It doesn’t matter how much you exercise or what kind of healthy food you eat, many diets undertaken for weight related issues or conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) fail because they don't address how stress can trigger an unhealthy relationship with food and exacerbate physical dis-ease in the body.
AKYOGA explains how chronic stress can be as toxic as fast food, and how mindfulness (as part of a healthy eating plan) can help us navigate a more sustainable journey toward achieving a healthy weight, as well as reducing stress related disorders.
Food really has become a complex issue. Unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as over indulgence or eating foods low in nutrition and vitality can result in intense energy drain, a compromised immune system, digestive disorders, feelings of frustration, poor self image, despair, isolation and lashings of self-criticism.
So, how do we develop a more holistic relationship food?
While it is understandable that people bounce from one diet to another, there are more integrated approaches to explore.
But first, it is important that we understand how stress makes it harder to make those life-enhancing food choices!
Making any transition in life is not a simple process. Diets, in particular, for many people are riddled with complexity. It is an industry littered with people who ‘succeed’ for a short period of time, only to bounce back to unhealthy lifestyle choices fairly swiftly. One of the reasons for this is that we have a tendency to focus upon calorie counting, yo-yo diets & short-term results based programmes that are more often than not, emotionally draining.
While introducing healthier foods into your diet is the essential prerequisite to achieving health & wellbeing, it is also critical that we consider how chronic mental & emotional stress can be as toxic as fast food, and as debilitating as being malnourished.
The key to achieving a healthy relationship with food:
# 1 Understand how emotional & psychological stress affects your relationship with food. From awareness evolves change.
# 2 Be fully present when you eat.
# 3 Introduce a daily (regular) practice that helps you to intercept and let go of emotional & mental stress; strengthen your ability to commit to healthier lifestyle choices, and re-balance your body’s ability to restore vitality & well-being.
# 4 Acceptance: practice the art of self-love. Release judgement.
# 5 (Re) discover the joy of eating, food sourcing & preparation. Love your food!
So, lets take a look at #1 before we consider all the other points .
Juggling volatile business environments, families and relationships, as well as trying to make sense of conflicting health-care advice can sometimes get overwhelming. In a fast paced modern world, stress has become one of our biggest 21st Century health challenges.
THE GOOD NEWS: If we understand a little bit of the mechanics of stress, we can stop it’s debilitating hold on us, almost instantly.
Normal stress is a state during which physiological changes occur in order to enable the body to perform its functions for survival in the world.
This is a good thing!
Over short periods of time stress reactions can be productive, for instance the bodily changes that take place before a competition or exam can release the necessary chemicals and hormones to propel us into motion and focus our minds.
But NOT all the time!
If, however, the adrenaline rush that is associated with stress is sustained over long periods, the body responds as if under a constant state of alarm (threat), which will eventually cause significant changes in our biochemistry, lead to a depletion of vital energy, & predispose us to a catalogue of health challenges. It is well documented that people suffering from stress tend to gain weight. One of the reasons for this is because levels of 'stress hormones’ rise during tension-filled times, resulting in higher insulin levels, blood sugar fluctuations and a tendency to crave sugary, fatty foods.
Research is now suggesting that prolonged stress has a considerable impact upon the development of many illnesses, including: cardiovascular disease, cancer, endocrine and metabolic disease, skin disorders and infectious aliments of all kinds. It may even produce the following physiological reactions: elevation of blood pressure, accelerated heart beat, inhibited digestion, increased muscular tension, a compromised immune system (predisposing the body to infection and disease) and nutritional deficiencies. Stress also has a major effect on psychological difficulties, such as depression and anxiety, and it can be responsible for (or exacerbate) a lot of back problems, fatigue, chronic headaches, irritability, memory loss, lowered sexual drive, and insomnia.
A mindful approach to reducing stress:
People intuitively know that they need to take ‘time out’ to reduce stress. Unfortunately, we have marginalised these experiences to the once a year holiday – or if lucky a Sunday morning nap in bed. The problem is - this isn’t enough; especially, if you are experiencing daily work-life pressures or suffering with chronic anxiety, fear or tension.
