk to her about what's going on, ask her if there's anything else that might be worrying her? Would you forbid the cookies or would you sit with her to eat some, telling her to savor them and slow down, re-assuring her she can have them again whenever she likes? Would you teach her about other ways to soothe difficult emotions by talking about them or doing something fun together? However you would talk about these issues with your 5 year old self, or your 5 year old niece, nephew, son or daughter, that's the essence of self-love, and self-love will take you miles further than self-punishment when it comes to eating.
Listening to Your Body and Getting Re-Acquainted with its Signals
If you're a member of our online program, you know all about going on that quest of recognizing your body's hunger and fullness signals. This should always be at the center of your food choices, combined with the question that very few of us ask: "What do I feel like eating?". "What would be truly satisfying?" This sounds counterintuitive to everything we've heard or read about healthy eating right? Well, that's diet culture for ya! For me, three of the things that really healed my relationship with food were making sure I was truly satisfied with the food I was eating, and making my body tell me when it was hungry, when it was comfortably full, and re-training myself to let these signals guide my habits. Nothing will separate you more from balance with food and improving your relationship with it, as imposing external rules of allowed or forbidden foods, forbidden times to eat, allowed times to eat, and external portion control. It's not easy, but we can re-learn what it really means to be in our bodies, listening to when we're hungry, full, what we like and don't like, eating mindfully and being able to set food aside and reach for it again when our body needs nourishment.
The other day Carlos was talking about exercise and how he wondered why some people enjoy it and others don't. He said that it probably had to do with childhood, and how if you enjoyed it as a kid you'll probably enjoy it as an adult. I immediately brought his theory to a crashing halt because as a kid, there was nothing I hated more than exercising. The biggest struggle my mom ever had with me was getting me to go to school because I was so afraid of my PE class. Where am I now? As you know, exercise and movement for me are as essential as water and food. It's one of my first self-care habits of the day and I love it because it helps me stay sane and happy, but mostly, I love it because as someone who struggles with always being in her head, physical activity makes me climb on out of there and come back into my body.
What does that mean?
It means it's so much easier for me to be really attuned to my body's signals when it comes to hunger, fullness, discomfort, anxiety, stress, sadness, elation. I am able to separate what's going on in my emotional self and my physical body, and not confuse the two. Physical activity had such a huge part of helping me improve my relationship with my body and with food. The only rule is I only exercise in ways that make me feel happy and good. I tried everything, from spinning, to swimming to running to yoga and even boxing. I stayed with what I enjoy and look forward to (and what I enjoy has changed throughout my life), and simply dropped the rest. Movement and being active can be as simple as a daily walk, or as advanced as being a marathon runner, anything that you truly enjoy and look forward to.
Emotional Health and Well-Being
Making sure your emotional needs are met, and that you have an outlet for soothing the difficult emotions and circumstances in our lives will go so far in helping us in our efforts to eat healthfully. As we all know, there is such a huge emotional component to eating. Emotional eating is normal, there will always be an emotional tie to eating certain foods, and that's ok, what we do have to try and strive for, is making sure we are taking care of ourselves so that food isn't the only outlet we have to self-soothe. Going to therapy or joining a support group are great options when we need to heal the wounds of our lives and learn tools to navigate difficult moments, and so are things like daily journaling and taking time for ourselves. That means time alone, away from kids, partners and work, to do something that is just for you. Setting limits and boundaries when it comes to things that others have put on our plates that are taking away from what we need to be well emotionally. Learning tools to self soothe and relax without the need to always turn to food as a bandaid for what's really going on.
Never underestimate the huge role stress plays in our eating habits. We're now literally in a culture that doesn't stop. Our phones are on 24-7, we are wired to do more, make more, earn more and accomplish more, and in Western culture there is no acknowledgement or sense of pride in just taking some time to simply be and relax. We need to change this. Especially if we're seeking to improve our relationship with food.
