Eating Mindfully: How to Change your Relationship with Food
Published in the July 2020 Edition of Women’s Lifestyle Magazine.
In my work as a holistic psychotherapist*, I am seeing an ever-growing number of people describing that they do not have a healthy relationship with food, feel “addicted” to food (especially sweets), or have disordered eating.
Why is Food so Powerful?
Given that food affects our bodies, food affects our brains. The challenge is that, with the high rates of processed foods, considerations like hidden GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), the prevalence of soy, gluten, and dairy in not only our food but also things like cosmetics and vitamins, and the frequency of sugar in just about everything (Don’t believe me? Take a look at not only the nutrition facts on your food but, more importantly, the ingredient list), food now has a life of its own.
Let’s just explore one of the things in this list: sugar. Research clearly shows that sugar is more addictive than cocaine. Brain scans show that the brains of those addicted to sugar and highly-processed carbohydrates commonly found in our Western Diet (appropriately called the S.A.D. – Standard American Diet) show the same patterns as those addicted to drugs. Julia Ross details this in her book, The Craving Cure, and also describes that we have evidence that the dairy and highly-processed carbohydrate products (often containing gluten) actually function like opioids (e.g. Oxycontin, heroin) in the brain, triggering addiction to these ingredients.
One study Julia Ross describes that I think is particularly illustrative is that, when prescriptions like Naloxone or Naltrexone, traditionally prescribed for people addicted to opioids to help them remain sober, are given to those with a sweet-tooth, they no longer receive pleasure from eating that food. The endorphins released while eating the guilty pleasure are eliminated! This means that food is not just food or a matter of will power. There is a reason why we simply cannot imagine living without cookies. (Consider exploring Gary Taubes’ “The Case Against Sugar” for more details about the connection between food, sugar, and addiction.)
And, that’s just the chemistry of food! From a behavioral perspective, no longer do we simply hunt or harvest whole foods we have raised ourselves, cooking it mere seconds after it was harvested feet away. Or favored foods have become what is convenient and what tastes good (i.e. sweet). This reflects my belief that food has become so powerful partially because we have become disconnected from it.
Tips on How to Eat Mindfully
Because food can carry so much emotional weight, here are some tips to help you begin to improve your relationship with food:
- Ask yourself: “Am I actually tasting my food?” Notice things like the texture, color, and smell, in addition to things like the side of your mouth on which you naturally chew. Google “Mindfully Eating a Raisin” for a fun, short guided meditation to encourage such mindfulness.
- Put your fork down between bites in order to encourage tasting your food.
- Eat without distractions. We were not meant to eat in front of the T.V., in our cars, playing on our phones, or at our desks. Our digestive system can only digest and absorb nutrients well when we are relaxed. So, use eating as an opportunity to take a break, breathe, and get some respite from your daily schedule. (Yes, this means that you may need to eliminate intense business lunches.)
- Consider making eating communal. Some food behaviorists argue that we eat more when we are with others because we are less mindful about signals of fullness. However, making eating communal, such as in the breakroom or nightly with family, helps us recognize that food is not only about the nutrients, but is about connection. Not eating in isolation, for those with disordered eating, may also help eliminate “shame eating” or binging. Find what works best for you.
- Eat only when you are hungry. If I had a nickel for every time someone told me they are a “stress eater” or “I eat when I’m bored”, I would have already solved the problem of world hunger! Remember to check in with your body before you reach for food and ask “Am I really hungry?”.
- Eat until you’re about 80% full. As acclaimed food-writer Michael Pollan in his adorable little book “Food Rules” discusses, ancient traditions that include the Japanese, Chinese, and Indian Aurvedic medicine have recommendations of only eating until you are between 70% and 80% full. Pollan also adds that, when the French are done eating, they state “I have no more hunger”.
Ask yourself, “have I satisfied my hunger?”. Even practice leaving food on your plate to help give yourself permission to stop eating when satisfied. It takes 20 minutes for your brain to register fullness from your stomach. So…
- Eat slowly. Let your food digest. Give yourself permission to enjoy your food; to really taste it. Watch your breathing. Notice how your body and emotions feel before, during, and after you eat.
- Chew each bite at least 30 times. Consider how this recommendation not only allows you to truly taste your food, but it also helps your body to better absorb nutrients and register the “I’m full” signal.
- Don’t beat yourself up. Given that food is more than just food, we can expect slip-ups. Maybe you over-ate, ate a food you know is not healthy, or ate something you know makes you feel badly. Don’t let mistakes cause you to be a further slave to food or shame. Use mistakes as learning opportunities.
- When all else fails, do something else! I think of the old adage “If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, you are not actually hungry”. This saying is a great illustration that sometimes, when our cravings show up, doing something else like yoga, taking a walk, reading a book, or dancing can help us be more mindful about what such cravings are about if they actually aren’t hunger.
- When a craving won’t stop, ask yourself “What void am I trying to fill right now?” If we get in touch with our emotions, we better understand the food-mood connection and can learn what our triggers are, in addition to knowing what we can do to improve our relationship with food.
- Surround yourself with food options that support your mindfulness. If you open a family sized bag of potato chips, you will be more likely to finish the bag. Also, consider how, if there is no ice cream in your home, you won’t eat any. Instead, stock your pantry with healthy items that encourage mindfulness and avoid perpetuating the addictive lure of sweetness.
Lastly but perhaps most importantly…
- Remind yourself that you are beautiful. Your gender, age, ethnicity, or any other feature doesn’t define you. Neither does food or your body size. While you work to have a healthy relationship with food, work to have a healthy relationship with yourself. Practice loving yourself and even saying phrases of support out loud. Self-compassion is the ultimate mindfulness practice! Eating mindfully isn’t about size or losing weight. It is about awareness. So, don’t only eat with awareness, love yourself with awareness.
[*Medical disclaimer: Please keep in mind that the above information is offered for entertainment and educational purposes only, should not be considered medical advice/treatment, and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any condition. Given the unique biochemistry of each individual, it is essential to consult your physician before making any changes to your lifestyle, including nutritional, fitness, or supplementation. Such statements have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. If you feel that you need medical support for eating behaviors, be sure to seek care from a trained professional.]
~Ashley Carter Youngblood, LMSW, LMFT, CADC, ADS, CMHIMP
Ashley Carter Youngblood is a licensed Clinical Social Worker, licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and a Certified Mental Health Integrative Medicine Provider who has been in the field since 2007. She offers counseling at her woman-owned business, Inner Peace Counseling, PLC, for those in Kalamazoo, Portage, Mattawan, Battle Creek, Paw Paw, and the surrounding areas of Southwest Michigan. She is passionate about her work with clients, whether it’s providing individual counseling, couples counseling, family therapy, life coaching, or education about one of her growing passions and areas of expertise: the connection between nutrition and mental health. Her specialties include holistic healing/mindfulness, counseling for women, anxiety, couples counseling, and addictions/substance abuse.
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Thanks for reading.