In a world dominated by fad diets and quick-fix solutions, it’s not an exaggeration to say that we are forgetting our basic instincts of how to eat and that our relationship with food is becoming increasingly dysfunctional.
Eating is not just about sustenance; it is a fine balance between nourishing our bodies and our emotional satisfaction. For those of us with a disordered relationship with food, the holiday season can be a difficult time, since most Indian celebrations are centred around food. Right now is a good time to step back and assess our relationship with food, given the profound impact it has on our overall well being.
In today’s column, I want to explore some of these deeper aspects of eating, beyond nutrition labels and diets such as the art of mindful eating, exploring the crucial connection between our emotional state and our dietary choices, and provide practical tips for developing a healthier, more balanced relationship with food.
Understanding Emotional Eating
Emotional eating is a coping mechanism for many. There are key differences between emotional hunger and physical hunger.
Physical hunger is felt in the stomach, comes on gradually, makes you want to eat a proper meal (such as dal-chawal, roti-sabzi) and goes away when you have eaten the meal and is not associated with any post-food guilt.
Emotional hunger is a nagging sensation in the mind that comes on suddenly in response to an emotional trigger, makes you crave junk or processed food, makes you eat even when full and is usually associated with guilt.
It arises from the close link between our emotional well-being and eating habits. Stress, sadness, anxiety, boredom and even happiness can trigger a desire to turn to food for comfort. Recognising this behaviour is the first step towards fostering a healthier relationship with food.
Begin by acknowledging the emotions that trigger your desire to eat. Is it stress from work? Loneliness? Boredom? By pinpointing the underlying feelings, you gain valuable insight into your emotional eating patterns.
This self-awareness acts as a compass, guiding you towards healthier alternatives. Taking a minute to check in with your feelings that trigger a food craving is a good place to start.
Find Alternative Coping Mechanisms
Once you've identified emotional triggers, seek alternative ways to address them. If you put off eating for just five minutes and engage in some other activities, you will most likely forget about the craving. Engage in other soothing activities like journaling, meditating, calling a loved one or taking a walk. Connecting with nature, in particular, has a grounding effect that can help break the cycle of emotional eating.
Have a toolkit of coping mechanisms handy for various situations — for example, write this down where you can see it and refer to it when needed. If I’m bored, (do this). If I’m angry (do this). If I’m feeling lonely, (do this). This keeps you ready to cope with any emotional trigger and helps reduce reliance on food for emotional solace.
Embracing Mindful Eating
Recently I was at a friend’s house in the evening. She is currently home alone as her family is travelling. It was lovely to see that the table was neatly set just for one person. Mindful eating is making every meal an important occasion. After all, it is a gift to be able to sit down and nourish our bodies.
Mindful eating is the practice of fully engaging with your food, savouring each bite, and being present in the moment. This approach encourages a deeper appreciation for the nourishment food provides and fosters a more conscious relationship with what you consume.
In our fast-paced lives, meals are often rushed affairs. Instead, make it a habit to eat slowly, savouring each bite. This not only allows you to appreciate the flavours but also gives your body time to recognise when it's satisfied.
Here are a few tips to slow down eating:
— Take a moment to settle in before you start your meal to shift gears from your fast paced day to the slower eating zone.
— Start with a few slow deep breaths and a thought of gratitude.
—Eat high fibre foods that need more chewing. If you do end up eating too fast, analyse why you did so and try to resolve that in your next meal.
Whether you are in the midst of loved ones or food, screens are a sure-shot way to ruin a relationship, not giving it the time or attention it deserves. Turn off screens and put away phones during meal times. This simple act of focusing solely on your food enhances the connection between mind and body. When you're fully present with your meal, you're more attuned to your body's signals of hunger and satiety, leading to a healthier, more balanced approach to eating.
Fostering A Positive Relationship With Food
Our relationship with food should be one of respect, gratitude, and appreciation. It's about nourishing our body and not punishing it. Here's how you can foster a more positive connection with the food you consume:
Banish guilt: Guilt should have no place at your table. If you indulge in a treat, savour it without remorse. Understanding that occasional indulgence is a part of a balanced diet is crucial to a healthy relationship with food. Enjoying food without guilt allows you to fully appreciate the experience without the weight of negative emotions.
Ditch the diet mentality: Diets often create a restrictive mindset that can lead to a cycle of deprivation and binging. Instead of focusing on depriving yourself of some foods, try and focus on what foods you can add to your meals. Incorporate a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and proteins to make your meals a source of both nourishment and pleasure.
Listen To Your Body
Your body has an innate wisdom when it comes to hunger and satiety. Tune in to its signals. Eat when you're hungry and stop when you're satisfied, which are the principles of intuitive eating, and something we are born with. Trusting your body's cues is a powerful step towards a healthier relationship with food. It allows you to honour your body's needs, promoting a sense of balance and well-being.
Cultivating a wholesome relationship with food will not happen overnight. It is a journey that requires patience, self-compassion, and a commitment to self-improvement. Embark on this rewarding path by acknowledging our emotional eating patterns, embracing mindful eating practices, and nurturing a positive outlook towards food. It’s not just about what you eat, but how you eat.