Nutrition

How to develop healthy eating habits

By: Josephine Matyas

Photography by ©iStockphoto.com/vgajic Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography by ©iStockphoto.com/vgajic

Nutrition

How to develop healthy eating habits

By: Josephine Matyas

I like to eat. No, let's make that love to eat. Yet how many times did I munch away on autopilot, then suddenly look down to find an empty bowl where there was once one overflowing with buttery popcorn? I would have almost no memory of the taste, the texture, the pleasure of eating.

There were times I shoved a second forkful in before even swallowing the first, totally missing out on enjoying the flavours. The result? I saw numbers on the scale that scared me. I spent time creating delicious dishes but zipped through the actual dinner. (What did that wonderful casserole actually taste like?)

I invested time and hard-earned money at the grocery store and in the kitchen. But I couldn't help but notice that I was feeling disconnected from the food I was eating. I found a solution in the ancient Buddhist practice of mindfulness.

What is mindful eating?
Mindful eating is about quieting your mind and learning to check in with your thoughts and bodily cues. It's not a diet; it's a skill anyone can learn. And by cultivating
mindfulness, you bring about lasting change from the inside. Mindful eating fosters a healthy, healing, wholesome and balanced relationship with food.

According to Dr. Devon Christie, an integrative physician with Connect Health in Vancouver, "Mindful eating is much more about coming back to your own body and your inner wisdom. It empowers people to really listen to this rather than looking to external messages about food and eating."

Learning to listen to yourself
Awareness is key to mindfulness. Mindful eating involves being present in the moment with all of its experiences. Through this, you learn what it feels like to be hungry, satisfied and full. It's about tasting and savouring the food you are eating – one satisfying bite at a time.

And it's about checking in with your brain and stomach, and asking if your body needs this food, why you are eating it and how are you feeling when you eat it.

Why we eat, when we eat, how we eat
When your relationship with food is out of whack, life can be an emotional quagmire of binge eating, constant dieting and bouncing back and forth between fasting and feasting. Mindful eating has the potential to free us from these dangerous patterns. It offers a shift toward health by restoring a sense of balance and enjoyment regarding food.

"In Western culture, we have a difficult relationship with food," says Christie. "Studies show about five to 15 percent of the population has disordered eating patterns. The media portrays a ‘perfect' body image and shape, creating external criteria by which many judge themselves. We're also bombarded with messages to consume supersize meals. For optimal health, it is more important to focus on fitness and feeling good."

In many cases, powerful emotions are what drive us to eat: We feed our hearts with comfort foods to gloss over painful memories, fear and loneliness. "Sometimes we turn to comfort foods to feed ‘heart hunger,'" explains Christie.

"Mindful eating practices help you get in touch with your needs and emotions at the moment, uncovering subconscious thoughts and patterns about food and your eating habits."

Recognizing cues and triggers
There are several kinds of emotional eating patterns. Do any of these sound familiar?
• Mindless eating, where you zone out and eat on autopilot.
• Overeating, which might be triggered when you are lonely, stressed, anxious or sad.
• Self-soothing with food to help disguise uncomfortable feelings and inner voices.

Mindful eating helps us look beyond what we are craving and understand why we are craving. When we turn to comfort foods (mine are potato latkes), we're attempting to fill holes in our hearts, not in our stomachs. We crave these foods because they can have powerful effects on our moods; they make us feel loved and cared for.

By becoming aware of the eating patterns and habits we have developed, we can unlock the situations and emotions that trigger them. Mindful eating courses and counselling can be powerful tools to help this process.

Developing a healthy mindset
"Canadians eat while they are distracted," says Leslie Beck, registered dietitian, regular
contributor to The Globe and Mail and author of 10 Steps to Healthy Eating (Penguin Group, 2008).

"They're checking their inboxes, driving their cars, talking on their phones. This causes people to eat quickly and consume additional calories, which could lead to weight gain."

Beck points out how important it is to be in an environment that allows you to eat with awareness, without distractions and without wolfing food down. "People who eat quickly and eat until they are full are three times more likely to be overweight."

Beck counsels her clients to learn how to assess their hunger levels and to listen to the cues their own bodies are sending. "Check in to determine how hungry you feel before, during and after a meal," she says. "Doing so helps you stop eating when you feel satisfied, not full."

Gaining freedom from automatic behaviour is the healthy way to go. Christie and Beck both say it takes concentration, focus and persistence. Eating quickly and mindlessly is a
habit many people have had for years. Mindful eating can help you develop a healthy balance – avoiding the extremes of rigid control and constant indulgence.

Get more healthy eating help at The Mindfulness Clinic in Toronto and Connect Health Centre in Vancouver.
Practical tips to get started
• Try a basic mindfulness practice. Sit down, be still and quiet, and observe your thoughts.
• Eat without distractions. Turn off your cellphone, computer, TV and radio.
• Focus on the delicious food in front of you. When you quiet your mind and pay attention, you'll savour the flavours and textures.
• Slow down and chew your food (15 to 30 chews per mouthful). Really taste each bite.
• Put your fork and knife down between bites or try eating with chopsticks.
• Take a moderate first serving. If you want seconds, ask yourself why: Is it hunger or habit?
• Stop eating when you feel two-thirds full. Learn how to recognize the feeling of satiety.
• Aim to have sit-down meals with your family.
• Set a nice table with candles, flowers and pretty cloth napkins.
• Practise gratitude: Thank the cook before eating.
• Try mindful substitutions to deal with cravings. Want a chocolate bar? Try a single square of dark chocolate instead and savour the rich flavour while you eat it.
• Plant a garden or a pot of herbs to help you connect with your food.
• Teach your children to eat slowly and with attention.

Dieting vs. mindful eating
According to Dr. Devon Christie, an integrative physician with Connect Health in Vancouver, mindful eating addresses body image challenges through a healthy lens. Consider these differences.

Dieting
This is a temporary fix with a 95 percent relapse rate. It often involves deprivation, guilt, shame and distrust of one's self. It requires you to suppress internal cues such
as hunger and satiety. There is a focus on food and external rules.

Mindful eating
This is an enduring change that can be associated with acceptance, joy and building
trust. It requires you to engage your internal cues. There is a focus on food quality and
internal wisdom.



This story was originally titled "The Hunger Game" in the November 2012 issue.

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Nutrition

How to develop healthy eating habits