Achieving a Happy Balance
Updated: May 27, 2019
Obviously as a dietitian I believe that nutrition is a key element to good health. However you may be surprised to know that I love sweet foods and eat chocolate almost every day! You see, I’ve come to realise that health doesn’t mean perfection.
The world of nutrition coaching traditionally focuses on our broad understanding of foods that help or hinder our risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer. Dietary advice may also focus on symptom management in irritable bowel syndrome or be driven by a weight loss goal – if not pursued by a patient, then strongly encouraged by their doctor. And whilst there is no doubt that eating well does have positive impacts on our health, I have come to realise through my own experiences and the stories of many people seeking my support, that too often it is our relationship with food and our bodies that affects our health and well-being.
In my teens and early twenties, I was engrossed in the quest for perfection. I would cycle between exercising obsessively and purging (vomiting) regularly to get rid of the ‘bad’ or ‘excessive’ food that I ate. It was tiring, isolating & depressing. At 22 after 6 years of punishing myself, I asked for help, and a psychologist helped me to understand that perfection is an unrealistic goal. My quest for perfection had not only been unsuccessful, but had been at the expense of my mental health. My wellbeing had suffered greatly.
The World Health Organisation defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.
It is important to remember that food and dietary behaviours are strongly entwined with social connectedness, to include family meal-times, birthday parties, celebrations, and commiserations. Most of us cannot simply separate our eating behaviours from whats going on around us - our emotional, environmental and social contexts.
Mindful eating is a technique that can help us improve our food choices and eating habits in ways that suit our individual goal and situations.
Mindful eating and intuitive eating are relatively new concepts, however publications such as Evelyn Tribole’s Intuitive Eating have been around for almost 25 years. Mindful eating is an extension of mindfulness, and involves the quiet awareness of what we are eating and the senses involved – the tastes and flavours, smells, textures, and sounds we experience when eating.
We can also be mindful of how we feel physically before, during and after eating; what we think or feel during these different stages; and how our eating habits change in various emotional, physical and social environments. We may notice that when we feel upset, we reach for some chocolate which helps us to feel better momentarily, before the feelings return (often accompanied with some guilt). You might notice that you have a habitual habit of snacking in front of the tv - what food do you reach for and how does this make you feel - is it relaxing and enjoyable, do you enjoy it at the time and how do you feel afterwards?
In this way we can begin to understand why we make particular food choices. Mindfulness isn’t about critiquing our choices, but in understanding them from a place of curiosity and compassion. And of course, there may be behaviours that we wish to change. If we understand these behaviours and can approach behaviour change from a place of nourishment, it is a much more positive experience. We can choose to focus on how we can nourish our physical and mental health, rather that what we should or shouldn’t be doing and what rules we should be following. I am always amazed at how negative and critical our inner voices can be, and in my experience these negative voices don't go hand-in-hand with happiness and health.
So for now, I choose to enjoy chocolate every day! Sometimes I eat more than I mean to, or maybe I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had envisioned. And tomorrow I might make a different choice based on that experience – maybe I won’t eat chocolate, or maybe I will really savour that little bit of amazing Haigh’s chocolate that my daughter bought me for Mother’s Day.
The choice is mine!