Eating is part of daily life. You may not give it much thought – or you might think about it too much. Some people eat mindlessly while others obsess over everything they put in their mouths. Neither approach is healthy. Are you ready to have a healthier relationship with food? Letting go of the guilt and stress around food is the best way to start.
Food Has a Purpose
First, understand what food is – it’s fuel. If you think of food as a friend or enemy, it becomes a source of comfort when you feel down (food as a friend) or you feel guilty when you eat something not “healthy (food as an enemy). But once you understand that food fuels your body, eating healthy makes sense because it helps keep your body running smoothly and efficiently.
Food is fuel, in the same way that gasoline powers a car or diesel runs a train. Just as you wouldn’t drive your car with the gas tank near empty or fill it with the wrong type of fuel, don’t let your energy supplies dwindle. But you also shouldn’t eat out of boredom or because food is available. People often overeat when they munch for reasons other than hunger such as stress or lack of something better to do.
Your body sends signals as to your fuel status, but you must be quiet enough to hear them. Pay attention to your hunger cues and recognize when you’re truly hungry. Food is necessary for sustenance and vitality, so there’s no need to deprive yourself if you’re hungry. Hunger is your body’s signal that you need more energy.
Eating mindfully is one of the best ways to ensure you have a healthy relationship with food. Mindfulness helps you focus on the experience of eating and prevents mindless eating, which can lead to unhealthy habits. How can you put this into practice?
When you eat, focus on the experience. Think about how what you eat feels in your mouth and how it smells and tastes. Notice the texture and the flavors–is it crisp or soft? Salty or sweet? With each bite, think about what’s going on in your body and what it’s telling you. When you start to feel full, stop and put your fork down. Eating slowly ensures that you taste every bite rather than shovel food into your mouth.
Eat in a quiet place where there aren’t distractions. Turn off TVs/computers/phones if they are nearby and immerse yourself in the experience of eating. Let your body and mind relax as you eat, and your body will associate eating with calm and relaxation.
Focus on Nutrients
The human body is an amazing machine. It’s capable of taking the nutrients you give it and turning them into energy, which helps you do all kinds of things–from going for a run to solving math problems. But if you focus on calories alone, you can lose sight of what’s important–getting enough nutrients so that your body functions its best.
A person who eats a lot but doesn’t get enough vitamins and minerals may still not feel their best. Plus, a lack of key nutrients, like magnesium or calcium, contributes to longer-term health issues, like osteoporosis. Not getting enough vitamin C can negatively affect immune health, and inadequate potassium can contribute to a rise in blood pressure–just to name a few. That’s why it’s important to eat a balanced, nutrient-dense diet. So, shift your focus from counting calories to focusing on nutrients instead.
Planning is a crucial step in avoiding too much junk food and overeating. When you plan, you’re less tempted to grab a slice of pizza on your way home from work because it’s convenient. Instead, you have something healthy waiting for you at home. Keep prepared healthy items in the front of your fridge and carry a healthy snack with you when you travel, so you never have to stop at a fast-food joint or vending machine. Planning helps ensure you get adequate nutrients in your diet, rather than eating what’s convenient.
Enjoy Your Food
Your relationship with food should not be about deprivation, guilt, or shame. Enjoy the foods you love to eat, and don’t deprive yourself because they are “unhealthy” or “bad.” Enjoy them in moderation. When you have a healthy relationship with food, you can enjoy a variety of foods without guilt. You will no longer compare yourself to others or think you’re “bad” because you ate something outside your diet plan.
Eat When You’re Hungry
Your body evolved over a millennia and knew how much energy you need to not only survive but thrive! If you listen carefully, you can tell when your body is ready for another meal by noting physical hunger signals such as your stomach growling or feeling weak/lightheaded from low blood sugar levels. Stop and question your hunger before eating, so you’re aware of what it feels like. Rank it from one to five, and if it’s not at least a three or four, you could be eating out of boredom.
Find Better Ways to Manage Stress
Stress causes people to eat when they’re not hungry. It also boosts the stress hormone cortisol, which increases appetite and causes you to crave high-calorie foods. Your body releases adrenaline and other hormones in response to stress and they make you feel anxious and irritable. The combination of these reactions may make you want to eat or drink more than usual. The key is to stop using food as a stress reliever or a crutch and find better ways to manage stress.
If you’re looking for tips on how to cope with stress, consider these ways:
- Go for a walk. Going for a walk can bring about an almost instantaneous sense of calm, as well as help you connect with nature and enjoy the fresh air.
- Play with a pet. Pets are great sources of unconditional love and support, meaning they’ll be there when you need them most–and sometimes even get excited about going out for long walks together!
- Meditate or take up yoga. Meditation reduces stress and anxiety in people who practice it regularly. However, if this isn’t something that appeals to you personally, then yoga is another option that can also help lower your stress level.
- Focus on taking slow, deep breaths and filling your lungs fully. This activates the parasympathetic, or rest and relax, component of your nervous system.
- Do a short workout.
You may have heard the phrase, “food is fuel.” But it can be more too. Food provides your body with the nutrients and energy it needs to function–but eating is also a way to reduce stress or boredom. Get in touch with what motivates you to eat and learn to recognize hunger. Most importantly, live and eat mindfully and you’ll enjoy everything in life more, including the food you eat.
Moynihan AB, van Tilburg WA, Igou ER, Wisman A, Donnelly AE, Mulcaire JB. Eaten up by boredom: consuming food to escape awareness of the bored self. Front Psychol. 2015 Apr 1;6:369. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00369. PMID: 25883579; PMCID: PMC4381486.
Related Articles By Cathe: