We've all been there – feeling guilty or ashamed after eating something yummy. And let’s face it, chances are it’s happened quite a few times over the past week what with all those leftover mince pies and tempting trifles that tend to cross our paths this time of year.
If you indulged as many of us do during the festive season but felt seriously guilty afterwards, you probably have an unhealthy relationship with food. And unless you fix that relationship, eating is always going to be a battleground – an arena where food is pitted against your willpower, experts say.
But it doesn’t have to be that way and you can change the way you think about food. The good news is this new way of thinking, called mindful eating, will make losing unwanted kilos and keeping them off much easier.
Eating mindfully means being aware of how and why we eat, says Cape Town psychologist Dr Annelie van Breda. Get that right and the rest falls into place. “Food doesn’t get into your mouth on its own and it doesn’t possess magical powers,” she says. “As soon as you realise you’re food’s boss and that food isn’t your boss, eating healthily becomes much easier.” The secret of mindful eating, she says, is to regardeating as a natural bodily process, almost like going to the bathroom. “Listen to your body’s needs – eat when you’re hungry and only until you’re full. Don’t eat because you’re bored or unhappy or because you’re visiting someone.”
Why we struggle to say no
The problem is there’s a chemical relationship between food and happiness, Dr Van Breda says.
Sugar makes it particularly tricky. When you eat food containing lots of sugar your blood-sugar level suddenly rises and your body releases the feel-good hormone serotonin. This is why certain foods – chocolate, cakes, pastries, chips – are referred to as comfort food. “It really does make you feel happier – but only for a little while,” she says. “Some time after eating this food your blood sugar drops just as suddenly as it shot up and you’re left feeling hungry again. It’s the same with drugs – your body enjoys the sensation, even if it lasts only a short time. “But if you give in to temptation every time and satisfy your body’s craving, the temptation will return time and time again – and every time it will take a little more of the unhealthy food to satisfy your body.”
How to start thinking differently about food
The first step to eating mindfully is to understand the main purpose of food is to provide your body with energy and strength.
Like sleeping or going to the bathroom, it’s a natural bodily process. Don’t give food more power than that. You don’t go to the bathroom if you don’t need to, so don’t eat if you’re not hungry.
Acknowledge you’re in control of what you eat. You’re not helpless in the face of food – take responsibility for what you put in your mouth. Only you can choose healthy food that will nourish your body or unhealthy food that will leave you feeling sluggish and bloated.
There’s no denying eating is about pleasure as well as satisfying hunger, and eating mindfully doesn’t mean not enjoying food. Quite the opposite in fact – when you eat mindfully, taking pleasure in what you’re eating is key. It’s also important to realise losing weight won’t put an end to your problems. You may have a better self-image but you won’t necessarily feel happier or have fewer personal problems. Learn to separate your weight from your problems. And make peace with and understand your body type. This doesn’t mean accepting you’re destined to be overweight – you can be pear-shaped and still be a healthy weight.
Making the changeOnce you’ve begun to think differently about food, lifestyle changes will be easier to make, Dr Van Breda says. To understand your eating patterns make a note of what you eat every day in a journal. Once you’ve done this for two weeks you’ll notice if you tend to cheat, when and with what. You may find you’re snacking before supper – fix this by eating more at lunch so you’re not so hungry in the afternoon or eat a healthy mid-afternoon snack. Or if you find you often intend to eat just one cookie a day but then end up eating the whole box, stop buying cookies.
Some mindful eating guidelines
- Eat only when you’re hungry. Before you open the fridge ask yourself why you want to eat. Eat only if you’re certain you’re hungry and not simply bored or feeling stressed. Let the question “Am I hungry?” become your mantra.
- If you feel hungry, drink water. Our bodies sometimes confuse hunger with thirst. If you’re hungry 15 minutes after drinking a glass of water, eat something.
- Wait for 20 minutes before having a second helping – that’s how long it takes your body to realise it’s satisfied.
- You’ll eat less if you take the time to truly experience your food. Eat slowly, put down your knife and fork after each mouthful, chew your food properly and enjoy the flavours.
- Eat from a plate at a table, not in front of the TV, in the car or when you’re busy. This will prevent mindless snacking.
- Don’t weigh yourself – the scale doesn’t tell you how healthy you are. Weight is relative. You can weigh 70 kg and be in fine shape or you can weigh 70 kg and be overweight – it depends on your body type, height and how muscular you are. Rather use how you feel and how your clothes fit as a yardstick.
- If you’re an emotional eater find other ways of comforting yourself. Exercise is a healthy way to relieve stress, as are hobbies.
- Don’t reward yourself with food either. Instead of treating yourself with a piece of cake for something, reward yourself with clothes or a pamper session.
- Don’t force your children to finish all the food on their plates if they don’t feel like it. It’s an unhealthy habit to learn. Teach kids from an early age to stop eating when they’re full.
It’s natural to crave something unhealthy every now and then, Dr Van Breda says – especially because there’s no end to the temptations around us. The trick is to do it right.
- Cheat with quality. If you feel like something sweet, buy good-quality dark chocolate and have just one or two blocks. Or wait until you eat out again and order your favourite dessert – you’ll appreciate it more.
- Never eat with an open packet beside you. Put a handful of crisps in a bowl or two biscuits on a plate and put the rest away.
- Don’t judge yourself. Enjoy the moment and don’t blame yourself afterwards.
- Take note about how you feel after cheating – you’ll probably feel hungry again within minutes