Most of us recognise the signs of a troubled relationship with food. People talk about eating in a reactionary way, framing food as a treat or reward if they are having a tough time emotionally, eating to join in when at social events or grabbing unhealthy food when on the run and convincing ourselves we’re too busy to take care of what we consume. Life has its ups and downs and I’m sure we have all done the above at some point or another. But facing up to the fact that food will only fulfil us if we nourish ourselves with the right amount of healthy, refuelling foods is the first step to greater wellbeing. It sounds complicated, but I’ve come up with some simple tips to make building a healthy relationship with food more accessible.
“It is possible for everyone to consistently experience food in a positive way, but to do so, we need to get real about our eating habits, emotional attachment to food, our knowledge of food groups,” says Nutritionist and PT Operations Manager Gavin Aquilina.
But to make a healthy mindset a reality, Australians need to completely reassess their relationship with food. Once purely serving the purpose to nourish, food has become a much trickier topic — especially when combined with complicated influences like socialising and body image.
“You need to adopt the ‘moderation is key’ mindset,” Gavin urges. “When people take on a diet, they are dealing with so much. Take the paleo diet for example - you need to learn the concept, foundation, the nutrients and how to get them, how to cook and prepare each meal - all while fighting the hormonal system that’s doing it’s best to you to eat the foods you’ve been trying to avoid.”
The hormonal and emotional response we encounter when making changes to our diet is a large contributor to why people find it tough to stick with healthier options. Highly-processed foods trigger our hormonal reward systems and promote the release of hormones such as serotonin and dopamine, so our bodies experience a positive emotional response when we eat foods considered as treats. In many cases, the dopamine rush is addictive, making the habit of reaching for junk food that much harder to break.
However, healthy and unprocessed foods don’t promote this hormonal reward system dopamine. A good rule of thumb is to make small, incremental adjustments to your eating plan, rather than drastically cutting your food intake and suffering from withdrawals and energy crashes.
Remember, it is possible to create healthy lifestyle that you want to maintain for life. Read on to discover Gavin’s simple tips for improving your relationship with food.
Practice mindful eating
The first step to become a mindful eater is to chew your food slowly and enjoy each flavour. Be sure to assess how you feel before, during and at different stages after you eat to keep track of your body’s reaction to the food. Let’s use cheesecake as an example. Before eating, you’ll probably be excited because cheesecake is sweet and delicious. As you eat, you’ll mostly likely continue to feel good because of the delectable flavour and your body’s hormonal response to the sugar. Perhaps you’ll still be savouring the taste a quarter of an hour later, and enjoying the sugar rush. But how will you feel an hour after eating it? What about a day later? Your dopamine rush will be gone and your sugar levels will have dropped, causing you to experience sluggishness, low energy and maybe even nausea. Is that really worth fifteen minutes of sugar-induced happiness?
Deprivation is not the answer
Depriving your body of food can quickly lead to a unhealthy mindset, and practicing deprivation regularly feeds your negative relationship with food. Starving yourself is not a practical approach to weight loss for a myriad of reasons, including the fact that it’s totally unsustainable.
“I’ve seen many clients who are extremely strict during the day, only to become ravenous at night,” Gavin says. “These clients wrongly blame it on their lack of willpower, when in fact it’s their hormones acting out because your body doesn’t feel nourished.”
Everything in moderation
If you are craving something unhealthy like a bag of chips, it’s important not to deny the craving - but don't let it control you either! Instead of sitting down with the whole bag, put a small amount in a bowl and stick to it. If you approach this treat with mindfulness, you will enjoy every bite and it won’t blow out your healthy eating plan. If you want more afterwards, take a minute and ask yourself if you want more because you’re hungry, or because you’re emotionally attached to the food? Changing your relationship with food doesn’t happen overnight, but as long as you continue to practice mindful eating and not let cravings control you, it will get easier.
Know when to eat
Timing matters, especially for those who have a goal to decrease their body fat percentage. Most people load the carbs onto their plate at night, whereas spreading them throughout the day is a much more balanced approach. When you consume a large amount of carbohydrates at night, you miss out on the chance to burn them off ahead of an extended period of rest. Carbohydrates support brain function, so don’t cut them out completely - consume them early in the day to help you stay alert and feel energetic for longer.
Recognise emotional hunger
For many people, learning the difference between physical and emotional hunger is a complex and personal journey. It also takes practice to get it right, so it’s important to be patient. Breaking the habit of emotional eating isn’t something you can do overnight, so be kind to yourself.
Know when to stop
When you introduce mindful eating into the equation, you’ll become increasingly aware of the difference between feeling comfortably full and sickly full.
“A lot of us a mindset that we need to finish everything on our plate - most likely drilled into us from childhood,” Gavin says. “But I’m now giving you permission to stop eating when you are 80 percent full.” Eating five small meals instead of three large ones is a great way to avoid feeling uncomfortably full, and spreading your macronutrient intake across five meals is also a great way to increase your metabolism. Caution with having 5 full meals instead of 5 smaller meals
Never skip breakfast
“You’ve heard it before and I’m saying it again now - breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” says Gavin. “Breakfast should be packed with protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats, because what you eat for breakfast can dictate the rest of your day - so make it a good one.”
Learn your labels
Learn to identify the difference between a snack and a treat. Choosing healthy snack options is something that many of my clients ask for help with - there can be anything from hidden carbohydrates to sugar masquerading under a different name. Once you learn how to correctly read nutritional labels, you’ll be able to more easily identify unhealthy foods and make better choices.
Don’t compare your plate to the person sitting next to you
Everyone’s body is unique and each one needs to be nourished in different ways. Focus on you and you alone - what does your body needs to function optimally and support the lifestyle you choose to live? While you may opt to have an afternoon snack at work while your colleague doesn’t, remember your metabolism and lifestyle are different. Eventually you will learn to stop worrying about other people’s intake and focus on improving your own personal relationship with food.
Ditch the IOUs
While it’s important to think about how much and the type of food you consume in a day, bargaining with yourself when you eat a bigger portion than usual is not the solution. If you allow yourself a treat you don’t usually have, that’s okay. The ongoing mental game of feeling guilty and constantly playing catch-up by restricting your food intake the following day - or extending your workout session to “compensate” - can result in unhealthy and unmaintainable habits, such as overtraining or skipping meals.
Know what you’re eating
“Take this with a grain of salt because it’s coming from a nutritionist, but nutrition truly is fascinating,” Gavin laughs. “When it comes to choosing the right foods, knowledge is power.” The different types of macronutrients we eat - carbohydrates, protein and fat - are all much-needed sources of energy for the body. Consuming all macronutrients you need in certain quantities will assist your body to function at an optimum level. Once you’ve learnt about macronutrients, you can explore micronutrients and how they assist bodily functions. Do your research!
While that was a lot of information to absorb, the main takeaway here is not to try and makeover your nutrition overnight - taking small steps towards consistently following a balanced food plan combined with a bit of knowledge about what you're putting inside your body will get you the results you’re looking for.