Food takes the centre stage during the festive season. For many, this is an eagerly awaited time with moments of delight over shared meals. For some however, this season may be stressful. Food and drink may be used either as a celebratory treat or a form of self-medication for stress and anxiety.
To our primal instincts, food equals survival – that’s why so many of us form such a strong emotional connection with food. Making this relationship a positive one is a key step in healthy eating and sustained wellbeing. Ideally, we see meal times as an oasis of nourishment, free of haste and anxiety.
When we are relaxed and centred, we tend to make healthier food choices. We also digest our food better when we are calm, leading naturally to improved absorption of the life-giving nutrients. In a relaxed state, the body is also able to repair and rebuild itself, or to heal from a trauma or illness.
Even a five-star diet goes amiss if it is eaten in rush, or while in a highly stressed or anxious state. Symptoms like bloating, cramps, diarrhoea or constipation are amongst those signals, which indicate an unhappy relationship between food and our emotional state. While many things can contribute to these symptoms, how we eat is key for a health-promoting, symptom-free diet.
The following tips are more about how to eat than what to eat. Put in practice, they may reveal some sub-conscious patterns, so be mindful and aware of your realisations. Give these a go - they will cost you nothing, but you may gain an awful lot!
7 TIPS FOR HAPPY EATING
1. Eat when you’re Hungry for Food - not when you’re in need of mental stimulation, love or understanding
Before reaching for food, ask yourself; are you hungry, or are you eating because you’re bored, or want to soothe your feelings?
Hunger is not to be feared. It is your body’s natural signal to alert you to its need for energy and nutrients. When you’re hungry, eat a balanced, nutrient dense meal. Make it flavoursome and allow yourself to enjoy each bite. Savour it, and sense how it nourishes you.
Hunger is easily confused with the signal for thirst; to make sure you’re not mixing these two signals, enjoy a glass of water and wait for 10-15 minutes. If you are still hungry, enjoy a rewarding meal or a nutritious snack, which will tide you over until your next meal.
2. The Power of Perception and good Chewing
Digestion starts with us sensing the food; the sight and smell of the food starts the production of digestive juices in our mouth.
The production of gastric juices and digestive enzymes are further stimulated by the mechanical action of chewing; like puppet strings, the movement of our jaw provokes the stomach and the pancreas to prepare for the arrival of food.
Chewing is an under-appreciated but vital part of our digestion. Chew each mouthful until it is of toothpaste like consistency. Also chew your soups and smoothies; skipping this step is likely to give you digestive problems and reduce your body’s ability to absorb nutrients. Chewing also increases the time spent eating, allowing the signal of satiety to be generated and to reach our brain, reducing the risk of over-eating.
3. Stay Tuned: Gauge the effects of your meal
How do you feel after your meal? Does it energise you – or does it seem to send you into a coma, sapping your energy?
While post-meal symptoms like bloating, reflux, fatigue or a nondescript ‘below par’ feeling are common, they are not normal and may signal the body’s inability to deal with the food.
Stay alert to how different foods make you feel. Is there bloating that always seems to arise by the afternoon? Migraines that seem to follow certain meals or drinks? A lack of energy on days following a restaurant meal?
Look for patterns in times which have resulted in uncomfortable symptoms. Keep a food and symptom diary: this can really help in identifying patterns. If you can’t pinpoint the culprit yourself, turn to a nutritional or medical professional to resolve the issue.
4. Hydrate mainly Outside of Meals
As mentioned earlier, thirst is often mistaken for hunger. However, drinking large quantities during a meal may dilute the stomach acid, leading to suboptimal food digestion and disinfection, and the possibility of unwanted bacteria surviving the passage to the intestines.
Enjoy a large glass of water about half an hour before the meal. If you’re thirsty during a meal, enjoy a small amount of liquid, but aim to drink a larger quantity again around one hour after your meal. By this time, your stomach acid has been mixed fully with the food in your stomach.
Keep your caffeine-containing drinks away from meals as the tannins in these drinks can reduce the absorption of minerals. Keep the amount of alcohol to a minimum – while a glass of wine may accentuate the flavours and the enjoyment of a meal, a few glasses are sure to dampen your taste buds and reduce your body’s ability to digest your food.
5. Build Rhythm
Our bodies love rhythm. Aim to build rhythm into your life by rising at the same time and – if possible – going to bed around the same time most nights. Note your rhythm may change together with the seasons and according to the availability of light.
Having found your rhythm, you may also find that you get hungry around the same time during the day. This may also help you clear time for a meal; do allow yourself a minimum of 20 minutes of peaceful time to enjoy your food, dedicated to eating in a relaxed environment. The body adapts to rhythm quickly, and will most likely tell you it’s lunch-a-clock even if you have not seen the time.
Try to enjoy your evening meal a minimum of three hours before bedtime, leaving enough time for your digestive track to rest during the night. Take a look at your social calendar and prioritise your need for sleep and rest; a lack of sleep increases chronically raised cortisol levels, promoting obesity and premature ageing.
6. Out of sight - Out of Mind
For weight management, subconscious or unaware eating is a big component. As humans we respond to visual and other sensory stimulation ever so readily – something the marketing professionals know only too well.
One of the most effective tips for reducing uncalled-for snacking is to not have snacks or other foods out where you can see them. Pack foods away directly after a meal to stop after meal ‘picking’ and do not have fruit baskets, biscuit tins or other snacks openly available.
Better still, don’t buy products that you know you’re tempted by; an impulse is better resisted when it requires a journey out into the cold winter-air!
7. Consider Food as a friend
Establishing a positive, nurturing relationship with eating enhances not only our emotional wellbeing, but also our digestive capacity.
Guilt, shame and self-depreciation are not good meal company, and so the aim is to change these to selected guests of gratitude and enjoyment. Food is the basis of our existence – therefore a positive, nourishing relationship with it serves us well throughout our entire lifetime.
Rules of friendship apply to food. Some foods are occasional acquaintances, but their company is not good for us on a regular basis. Other foods can be the very foundations of our wellbeing – we can safely rely on them and their positive contributions. These are the foods we want to ‘meet’ on a daily basis.
Keep your foods, like your friendships, natural, real and wholesome - not fake and eventually, damaging.