It Doesn't Really Matter What You Eat
It doesn't really matter what you eat. Does that sound crazy? It probably does, and it probably sounds even stranger coming from a registered dietitian.
I care about healthy eating. I care about providing nourishing foods to my family and myself. I care about working with others to make improvements with their nutrition. This is a huge part of my life so of course it's important to me!
But, you can have too much of a good thing. You can die from drinking too much water, and you definitely won't die from eating a piece of chocolate cake (unless you happy to have a severe allergy to an ingredient in chocolate cake). There's more to nutrition than the what of eating. And, only talking about the what of eating doesn't really get to the crux of what's going on when a person is struggling with food.
Before a person can really look at the what of eating, it's necessary to explore the how, why, when, where, and with whom of eating. The fine-tuning of the what of eating usually comes last and in the Intuitive Eating framework, this is called gentle nutrition. Gentle nutrition is the last principle of intuitive eating for a reason: healing your relationship with food and exploring the other elements of your approach to food come first.
So let's explore this a littler deeper. Let's look at how to explore the how, why, when and where with food.
Are you eating on the go? Standing up in your kitchen? With the pantry door open hiding inside from your kids? Okay, I do all those things too. They happen and they're not the end of the world. However, can you make efforts to sit down and eat your meal in a peaceful environment whenever possible? Prioritizing your meals and snacks in your day, taking a break and pause from the other demands of life, can make a big difference in your ability to connect with your food and your body while eating. Try it!
Are you skimping on your meals all throughout the day and then surprised when you're ravenously starving at the end of the day? Looking at the when of eating can be really helpful. Not in the rigid, watch-the-clock-for-permission-to-eat type of way, but from a place of trying to spread out your eating semi-equally throughout the beginning, middle and end of your day. Not only does that improve energy levels, but often also helps your hunger feel consistent, reliable and understandable.
A very general, loose rule of thumb is that most people do best eating at least 4-5 times per day. A good place to start is have general windows of time where you typically eat breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Then, within those windows of *non-negotiable meal times, you're able to ask yourself: how hungry am I?
This is one of the biggest questions to begin to build awareness with your food. Why are you choosing what you're choosing? Are your food decisions rooted in restriction, punishment and fear? Or, are your food choices rooted in values that resonate with your authentic self: a sense of gentle balance, foods you know make you feel great, foods that are pleasurable, and/or help your body function optimally?
Practicing mindfulness and building awareness in understanding the inner workings of your mind is a critical way to begin to understand your why behind your food choices. You don't need to obsess over this and it won't happen all in one day. But, starting to recognize and think through your reasons behind your food choices can help you recognize when you might be engaging in unhelpful dieting mentality versus in productive and positive self-care.
How we eat can make a big difference in our ability to connect to our food and enjoy it. In general, it's nice to try to carve out some time to put food on a plate and to sit down to eat. This doesn't need to be a hard and fast rule, but it can be helpful in aiding your mind and body to recognize the food you're eating as a full, satisfying meal. You can eat the same exact things in a grazing style that you might eat in a meal and feel completely different after the two different events. Consider how you're eating now and see if making a few changes to sit down, eat in a peaceful environment, and/or to eat a bit slower might be helpful for you in your particular situation with food.
The With Whom
Let's face it: eating with other people is far more enjoyable than eating alone! We can't always eat with our loved ones, but when possible, it's great to look at who you're eating with and surrounding yourself with. Is there room for more socializing and more social eating in your life? It might help you enjoy your food more and connect with it better. Or, for others, sometimes a quiet meal alone is exactly what's needed in a busy, demanding, people-centered career/life.
There's nuance with all of these ideas. For some people, exploring the what of nutrition might be incredibly helpful as a first step. I'm not discounting anyone's process here. What I'm really trying to get at is that we often approach nutrition from the perspective of "what should I be eating?" and more often than not, that question becomes clearer and easier to explore once you've looked at your eating from other angles.
If you're ready for the gentle nutrition part of intuitive eating, check out the Positive Nutrition 101 online course.
* I say non-negotiable meal times because I find that when people leave meal times as maybe something they do, more often than not, they skip or postpone the meal, leaving them so hungry and fatigued that typically the next meal is difficult. When meals and snacks are just a regular, consistent, planned part of your day, it tends to be easier to trust that the food isn't scarce and that you can always eat again if and when meals/snacks don't satisfy you completely and/or fall short in one way or another.