Before I found my calling by helping people get well, kick serious ass and feel like rockstars in their lives, I got my start as a professional model.
The pressures that I faced every day when it came to my body was magnified tenfold -- and when a large portion of my job involved multiple people looking at my body with critical eyes and telling me what was right and what was wrong definitely took it’s toll on me.
It’s no surprise that the modeling and fashion industry is rife with eating disorders and dangerous behaviors to help them achieve these often unattainable standards, but outside of that industry things aren’t necessarily any better.
I bet any woman would be able to tell you the first diet she ever went on and far fewer would be able to say it was her last. Most of us have spent our lives following fad diets that involve cutting out different food groups while the buzz words swirl around our brain as if this would finally be the magical combination that will solve all of our problems. Then when it didn’t magically transform us into Heidi Klum (how rude!) we were left feeling totally despondent (and maybe saying screw it to the diet and heading to the nearest McDonald’s).
Through all these years of reading magazines, watching celebrities, listening to trainers and friends about what we should be eating we’ve managed to silence the one voice we should really be listening to if we actually want to be healthy: our own. All the diet advice in the world isn’t going to help us if we’re ignoring what our body is telling us about what it needs and what makes it feel good.
Knock Knock Knock… Enter… intuitive eating.
Intuitive eating is a hunger-based approach to eating that has seen a rise in popularity in recent years as a viable approach to healthy weight management, especially for people who are chronic dieters. This method focuses on nurturing the body, rather than the usual starvation-based diets that we’re used to seeing, by eating when we’re hungry and stopping when we’re full, with the focus always being on health. I’ve been eating like this for several years, I can’t even tell you when it began, but it’s totally worked, and it broke my obsession and bulimic ways that I had struggled with for years.
The basic idea is that when we listen to what our body needs we’re able to ignore the triggers that encourage unhealthy behaviours and continue on the road to being healthy. Kinda like having our own Jiminy Cricket living in our gut but instead of steering us away from partying and lies it makes us ask if we really need to eat fifteen cookies. More often than not the answer is no. I usually feel like I should probably eat one just to be sure, but maybe I’ll try having a sandwich or something first.
Unlike with traditional diets where one step outside of the strict dieting rules can send us into a tailspin and ultimately lead to us reverting back to our original bad habits (or, you know, eating an entire tub of Ben and Jerry’s Cookie Dough ice cream because if you’re going to wreck your diet you might as well do it right), there is no such thing as “bad behaviour” with intuitive eating.
Whether that means indulging in dessert because you’re craving chocolate cake or getting takeaway for dinner because you can’t be bothered cooking, the point is that you continue to listen to what your body tells you while you’re eating and continue listening with every meal afterwards. I have to listen, otherwise I will overindulge and eat the entire basket of pomme frites that have been fried in duck fat and then want to kill myself. After years of food hangovers and heavy depression it became clear that my eating behavior wasn’t like those who ate with me, I ate food differently. I had to find new ways to eat.
With intuitive eating we’re not trying to starve ourselves to become skinny, but rather we encourage a mindset of health at any size, which leads to higher enjoyment of our food and meals as well as a myriad of health benefits. This method is actually more sustainable in the long term because we’re creating healthy habits that will stick with us over time and any weight loss we experience will stick with us because we’re helping our body to find and maintain its natural size.
Intuitive eating isn’t about attempting to make giant unsustainable changes that we’ll ditch in a short amount of time before reverting back to our pre-diet weight, it’s about finding what works for us and sticking to it. I think it took me about a six months to get into a rhythm and recognize what foods worked for me while getting in touch with this inner voice, that told me when to stop eating.
How foods affect our mind and mood
Before we even bring the fork to our mouth our food is having an effect on our moods. We’ve all experienced being hungry, right? When you’re so hungry you feel like you’re about to morph into the Incredible Hulk and start smashing up New York City. Alternatively we’ve felt the soothing feeling that can come with comfort food when we’re feeling a bit like crap. Heck, even just writing the words chocolate cake can turn me into the happy heart-eyed emoji, and that was just a bunch of letters on the screen.
Eating habits and emotions are linked, with our mood affecting our eating choices and vice versa. That’s why it is easier to commit to a healthier meal when we’re already feeling good and why pigging out on saturated fats can make us irritable afterwards.
Our bodies thrive when they’re getting the right combination of nutrients and a poor diet with high levels of saturated fats, sodium and higher calories can lead to negative moods for days afterwards. Basically getting a case of the grumps after pigging out on unhealthy foods is your bodies way of yelling, “Hey! Maybe eat some vegetables next time!”
