When you’re unhappy with the look, shape and feel of your body, food becomes a source of discomfort, confusion and consequences rather than a vehicle for nourishment and enjoyment. Instead of savoring the morsels you put in your mouth, you focus on the toll they will (or won’t) take on your thighs.
“When you have a poor body image, you may be driven to diet, have difficulty enjoying food and restrict your food intake in unhealthy ways,” says Susan Albers, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and author of Eating Mindfully: How to End Mindless Eating and Enjoy a Balanced Relationship with Food.
Paying attention to what, when and why you eat will not only lead to greater satisfaction, but your jeans may fit better too.
What Are You Eating?
“If you struggle with body image, you might be inclined to eat foods that aren’t really food, like diet bars that contain a long list of ingredients you can’t pronounce,” says Leslie Goldman, MPH, author of Locker Room Diaries: The Naked Truth About Women, Body Image and Re-Imagining the “Perfect” Body. Before you know it, your diet consists largely of manufactured products — fake ice cream, imitation cheese and artificial sweeteners. Low-calorie, sure — but also low in nutritional value.
Instead of subtracting foods from your diet or substituting them with faux alternatives, expand your dietary palette with fresh, nutritious foods. “Start the day with a list of foods you can add to your diet,” Dr. Albers says. “Throw an apple in your bag or plan to make a new veggie for dinner.”
When you become more mindful of what you eat and how it tastes, chances are you’ll stop living on foods you don’t actually like or nibbling on whatever happens to be around, like candy at the office or free samples at the grocery store. This doesn’t mean you have to give up sweets and treats, but buy the best and savor them. “It’s easy to munch mindlessly on inexpensive chocolate kisses,” Dr. Albers says. Not so with a $2 truffle.
When Are You Eating?
Do you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full? Most of us don’t. We race through the day, we grab food on the go and at some point we realize we’re famished — so we consume a box of crackers or wolf down a supersize burger that winds up feeling leaden in the stomach.
If you want to view your body as a powerful force (and who doesn’t?), you have to nourish it well. And that means paying attention and responding to your hunger cues.
Check in with your hunger throughout the day — not just before meals. “This helps you understand the ebbs and flows in your hunger and eat before you’re too hungry,” Dr. Albers says. “For example, every time your cell phone rings, ask yourself how hungry you are on a scale of one to 10.” Then, eat meals and healthy snacks accordingly. If you’re at a three, for example, you might tide yourself over until your next meal with a handful of celery sticks smeared with peanut butter. That will keep you from reaching a 10, which might prompt a binge.
How Are You Eating?
Eat slowly and with focused attention. Notice the scents, flavors and textures in your food. Take small bites and sip water in between. “Ask yourself: How does the food really taste? What does it feel like in my mouth? Does it satisfy my taste buds? Is my mind present when I take a bite?” Dr. Albers suggests. This practice does more than allow you to enjoy your food; it also reminds you that you deserve to be nurtured and treated well. A bonus: You’ll take in fewer calories. University of Rhode Island researchers found that women who took more time to eat meals consumed about 75 fewer calories than those who ate more quickly. That can translate into eight pounds over a year.
Why Are You Eating?
We’ve all had that moment: We reach for a bag of chips or dive into a bar of chocolate without even realizing it. We do it to relax or recharge. We do it for comfort. Sometimes we do it out of boredom. Experts call this phenomenon mindless eating. It can have a devastating impact on your ability to recognize hunger cues, to say nothing of its effects on your waistline.
“If you start eating mindfully, you’ll learn what triggers the eating and even stop it mid-binge,” Dr. Albers says. “When you’re eating, pay attention to what is on your mind, how your body feels and how your thoughts and emotions change after a meal or a snack.”
Ask yourself these questions before, after and while you eat:
Becoming aware of the cues that prompt you to eat, especially when you’re not physically hungry, will help you tune in to your deepest needs and desires — and feed them better.
- How present and aware am I in this moment?
- Am I hungry?
- Did my meal satisfy my hunger?
- How did my body feel before and after I ate? How did my stomach feel? What was my energy level?
- How do I feel? Excited? Nervous? Stressed? Bored?
- What was I thinking about while I was eating?