So much of our eating happens when we mindlessly grab food without checking in with our bodies and whether we're hungry or not and what would satisfy us. This way of eating mindlessly and so quickly you can't even settle down to experience the act of eating, usually comes down to stress and our inability to tune into the moment without doing anything else. This is not our fault though! We haven't learned it in our culture, but today I want to introduce you to mindfulness, and a wonderful free course you can do online at your own pace (no affiliation, I'm just an adoring fan), which can help re-train your brain to be here, now, and with full awareness. The side effect? Stress will slowly but surely give way to a new perception of time, your schedule, responsibilities and of course your eating habits. It's a wonderful technique called MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction), and it has been used in countless hospitals to help patients manage stress-related ailments, physical pain, and regular people like me find ease to chronic stress or anxiety. You can start the course here, and you don't even have to provide an email address to begin. It has been such a life-changer for me I can't even tell you!
The course I just mentioned was one of the number one things that taught me how to cultivate presence in my body, in the moment and while eating. Being mindful and present means that we can strip away the layers of everything that's going on, and notice if our eating habits and choices are coming from stress, emotional turmoil, celebration, hunger, the need to self soothe, etc. All of these can be part of what being a normal eater is, the point is that with time, we can learn other tools, and leave food and eating for nourishment, pleasure and satisfaction of hunger. Being present in the moment of eating itself is also essential since so many times we zone out, not even feeling satisfied by a delicious meal, which can lead us to overeat later. Being present during meals also helps slow us down while we eat, giving our brain plenty of time to tell us that we're satisfied and comfortably full.
We tend to think that once we change our bodies to meet a certain standard, body acceptance will come. This was not my experience. Even as I transformed my body to what many would consider "a fit ideal", body acceptance didn't come, more rules, restrictions and control followed (mostly out of the fear of losing it), and the initial thrill of having the body I thought I wanted lasted very little compared to the negative aftermath. I didn't know back then what I know now: body acceptance needs to come first. We need to respect and love ourselves where we are, and if love is difficult in your present circumstance, we need to at least accept ourselves with kindness. Finding that acceptance, combined with all the other healthy eating tools I've taught you today, will take you miles further to finding a new relationship with food than hating your body and trying to change it by sheer force of will. Nothing profound and permanent in your relationship with food will happen until you start from a place of self love and acceptance. I know this is hard if society is telling you your body isn't good enough, but you can get started with the tools and the dog exercise I teach you here. It takes time and lots of practice and ups and down to learn how to accept and even love where you are right now, but it's worth it. Once you get there, food starts getting back into its proper place, slowly but surely.
Questioning the Images we See and the Messages we Hear
This is possibly the hardest thing to do, but one that is essential. You've heard me talk about it so many times, but in this imperfect world which is constantly tricking us into thinking everyone is perfect except us, we NEED this! We need to be questioning what we hear and see, especially when it comes to diet and beauty culture. A great way is to start following some of these amazing body activists, as well as social media accounts, and media in general, that fills our lives with things other than beauty, fitspiration and fake anything. You can begin here.
Seeing the Forest for the Trees
When we start putting many of these healthy eating tools into practice, all of which have nothing to do with the food itself, portions or calories, we start to see the forest for the trees. We start to see that one meal can't make or break us, that one workout done for enjoyment instead of the calorie burn is a good thing instead of lazy. We see that taking time to breathe is just as essential to being healthy and happy as the question of whether or not to eat that oreo cookie. We see that everything in our life affects the daily things we do, and eating is a part of that, but not the only part. When we start seeing the reality of the complex creatures that we are, we remove the focus and obsessive control of food and give room to actually healing our relationship with it, putting it back in its place, leaving the rules and dogma behind and finding balance. At least, this is what happened to me.
We'll continue to talk about this in future episodes and posts, but in the meantime, make sure to check all of the resources above, and try to focus on one of the tools in this post, to start practicing healthy eating through the lens of self-care, instead of punishment this week. It takes practice, but it's wonderful to see how far it can actually take us in improving our relationship with food.