Eating “well” has become such a hot topic, and may leave us feeling guilty or ashamed if we’re not doing it “perfectly”, according to an external standard. A positive relationship with food however, promotes enjoyment, compassion and longevity. Read on for tips to reduce stress around meals.
1. Understand that calories are life sustaining and nothing to fear!
We need calories (units of energy) every single day so that we’re able to perform all tasks in our daily lives. So why are calories something that diet culture has created stress around? We live in a culture where dieting has become the norm, and this culture has somehow made some people fearful of the very thing that keeps us alive!
If you’re in the habit of tracking your calories and feeling as though you need to “earn” food, how do you feel when you eat more calories than you were “allowed” for the day? Just get curious. Do you feel neutral? Do you feel guilty? Just a friendly reminder that food and the eating experience are not guilt imposing experiences; we’re not meant to feel guilty from eating. And if you feel you need some support or could benefit from a deeper discussion around this, please reach out – support exists.
In my work with clients as a nutritionist, the general consensus is that when they go over their daily calorie allowance, they feel guilty or as if they have “failed”. Food is not a pass or fail topic!
It’s normal to eat more on some days than others. We’re not computers and it’s impossible to know from an external source exactly how much food we need to consume each day to operate optimally. Sure – you might’ve figured out a general day of eating on a plate that leaves you feeling your best. You might’ve plugged in this exact amount of calories into an app like MyFitnessPal and stuck with that number like gospel. But your physical activity levels, hormones, taste preferences, life events, sleep patterns (and so on!) change every single day. Our energy needs therefore are fluid. So build some trust with your body and its inherent food calculator – aka your hunger cues!
Our hunger cues are not something to try and trick. Hunger cues exist with the exact purpose to inform us that it’s time to refuel!
If you often lean on calorie tracking devices to help you eat, would you be open to trying this little challenge? Pick one day this week – rather than tracking everything you eat, try simply listening to your hunger cues and eating when they signal (can occur as thoughts about food, tummy rumbling, fatigue, sleepiness, drop in energy + so much more, it will be unique to you and your body). This will likely involve still loosely planning what your day would look like – for example, 3 meals and 2-3 snacks in between – but also allow yourself the opportunity to eat without tracking your food, weighing food or trying to control portion size. Try to remove the rigidity around meal times and sizes, and just see how you go! Remove that pressure from yourself to get it “right”. There is no right or wrong when it comes to food and the eating experience (which may be different to messages you’ve received or internalised before).
2. Understand that there are no “good” or “bad” foods.
We all know there are foods that are traditionally powerhouses of nourishment for our bodies (e.g. think of our macronutrients (macro meaning “big”) aka carbohydrates, proteins, & fats & micronutrients (micro meaning “small” such as those that occur in many vegetables and fruits), and there are foods that we might like to eat; plain and simply because they’re delicious or something we are craving in that moment. Remember that all food has nutrition, because all food has calories, and calories are nutritious; they keep us alive.
Just because a food is less macro or micro nutrient dense than another, doesn’t mean it is inherently bad for you. It would be the same as saying that certain hobbies are deemed “better” than others – for example perhaps reading an educational book would be considered more “productive” than lounging on the couch all day and bingeing a reality TV show; or going for a walk versus going to the pub to have a few beers with your friends – but remember, too, that there are so many factors that contribute to health, outside of nutrition.
Having a lazy day on the couch just might be the exact thing your busy mind is needing. Just as the social aspect of dinner and/or drinks at the pub with friends can actually be so great for your social and mental health. Same goes for nutrition – sometimes we eat to satisfy a need that isn’t based on physical hunger or “health”; and yet this can still contribute to improving your wellbeing. We can eat food in celebration, to soothe emotions, to feel comforted, to share an experience while we socialise, or simply because we feel like it! Which leads me to my next point.
3. Eat foods that you actually find satisfying.
Please don’t look past the importance of satisfaction when creating meals! It’s so easy to get swept up in the messages of diet culture that tell us to avoid so many foods whilst glorifying others. When we create meals that we genuinely find satisfying, we heighten the chances of having a satisfied, connected, and attuned eating experience, and lessen the chances of having a stressful eating experience.
Rather than forcing yourself to eat certain foods, try building your meals starting with foods that you really enjoy and want to eat. From there, you can start adding in nourishing ingredients based on what feels good to you. If you’re not sure what this might entail, you can always reach out to us to learn more.
Food satisfaction is highly individualised and ever-changing. Different meals will satisfy you at different times! Some examples of the endless possibilities are:
- Maybe you find oats satisfying on cold winter mornings – but not during the warm mornings of summer (Weather)
- Maybe you love soup – but only when paired with toppings with a crunch or toasted bread and butter on the side! (Texture)
- Maybe you never enjoy soup, yet individually love all of the ingredients you’d find in a tomato soup (Consistency/food preparation)
- Maybe you love sweet foods for breakfast, or maybe you’re not satisfied unless your meal is savoury. Likewise, perhaps a meal needs to be hot for you, or requires the use of a knife and fork rather than your hands (Temperature/preference/texture).
Your satisfaction preferences don’t need to make sense to anyone but you!
4. Give yourself compassion to not always get it right.
The funny thing about eating is that it’s something you have to do numerous times a day, everyday, for the rest of your life! So have fun with it. Reduce your stress around meals and know that if you eat a particular meal that leaves you feeling a bit icky or lethargic, remember that digestion will always take its course. Even when you have had or have an uncomfortable overeating experience – this feeling will pass within a few hours. Have you ever noticed that?
Take a mental note of how that meal made you feel and how you approached eating it..
- Were you ravenous?
- Were you on the go?
- Were you distracted while eating?
- Did you eat something unsatisfying due to lack of access? Or just bad timing?
- Did you feel pleasantly full when you finished the meal?
- Did you feel sickly full?
- Did you enjoy the meal? Was it disappointing?
Now that you’ve reflected on the meal, what can you do with this information? Rather than beat yourself up if you didn’t get it “right”, try storing this information for next time.
Guilt and shame aren’t meant to be part of the eating experience. If you experience these emotions around food and eating, please know that support exists for you, and we can assist where possible, or put you in the direction of those who can. Sometimes, our meals aren’t amazing, that’s okay. Remember that you’ll probably be eating within the next 3-5 hours and can try again! Every eating experience is an opportunity to learn something new.
There is no right or wrong way to eat! Please know that I am in no way passing any judgement if you do something outside of what the above recommends or touches on. Whatever works for you – great! I have offered these suggestions as somebody who personally obsessed over calories and ingredients earlier in life, to the point that it completely took over my being. I know how common it is to feel completely confused and overwhelmed about food.
I hope that the suggestions above might help you feel more relaxed when approaching eating. The most important take home message is that you need to eat every day for the rest of your life, so make it enjoyable!
P.s. All information provided in this blog is derived from a framework called “Intuitive Eating”, which is a comprehensive evidence based framework. This is a very small snapshot into 1 component of the framework, there is so much more to building a comfortable relationship with food. There is a book by the same name co-written by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. It’s an incredibly validating book for anyone who has had a challenging relationship with food or your body. https://read.macmillan.com/lp/intuitive-eating-4th-edition/