Regularly practicing mindfulness can have a significant impact upon our health & well-being.
It can calm and focus the mind, sooth a nervous system & improve digestion.
Mindfulness improves our ability to digest food and assimilate nutrients.
Over time it can help reduce the hormone & blood sugar imbalances associated with weight gain.
A regular practice can also ‘unlock’ confidence & inspire a renewed sense of purpose to commit to building a more positive relationship with our body & food.
How to develop a mindful relationship with food?
Mindful eating is the practice of being present as you eat. It’s about giving full attention to the quality, taste, smell, look of food, and to how it makes you feel.
Mindful eating helps us to be in the present moment. This means that we are not reacting to distractions, or thinking about other things. When we are consciously eating, we are more connected to our instincts; such as feeling full, or if something doesn’t taste right. Over time, such experiences will help break the yo-yo binge – fasting cycle that so many dieters tend to fall into and support a more integrated approach to addressing common digestive problems such as IBS.
It is also about taking time. We are all so speedy these days – time is of the essence! As we juggle a myriad of responsibilities, we have forgotten the art of taking time over our eating and really appreciating the experience of food with all our senses. There are simple little things we can do to support a mindful approach to eating:
Include plenty of variety in your meals to make the experience more enjoyable. Consider which colours you prefer, and the fragrances that engender a sense of calm. Experiment with different colours and textures, not just of the food itself, but with styling, flowers, or decorations foraged from nature.
When we take time to really sense what we are eating we develop our intuition and become more conscious of what it is that we are consuming. Rather than just counting calories or following a strict diet religiously, mindful eating encourages us to consider how food makes us feel. It brings us to an awareness that food is energy; that some foods are more vital than others.
Mindful eating starts with food sourcing & preparation. Spend quality time preparing your food in a calm environment. Equally, eat in a room that you know brings you a sense of wellbeing.
Rekindle a love of food, rather than being immersed in the fear of eating the wrong thing!
One of my favourite tricks is to buy food from people I like, or local markets where you can feel that the people selling their produce are passionate about the quality of their food. Having a pleasurable shopping experience for fresh food is a sheer delight. Try vegetables that you may not be familiar with. Chat to other people in the market about how to cook. Experiment with life - not just your eating! Conviviality, laughter & enjoyable conversation will help you develop a meaningful mindful relationship with the food you are buying.
Pause before you eat… Ask yourself why are you eating?
The master key to mindful eating is to understand why you are eating. Take some time to consider how your body feels, and to establish the purpose of eating.
Taking time before you eat to reflect is a very powerful tool to help you reconnect with yourself. This will help you consider if you are reacting to an outside pressure or emotional feeling (such as loneliness or boredom), or indeed, if you are actually hungry. Once you have connected to this motivation, then practice the art of letting go. Pause again before you eat and reflect once again upon shifting emotions within your body. You may chose to eat something else, wait a while - or continue with your meal. All options are fine.
Mindfulness is not about being perfect… we are human! Mindful eating is about re-connecting to your needs, letting go of debilitating, negative internal dialogue, and acceptance of who we are right now in the present moment. The focus here is on letting go of our attachment to an outcome of making the 'right' choice. The whole point is to release stress - and allow space for more vital choices to emerge, naturally.
This process will help you accept yourself as you are and give you the strength to move through any uncomfortable feelings that surface as you learn from your experience. Mindful eating helps us to become more aware – more conscious… The conscious part of this sentence is the important bit, as this is where the healing journey begins.
The secret to good nutrition & digestion is chewing.
Chew each bite thoroughly and savour it. If you find that you are rushing your food, the likelihood is that you are not fully in the moment – that you are thinking about something else, or in denial of why you are eating. Return to your mindful practice of being in the moment.
Chewing also enhances the taste, texture and quality of the food. Chewing will also slow your mealtime down, with the desired result of helping you to become more aware of the sensation of being full. Eating slowly generally leads to eating less, naturally.
Pause again before you reach for another serving or for the next course.
