It appears I’ve had a rather weird relationship with food for much of my adult life. Nothing too extreme, but definitely inappropriate and unbalanced. And why do I even think of it in terms of a ‘relationship’? Food is just food, after all – why would it loom so large on my emotional landscape? Why do I consider some of my favourite foods ‘bad’? I am (supposedly) relatively intelligent, I have access to all the latest information about healthy nutrition, so why would I continue to eat too much, or eat the ‘wrong’ things, or at the ‘wrong’ times? And then feel guilty about it! Seems crazy, but what can you do?
Well, experts suggest that the first step in addressing such issues is a food diary. The most effective approach is to use a good old-fashioned notebook and pen, and to write down what, when, how and why you eat over a period of at least a week. It goes (almost!) without saying that you need to keep it real – no-one other than you has to see it, and there would be no point in doing it at all if you were less than absolutely honest.
Note the time of eating and exactly what you eat or drink, including portion sizes. It’s ok to be relatively casual about this: a small bowl of popcorn, a handful of nuts, a mug of hot chocolate. Identify what else is going on in your life, to see whether your reasons for eating might have to do with emotions like anxiety, anger, boredom or sadness rather than straightforward hunger. Write down what you observed about your appetite and/ or cravings before you ate, and your feelings after eating. Finally, record the circumstances and what was going on at the time.
Then reflect on it. Think about who you were with and whether you were doing anything else while eating – were you driving? Watching TV? Getting ready for work? Did you eat hurriedly or calmly? Was it a positive or a negative eating experience? How are food and feelings connected for you? After a few days, you should begin to see the patterns emerging.
There’s no doubt that for many of us the strongest cravings happen when we’re at our lowest point emotionally, and that’s when we tend to use food for comfort. However, once you’ve identified your ‘triggers’, you‘ll be more conscious of this and you can look at healthier ways of coping with the underlying emotions. Physical activity can be helpful, as can immersing yourself in a creative project. Talk to a friend or give yourself a small (non-edible!) treat. Have a glass of water – if you’re craving sweetness, add a dash of fruit juice – or brush your teeth. At the very least, count to fifty before you give in to the craving so that indulgence becomes a conscious decision rather than a thoughtless gobble.
Providing your body with what it actually needs in terms of nutrition should help reduce cravings. Eat – in a balanced and moderate way – at least every three hours; this usually means three meals and two (carefully-chosen!) snacks. Don’t skip breakfast, as the first meal of the day gets your metabolism revved up to burn kilojoules, keeping your brain and body supplied with energy.
Trying to give up snacks altogether, say the experts, is unrealistic and unhelpful, likely to leave you feeling deprived and unsatisfied. Rather try to make healthy choices – if you’re craving something salty, try biltong or rice cakes instead of a packet of crisps; if you need a sweet treat, have a small piece of dark chocolate or a few frozen grapes. And if you slip up, forgive yourself and start again!
Once you’ve identified how food and feelings are connected for you, work on changing your relationship with food from an emotional to a physical one. In fact, try to eliminate all the ‘relationship’ words – ‘cheat’, ‘guilt’, ‘love’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – from your food vocabulary. Replace these judgement-laden emotionally-weighted words with the concept of ‘choice’, and remind yourself that you have the power to choose foods which support your health goals (or not, as the case may be).
Now that you’re more aware of how this whole food-thing works for you, try to eat consciously. If possible, eat only when you can sit down to do so, preferably at a table, and without any other distractions. Eat slowly – take a bite, then take a breath. Your grandmother wasn’t far wrong when she told you to chew every mouthful a hundred times! Give full attention to the sensory experience of eating; savour colours, smells, tastes, textures. Relish the deep delight of eating something delicious. If you’re sharing the meal with others, enjoy the conversation. Take your time. Be mindful.
And remember, your character and worth are measured by what you give to the world, not by what you put in your mouth. You are much, much more than what you eat!