When you were sick as a child, did a parent or grandparent make you chicken soup?
On holidays, do you share a big meal made from traditional family recipes?
When you are stressed, worried or sad, do you eat differently than when you are feeling well?
All of us have habits and traditions that involve the foods we eat—what types, how much, in what settings. Some may contribute to our health and others may not, but most of them are intertwined with our emotions, our past experiences and our connections with others.
When thinking about your diet, contemplate the role it plays in your life, and how you feel about different foods.
Consider adopting a holistic view of nourishment: that of feeding your body, mind and spirit with the choices you make and the attention you pay to food selections, preparation and consumption. Such an approach offers a means of cultivating a more integrated form of wellness and sense of well-being.
Viewed in this way, eating is an ever-present opportunity to not only nourish our physical health, but to generate greater awareness, more positive emotions, habits and interactions. In short, it becomes a broader tool of life enhancement.
Research has shown time and time again that our diets influence our health. Often those reports are framed as warnings:
- Processed foods lead to chronic illness
- Too much sugar is harmful
- Deli meats and bacon can cause cancer
And typical “diets” have you counting calories, grams and ounces; counting and measuring servings; and eliminating or allowing certain foods. Whole foods are sometimes replaced by nutrients in capsule form or blended into liquid “meals.”
Expensive, short-lived diets and abandoned resolutions tell us that fixating on numbers is not an effective, lasting approach to eating. Instead, a holistic concept of nourishment means focusing on habits that support joy, connection and health. We have to like what we are doing for it to be sustainable. And why shouldn’t we enjoy food?
So how do we shift from unhealthy and reactive eating patterns and begin to improve our habits, routines and relationships to food?
Explore your patterns. Take an honest look at your current habits. Maybe every Sunday dinner looks like an overloaded Thanksgiving table; maybe you serve sugary desserts after every meal, or use food as a reward; maybe you eat while working at your desk, or snack late into the evening.
Consider what you are eating, when you are eating it…and why you are eating it. Are you truly hungry, or just bored? Do you feel satisfied or guilty and groggy after gobbling donuts in the break room?
Change begins here, with awareness.
Explore your options. Tap into the concept of mindfulness. With mindfulness, we are invited to slow down, take deep breaths. This focus on breathing offers an ever-present way of calming and centering ourselves—a reset tool that allows us to connect with our senses. For many, this pause may open into a sense of gratitude or giving thanks. We are asked to pay more attention as we choose, prepare and savor our food—the tastes, smells and textures—which can minimize mindless selections and overeating.
Consider new routines and rituals that you could create, alone or with your family. What else might change if you adjusted your approach to food? Your family may bristle at the idea of replacing buttery mashed potatoes and gravy with a hearty green salad or replacing dessert with an after-dinner walk in the neighborhood. You may feel less productive at work if you leave your desk to eat outside or in the break room.
But those kinds of changes can have a deeper value and meaning. An after-dinner walk is not just a substitution for dessert; it is an opportunity to get outside, feel the crisp air, notice the changing light or budding leaves, bond with family members or connect with neighbors. Eating mindfully at a table instead of while working or watching TV allows us to appreciate food more fully. Brewing and sipping a cup of hot tea rather than slurping a soda is a simple way to integrate contemplative moments into the day.
Creating a healthier relationship to food is not about adopting another new diet to replace the old. It’s not about eliminating all of our routines, comfort foods and family traditions, but considering which serve us well and which do not. It is the development of a more conscious approach toward our food choices and associated behaviors, and making gradual shifts and improvements. It involves a more global view of nutrition as foundational to health, wellness and a sense of well-being—a means of cultivating deeper engagement and pleasure in our lives and the world around us.
Angela Charlton, R.D.-N., is a health educator with Carilion Clinic Community Health and Outreach.