Wish you could cut back on chocolate and improve your diet? Frustrated that you can’t resist those savoury treats? Meghan Foulsham at Fresh Fitness Food reveals how to form healthier, lasting nutrition habits.
Food is primarily a fuel for your body, but it has become so much more than that. It’s a celebratory meal for your best friend’s birthday, a ‘thank you’ to your neighbour for cat-sitting while you were away, an ‘I’m thinking of you’ to a loved one who is grieving. Food serves a much greater purpose nowadays than it has before and is vital to everyday functioning. So how is it fair that our relationship with food can have such a huge impact on our everyday lives?
While many think that the diet industry is a thing of late, the UK was exposed to its first diet in 1863 by William Banting’s open letter to the Public, which explained how his doctor-recommended diet of meat, vegetables, fruit and dry wine led him to dramatic weight loss. In other words, the world’s first low-carb diet.
This means that everyone, in the UK at least, has been subjected to diet culture, and the diet industry, at some point in their life. Quite a scary thought. Many think they have a perfect relationship with food already, but often diet culture is so ingrained into our daily lives that what seems ‘normal’ is far from.
For example, saying you’ve been ‘good’ recently when referring to food and/or exercise is a prime example of diet culture. You are not a ‘bad’ person for eating chocolate, as chocolate holds no moral value in your life. You are not a ‘bad’ person for not going to the gym when you really don’t feel like it, or for drinking alcohol and eating pizza at your best friend’s birthday, in the same way, that you’re not a ‘good’ person for exclusively eating vegetables and drinking kale smoothies and working out for two hours every day.
If you ever feel like you’ve been ‘bad’, have eaten something you ‘shouldn’t have’ (i.e. something edible, like cake, rather than something like batteries – although in the case of the latter, you really shouldn’t have), or need to ‘get back on track’, even ignoring hunger cues because you think you’ve ‘eaten enough’, then there is definitely room for improvement. But how exactly do you go about improving your relationship with food?
A somewhat overlooked role in one’s relationship with food is learning your individual hunger cues. Contrary to popular belief, having a growling stomach is not the only sign that you’re hungry. Hunger can manifest in a variety of ways and is completely individual to each person. While some may get a growling stomach, others may experience headaches, irritability, dizziness, nausea, even hiccups! If you only ever permit yourself to eat when your stomach is growling, try tuning in to other potential signs of hunger. Keep track of how your emotions and body change over the course of the day – do you notice repeated behaviours or signs before you eat, or when you don’t feel that you’ve eaten enough?
It is also important to pay attention to how full you feel – eating without distraction (for example, looking at your phone or watching TV) is a great way to practice this. Despite how you might have been brought up, you don’t have to finish everything on your plate. If you’re at home or work and feel too full to finish your meal, put the rest in the fridge to have later or to take home. If you’re at a restaurant, ask if they have a takeaway box so that you can take leftovers home. You could even take Tupperware with you! This way you are honouring your hunger, tuning into what your body wants and needs, and reducing your food waste.
On a similar note, are you eating when you’re actually hungry? Emotional eating is the use of food to make yourself feel better about a feeling or experience (other than being physically hungry). This can be as a means of comfort, stress or boredom response, as a reward, or many other things. While there are some scenarios where emotional eating may help you feel better (think: Elle Woods post-breakup in Legally Blonde), on the whole, emotional hunger cannot be filled with food.
It is therefore important to learn ways to cope with emotions, other than through food (and alcohol too). Using food or alcohol to deal with emotion can result in a perpetuating cycle of feeling potential guilt from eating when you weren’t hungry and/or deeper emotional trouble from not properly dealing with the emotions you’re feeling. While, of course, an occasional evening of over-indulging to lift one’s spirits will not have any detrimental effect on you, your body, or your mental health, using food or alcohol as a go-to every time you experience something, can have negative impacts on your health.
Finding ways to deal with emotions other than with food can seriously help. A prime example would be doing yoga, going for a run or painting when feeling stressed. Or watching your favourite film or calling a loved one when you’re feeling down.
Have a social media detox
Are you following people who make you think that you have to look or eat or workout a certain way? Health and fitness is most definitely not a one-size-fits-all approach. Just because your favourite influencer drinks nothing but kale juices every day, does not mean that that’s healthy, wise or the right way for you to fuel your body.
If you feel any pressure to look or behave in a certain way from those you follow on social media, it’s time to unfollow them. Replace them with those that educate on body positivity and make you feel good about yourself. It seems like a small and almost stupid step, but it’s almost like surrounding yourself with supportive friends outside of your phone – you wouldn’t want to spend time with people who made you feel bad about yourself in person, so reflect that attitude in your online life too.
Cravings and restriction
Do not compromise your mental health for your physical health. If you find yourself constantly thinking about food – what you can or can’t have, when you’ll next eat or what you’ll next eat, all for the sake of a goal, you’re somewhat compromising your mental health, for a physical aesthetic, and are likely being too restrictive in your diet.
Constantly thinking about food is a sign that your body is hungry or is not satisfied with what you’ve fuelled it with. The reason we so often crave things like cake or chocolate is that they taste great, and are high-energy, meaning a small amount can supply us with the calories that our bodies are missing.
Eating ‘healthy alternatives’ in place of food you’re craving can also have a negative impact on your relationship with food. For example, you’re craving pizza, but you’re ‘not allowed’ pizza, so have a wrap with tomato puree and cheese instead. This doesn’t satisfy your craving, so you try to satisfy it in other ways, eating more and more. More often than not, you end up ‘giving up’, and eating the item you were craving anyway, having consumed more than you would have if it was just satisfied immediately.
Cravings can be satisfied with a small amount – e.g. a slice of pizza or a square or two of chocolate. It doesn’t have to be the whole pizza or the whole bar if you do not want to eat it all. Sometimes the healthiest thing for your mind is the typically “unhealthy” choice for your body. But guess what? No one has a ‘perfect’ diet 100% of the time. There’s no such thing as a perfect diet – it’s whatever works best for you, your lifestyle, and your individual needs. And while your body doesn’t necessarily need pizza or chocolate, you have to honour your mental cravings, as well as what your body does need. Forbidding yourself from eating certain foods will not do you any favours in the long run.