It takes your brain approximately 20 minutes to receive the signal from your gut that you are full. Hence, why we should slow down and take a break between courses.
For many people eating has become laced with complex emotions of fear, lust, doubt and even self-hate. Some people eat because they are lonely or bored...
Teasing out such complex emotions from our daily eating habits can appear overwhelming. More often than not the body’s stress response (flight and flight) is set in motion by feelings associated with our thoughts and perceptions; for instance: fear of the unknown, uncertainty about the future, negative attitudes toward family members or work colleagues, or repetitive worrying about problems.
While it is difficult to change ingrained patterns of thinking or strong emotional feelings over-night, mindfulness enables us to ‘step back’ and release for a period of time these experiences. Eventually, it can even change our outlook to one that is more positive, thus stimulating mental & emotional resilience on our wellbeing journey.
Eat with joy and be kind to yourself.
One way to begin to really enjoy food, and our bodies, is by spending time before we eat just connecting into all bodily sensations, through a body scan. This simple technique really helps people begin to appreciate their emotional & physical needs better. Being continually concerned with the quantity and quality of what you eat without connecting to your deeper needs is counterproductive, as the 'judgmental self' tends to come to the fore, and the never-ending cycle of negativity kicks in. Mindful eating in tandem with a body scan can help to intercept these feelings, release them and create space within the mind and emotions for joy to emerge.
Mindful eating will help restore a healthy relationship with food, because it heals your relationship with yourself. It does this by introducing the power of acceptance.
This part of the puzzle is crucial, as it gets to the heart of some of the negative messages you are continual sending to your brain every time you feel bad about your body or decisions. It doesn’t matter how much healthy food you eat – accepting yourself - as you are now - with all the things you love about yourself and the things you don’t - is an essential part of the journey.
Reawakening a positive body image is vital & achievable with mindfulness! Overtime, mindfulness stimulates a sense of awe and joy that is difficult to describe, but non-the-less, very powerful antidote to the stress associated negative body associations. However, it takes time and practice.
One diet doesn’t fit all – we are all unique, and our intuition plays a vital role in guiding our food choices.
Mindfulness nurtures our intuition, thus enabling us to make choices that are good for our own individual needs – in the moment – rather than adhering to a prescribed diet that may not be suitable.
In addition, mindfulness helps us to relax & feel safe, thus promoting better sleep.
Replace oral satisfaction with a cup of herbal tea. Create your own mindfulness tea ceremony.
Snacking isn’t always about being hungry. Sometimes it’s to fulfil some kind of desire. It is possible to buy (or make your own) extremely tasty herbal teas that can really feel like a treat. Develop your own tea ceremony with a lovely tea pot, fresh herbs & a few words of wisdom crafted with 'you' in mind, will makes all the difference to your day! These healthy little treats really send positive messages to the brain, thus stimulating all those healthy bodily responses that help us lose weight.
Some nutritionists recommend writing a food journal to establish a craving profile. This can be really useful, as it also helps you establish volatile mood changes that may affect your eating patterns, as well as changes in your daily energy patterns. Journaling is also really helpful for people who are new to mindfulness. Plot your experience over a few weeks and write down any challenges, as well as insights that were particularly illuminating.
Mindful eating in nature.
I believe that one of the most powerful healing tools we have at our disposal is our ability to connect with natures healing energy and vitality.
According to scientific research, compiled by Florence William, within five minutes of being in nature your body and brain start to change. Williams states that the smell of pine trees can strengthen your immune system and that birdsong increases alpha brain waves, thus stimulating feelings of calmness, as well as improving productivity, creativity and mood.
These kinds of experiences stimulate the same healthy response in the body as mindful eating. So my last suggestion to you all is to take every opportunity you can to practice mindful eating outside: cook outside, picnic, take packed lunches in parks, or just sip your herbal tea mindfully under a tree. You will be astonished by the results!
If you would like to learn more about mindful eating, and how to use nutrition to support your health & wellbeing, please check out my retreats...
"For those of you who need that little bit of extra support".