There’s a fine line between thinking carefully about what we put into our bodies and obsessing over it or restricting it dangerously.
Whether our particular issue is emotional eating, binge eating, disordered eating or we just can’t seem to get a handle on the whole nutrition thing, we can all stand to learn a few things from the people for whom healthy eating just comes easily. Here are a few of the things they do differently.
1. People with a healthy relationship to food eat mindfully.
Our body has some pretty significant built-in cues to tell us when to eat — and when to stop eating. But we’re not always listening. The practice of engaging all of our senses to guide our eating-related decisions is called mindful eating, explains Megrette Fletcher, M.Ed., RD, CDE, co-founder and current president of the Center for Mindful Eating. Mindful eating can help us “acknowledge our response to food without getting into judgement,” she says.
2. They swear by everything — yes, everything — in moderation.
“No food is forbidden,” says Edward Abramson, Ph.D. a clinical psychologist and author of Emotional Eating. “Foods are not intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘bad.'” He tells an anecdote of a client who once told him French fries were the work of the devil — and it was not a joke. “French fries are just French fries,” he says. Morality attached to food may stem from the fact that some religions do have prohibitions when it comes to food, he says. Take, for example, how “some foods are described as sinfully delicious,” he says.
“It isn’t food that’s good or bad, it’s our experience,” says Fletcher. “And that’s not judging, it’s categorizing.” Recognizing foods and eating situations that you find pleasant can help inform your future choices, she says. People with a healthy relationship to food tell themselves, “‘Eating is a chance for me to nourish and nurture my being,'” she says, “as opposed to, ‘I have to eat this way or those foods.'”
3. But they know the timing has to be right.
However, if you do decide you’re in the mood for fries or pizza or chocolate, says Abramson, enjoy your pick at a time when you’re not hungry for a full meal, so you don’t overdo it. “If you’re starving and then you’re confronted with a favorite food, you’ll consume a lot more of it,” he says. “Let’s say, if you have it for dessert, you already had your meal, your tummy is full, you can really appreciate the sensations that chocolate provides.”
4. They eat when they’re physically hungry.
“Emotional eating is typically to soothe unpleasant emotional arousal,” says Abramson. Unfortunately, stress and anxiety often cause us to crave higher-calorie, fattier foods and “most of us don’t need additional caloric intake,” he says.
When we use food to try to soothe an emotion, he adds, we mask what that emotion is trying to teach us, and instead replace it with regret or guilt for eating whatever we grabbed.
5. And they stop eating when they’re comfortably full.
Hunger and satiety both start off small and grow bigger and louder, says Fletcher. “Some of us don’t hear hunger or fullness until it’s screaming in our ears,” she says. But being more tuned-in while eating can help us “hear” better as well. “Mindfulness is saying, ‘I’m going to listen harder to my hunger and hear it when it’s not yelling at me, and I’m going to listen harder to my fullness so it’s not yelling at me [either].'” Both hunger and fullness change after every bite, so listening in can help you find the level of fullness where it’s comfortable for you to stop eating, she says.
6. They eat breakfast.
Regular breakfast eaters have more energy, better memories and lower cholesterol. They also feel healthier overall and are typically leaner than their peers who don’t eat a morning meal. “Starting your day with a healthy, balanced breakfast with proteins, fats and carbs and not high in sugar is the key to healthy eating,” says Marjorie Nolan Cohn, MS, RD, CDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics and the co-author of Overcoming Binge Eating For Dummies.
7. They don’t keep problematic foods in the house.
Once you know your specific patterns of emotional eating, says Abramson, you can take small steps to redirect them. One strategy he recommends is no longer keeping a particularly tempting food in the house, so you’d have to leave home after dinner to get a taste. If, for example, you really love ice cream, “rather than having it sitting in the freezer calling your name,” he says, a couple of times a week, go out for ice cream.