Restrictive diets such as vegan, paleo, or keto can be enticing for those of us interested in bettering our health, but these trends can also lead to unnecessary restriction. This post includes 6 ways mindfulness can help heal diet obsession.
If you’re like me and your interest is peaked by whatever diet trend is in the headlines, then you’re probably also tired of getting disappointed when the results never seem to match up to the promises. While we can’t fault news outlets for publishing stories with flashy headlines, we can think twice about believing that there’s one new trend we have to hop on or that there must be just one crazy idea to cure all our health woes.
Been there, done that! While I never dieted that much during my teens and early twenties, I definitely fell into the trap of wanting a quick fix once I hit my late 20s. At that time, it was a vegan diet that was garnering all the headlines and I hopped on the bandwagon. By the time I realized that such a super-restrictive diet excluding all animal products was not serving my health, I had immersed myself in the community and built a new life around a diet. It took several years to extract myself physically and emotionally from such a strict approach.
For example, when you see this image of a stark stalk of broccoli on a plate, what kinds of thoughts immediately jump into your head? A few years ago, I would have said that plain broccoli on a plate was “good” food, maybe even the “perfect” food!
The response I had a few years ago is so completely opposite of how I think today. While I can’t argue broccoli can be considered a healthy food, how healthy it is depends a lot on context. What is the broccoli served with? Healthy fat will help absorb the phytonutrients. Is it served raw or cooked and how well can the person eating it digest broccoli even if its cooked? Does the person eating broccoli have a food sensitivity to broccoli? Does that person even like broccoli?
Ultimately, there is a component of mindfulness when it comes to eating that can make all the difference. Mindfulness in its many forms was what was missing from my thinking about health. In the past, I chose to listen to someone else’s prescription for health over my intuitive, body signals, and reason. This was such a hard lesson for me. Ultimately, I think we can agree that diet obsessions and food restrictions are failing us and can be counter-productive. It’s time we reevaluate the way we look at food and start using a mindfulness approach when eating.
What is Mindfulness?
Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced the idea of mindfulness in the late 1970s as:
“awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. It’s about knowing what’s on your mind.”
We can apply mindfulness to diet since studies have shown that a mindfulness approach to eating has positive benefits such as weight loss, control over overeating, and limiting sweets.
Here are some tips to help you to get started on eating mindfully.
1. Plan Ahead for Meals
There are many benefits to planning ahead for meals. For starters, you decide what you’re going to eat before your meal, saving you from decision fatigue at mealtime. If you know what you’re going to eat ahead of time, you are less likely to settle on an unhealthy takeout meal or something quick and processed. Planning ahead also saves you money and time, forces you to think about what you want to eat (i.e. real food vs. processed fast food), and saves you stress from having to throw together a quick meal with limited ingredients. Think about the meals you want to eat for the week the weekend before. Do your grocery shopping and prep what you can in advance before the start of your week.
2. Listen to Your Body for Clues About Food Sensitivities
It’s almost shocking how little connection we now have between our bodies and our minds. For example, not many people would consider that their debilitating migraine could be linked to a meal they had that contained MSG 72 hours prior. I read a lot of stories about how people have cured themselves of chronic pain just by realizing that gluten was causing inflammation in their bodies and removing it from their diets.
Unfortunately, there are still many people who fail to see the connection between diet and chronic conditions. Our bodies are not stupid. They give us a lot of clues as to what might be going on. We need to listen to our bodies for clues about foods that are not right for us. For example, not many people are aware that acne is a negative reaction to dairy. Also, people with a sensitivity to gluten may experience bloating after meals.
It’s important to start making these connections within our bodies so that we feel vibrant and healthy. Keeping a basic food and mood journal is a great place to start if you want to track your symptoms with possible food sensitivities.
3. Nourish Your Body with Real Food
As stated above, being more mindful with your food choices forces you to consider what you’re eating. I promote a clean, real food diet over one that is unnecessarily restrictive or full of processed foods. When you’re practicing mindfulness with food, you’re more likely to choose a healthy real food snack over something quick and convenient from a vending machine. Another reasons to eat real food? A recent study shows that ultra-processed foods are linked to cancer risk. Make a conscious effort to nourish your body with real food and notice how real food makes you feel.
4. Recognize Food Triggers for Overeating
If you have a sweet tooth, then this tip shouldn’t surprise you. Often times people who eat processed sweets crave more food. And it’s usually not healthy food that they’re craving. If ultra-processed sugary junk makes you crave more junk, don’t eat it. Make a conscious effort to avoid it. The same goes for other foods that may trigger you to binge. For some people it’s crunchy, salty chips. For others it might be comfort foods that remind them of their childhood. Alcohol can also be a trigger for some. Recognize your specific triggers for overeating and try to cut them out as much as possible.
5. Be Aware of Your Emotional State
When eating you want to be in a parasympathetic state, also known as “rest and digest,” as opposed to a sympathetic state, also called “fight or flight.” Chronic stress and negative emotions leave you in a sympathetic state, and this isn’t good for your digestion. When you’re in a parasympathetic state, your heart rate slows, your intestinal gland activity increases, and the muscles in your gastrointestinal tract relax.
It’s important to evaluate what emotional state you’re in before you begin eating so that you can better digest and absorb your food and the nutrients it contains. If you’re not in that rest and digest mode, take a few minutes to do some breathing exercises or meditation. Taking a minute or two to show gratitude for the food you’re about to consume can put you in a parasympathetic state as well.
5. Be Flexible with Your Eating Approach
Being flexible with your eating approach is important because it can prevent you from restricting certain foods. An example of this would be people who are following a ketogenic (high-fat, low-carbohydrate) diet thinking that bananas are practically poison (read my other concerns with a keto diet here). If you have the choice between a banana or a candy bar, choose the banana. There are certain foods that I think people should try to avoid. Gluten being one of them. But if you’re a person who doesn’t have Celiac disease or a known gluten-sensitivity, then having a few bites of something containing gluten when out with friends is not the end of the world.
6. Be Kind, Patient and Loving with Yourself
I cannot stress enough the importance of self love. No one is perfect. We all slip up from time to time and may forget to consider our food choices before consumption. Don’t beat yourself up over a mistake. Just set an intention to try not to do it again. Be patient with yourself. New habits take time to form. Mindful eating may not come naturally to you right away, and that’s okay. The more you practice mindful eating, the easier it’ll become.
I will leave you with these quotes:
“Every time you put processed food in your mouth you give your body a message: ‘I do not respect you. I do not love you. And I do not care for you.’” – Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride
While I appreciate the intent of this quote, I’ve switched it around to have a more positive connotation.
“Every time you eat real food, you give your body the message – I respect you. I love you. I care for you.” – Carrie Forrest, MPH in Nutrition.
What are your thoughts on the diet culture and how mindfulness interacts with that? I’d love to have you leave a comment.
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