One of the biggest obstacles we face when trying to change our mindset around food is dealing with cravings. Generally it can feel as though we’re craving chocolate like crack when we’re on a diet because we’re thinking about the fact that we’re restricting it - and if that’s the case then having a small amount of chocolate can squash that craving right down. Our minds are powerful and once a neural pathway is set, it will fire at the site of a tiny M&M! BEWARE!
If you’re still feeling like you’re about to go all Cookie Monster on that chocolate bar then you need to look at the root of your cravings. Studies have shown that people who experience intense cravings often have feelings of boredom and anxiety throughout the day. To be able to truly change our mindset we need to look at the root of our feelings around food.
What foods help us
Your brain and your stomach are connected through your vagus nerve which runs from your brain stem down to your abdomen, which means that our diet can affect the release of different hormones in the brain and can be linked to conditions such as depression, anxiety and poor concentration.
Eating a balanced diet is the ultimate way to help regulate your moods and also helps to avoid the dreaded 3pm energy drop (and unhealthy candybar break) by regulating bodily functions such as the release of energy stores.
By eating the right foods for our body every day we’re helping to keep it functioning at its highest level, from the physical reactions to our emotional state. Eating foods with high levels of protein such as organic eggs, cheese or almonds can help to keep our blood sugar levels steady which leads to enhanced energy and moods, while avocados are not only full of important vitamins, but also help boost the levels of dopamine in your body which is that feel-good chemical released in your brain and I don’t know about you, but I NEED more of that one!
Eating foods high in antioxidants such as blueberries and blackberries can help your brain to create dopamine, which is also important for things like coordination and memory. For those of us who can’t live without our morning cup of coffee then we’re in luck because coffee has been shown to trigger a number of positive reactions in your body that leaves you with a general sense of wellbeing and helps to fight depression.
While we might talk about wanting to avoid chocolate, if you’re reaching for good quality dark chocolate then it actually helps to produce a compound known as anandamide, a neurotransmitter in the brain that blocks feelings of pain and anxiety. The trick is not eating all the chocolate every time.
We can’t talk about how food affects our mood without looking at some of the negative triggers such as sugar, gluten and processed foods. These three things are known to block the production of serotonin and force fluctuations in your blood sugar levels with has a detrimental effect on your mood. So avoid as much as humanly possible! I’m actually go one step further and beg you to take them out of your daily plan, seriously, they’re simply made to wreak havoc on your life! Toss it out, all of it.
How to be more mindful
While making note of what we’re eating as well as the reasons why can be helpful when we’re trying to break away from our bad dieting habits, being mindful about how and what we eat doesn’t necessarily have to involve writing down every calorie we consume and beating ourselves up about it.
Instead we just need to start paying attention to our eating habits and making small sustainable changes as necessary. If you notice that you feel slow, sluggish and bloated after having a burger and fries for lunch then that’s a sign from your body that you probably shouldn’t be eating that. I’m not saying we can never have a burger again, just maybe not every day.
Here’s the deal, if you’re feeling stressed throughout the day and come home craving all the chocolate in the world, then you might need to look into alternative methods for dealing with stress and anxiety such as yoga or meditation. Don’t think that this is a death sentence, I’m just here politely guiding and directing you to feeling better. I know how it feels to be a slave to my tastebuds and crave a bag of salty chips and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, I also know that when I’m in the middle of a food coma I’m simply useless. I don’t wish that upon anyone!
These little tips can help us to become more mindful about our eating habits:
I’ve been known to eat my lunch at my desk with one hand on the mouse and my mind on my work and often I’ll finish my lunch without even realizing it, not good! Take the time to eat your meal without any (other) distractions. Not only will you be able to actually enjoy the tastes and textures (which is what makes eating so great afterall!) but you’ll be more aware of when you become full and will be able to stop eating.
Often we’ll shovel our food into our mouth so quickly by the time we realize we’re full we’ve already eaten too much. Slow down, savour your meal and listen to what your body is telling you.
If you know that you always get hungry at around 3pm no matter what you eat then prepare for that rather than running to the vending machine. I like to make up a bunch of little snack packs at the start of the week with nuts, seeds and dried fruits and pop them in my bag, car and desk so that I can get a healthy little snack whenever hunger strikes.
Mindful eating is all about listening to our body, so after we eat we should take a moment to reflect on how we feel (emotionally and physically) and why we ate in the first place. Reflection was how I was able to see all my own health issues and find a way to work through them, it works!
Don’t beat yourself up
Being healthy isn’t a competition or an “all-or-nothing” situation. Indulging isn’t the worst thing in the world and as long as we keep reflecting on how these jumps off the wagon make us feel, then we’ll still be able to cement our healthy habits going forward.
You’ve got this!
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