It’s really insane the things that some people will do in the name of “taking care of ourselves.”
Cut out entire food groups? Check.
Track and control every morsel of food that enters your mouth? Check.
Eat based on a set of crazy rules that are unsustainable? Check.
Spend half the day in the kitchen preparing and cooking sub-par food? Check
Eat miniscule mini meals all day that don’t satisfy? Check
Force your body to go hungry? Check
No wonder dieting leads to SO MUCH failure… It messes with our minds, makes us preoccupied with food and drives us nearly to the nuthouse.
There’s a great irony that we start dieting in the name of “improving our lives” only to find it taking over our lives.
So there’s got to be a better option, right?
Today I want to share some of my strategies for not only eating well, but doing so in a way that takes less time, effort, and thought, so that you can focus on nourishing your whole life, not just your body. And it starts by understanding the concept of conscious eating.
First a few definitions.
Dieting falls into the category of restrictive eating, which is all about following rules instead of doing what’s best for your body. Interestingly, “intuitive eating” which is considered a non-diet strategy, can fall under this category if you decide that you are going to follow the “rules” of only eating when you’re hungry.
On the far extreme from restrictive eating is chaotic eating. Eating whatever is available, make food choices that don’t actually serve you, and eat to extremes. When dieters “fall off the wagon” or stop their diet, the natural reaction to that much reaction is to go to the chaotic extreme. They likely skip meals, eat whatever’s available, whenever its available, and put very little thought into whether or not their choices are serving their bodies. This is actually a natural reaction to restrictive eating because we are so controlled by the rules for so long that all we want to do is rebel and NOT think about food.
Unfortunately, chaotic eating always backfires, and backfires big. We pack on the weight, have less and less energy, and start thinking more and more about that next diet, which in turn, causes us to think about food, weight, and body image even more. It’s a boomerang that goes back and forth between restrictive eating and chaotic eating.
In between those two extremes is a happy medium called conscious eating.
Before I talk about what conscious eating is, I want to first explain what it is not: it is NOT spending every moment of every day thinking about food, worrying about whether or not you’re eating the right thing, if you need a little bit more or a little bit less… that’s restrictive eating, even if it is following the rules of “hunger and fullness” instead of the rules of a diet.
Conscious eating is about spending as little brain space as possible thinking about food, while eating in a way that serves your body and your life. You’ll know if you’re on track to becoming a conscious eater when you start freeing up more time and energy to do other things, instead of thinking about food, dieting, or weight all the time.
As you can see, this is NOT the same thing as “intuitive eating” or spending all your day trying to rate your hunger on a scale of 1-10, stressing about whether or not you’re eating exactly what you’re craving, or feeling guilty about eating when you’re not hungry. This is creating a system of habits, an environment, and personal boundaries that allow you to take charge of your health without obsessing about what to eat.
Here’s how to do that:
Allow your body to take the lead.
Before I talk about some of my top strategies, I do want to stress that our bodies DO know best. The diet industry tries to convince use that our bodies can’t be trusted, and we have to overcome our hunger and fight with our bodies. That’s not the case at all, and in fact the more you fight with your body, the less likely you will succeed.
If you truly are hungry, go ahead and eat. If you’re not hungry and its time for your meal, it’s ok to wait a little longer until you’re actually hungry… or if it’s the only lunch time you have available, go ahead and eat. I’m not saying set up rules of “hunger and fullness,” instead, when you get those signals, trust them.
Here’s one example: One of the boundaries that works for me personally is not eating after dinner because I know I can be a mindless snacker, even if I’ve had enough to eat. But lately, my baby’s been going through a growth spurt and nursing more, so sometimes I find myself physically hungry an hour or two after dinner. Which means I eat something because that’s honoring my body, no guilt, no worries about the “rules” and tomorrow, I’ll plan on not eating anything after dinner, but if I get hungry, I will eat.
Create boundaries that work with your life and your body.
One of the hardest things about our modern culture is that food is over abundant and plentiful, and we live in a culture of “anything goes”. We applaud the French for their ability to eat when hungry, and stop when satisfied, but it’s so much more than that. The French have social boundaries around food – they don’t snack and graze all day. They don’t eat in between meals, with the exception of an after school snack for the kiddos. They eat slowly, make meals a leisurely enjoyment, and they don’t eat with distraction.
Creating boundaries isn’t the same thing as creating diet rules. Diet rules have to be followed come hell or high water, diet rules are determined by someone outside of yourself. Boundaries, on the other hand, are your choice, your way of living your life. If a boundary no longer serves you, you can feel free to drop it. If you notice yourself making poor decisions consistently in one area, it may serve you to create a boundary around that area.
I’ve already described one of my personal boundaries, which is not eating after dinner. I created this boundary because I realized that I was mindlessly grazing during the evening hours in the absence of hunger. Another personal boundary of mine is not eating when upset because I’ve realized that I tend to overeat, eat fast, and not enjoy my food if I’m in a bad mood. If I get to the table and find myself upset, I choose to take a few minutes to center myself, calm down and improve my mood before eating.
There are no right or wrong boundaries, just choose the ones that work for you.
Create strategies to minimize daily food decisions.
You’ve probably seen the recent article about why successful people, like Steve Jobs, wear the same thing every day, because it saves brain space by minimizing small decisions, giving them the ability to focus on bigger decisions.
The same thing can work with food as well. If you decide ahead of time what you’re planning to eat for the day (I sometimes like to do this in the evening before bed) then you can basically live the next day on autopilot, without thinking much about what you’re going to eat. The trick to this is to still allow for flexibility. If your friend calls you up and wants to go to lunch, don’t tell yourself you HAVE to follow your plan, go ahead and change it.
Some people like eating the same foods every day for breakfast and lunch so they don’t have to think about it as much. That’s another strategy that can work well.
Another thing that I’ve found works for me is cooking my favorite meals regularly, so I don’t have to worry about what’s for dinner. Right now I make lemon chicken on Mondays, taco soup on Tuesdays… you get the idea. When I get bored of one of those dishes, I’ll move on to something else
Create time saving strategies for cooking and eating well.
No one wants to spend all day in the kitchen prepping meals, planning food, and cooking… unless you’re a gourmet chef. In that case, you’re welcome to cook for me any day. But if you’re like me, you want more time with your kids, more time to enjoy your favorite activities, more time to just relax and breathe for a minute.
Which is why it’s SO DANG HARD to cook 7 nights a week… or even five! Then you take into account breakfast, and lunch, and making your own healthy snacks… and then the dishes that follow… it’s INSANE! No wonder so many people give up and opt for mac and cheese or pizza to feed the family.
This is an area where I’m still learning, but I’ve learned some great strategies for minimizing my time in the kitchen. I’ll share one of those that I do regularly that allows me to cook twice a week and eat home cooked food every day.
Each time I plan to cook a recipe, I make enough for 4-5 meals and stick the rest in freezer bags. I started doing this right after my baby was born, and now have enough variety of meals to pull out of the freezer most days of the week, while replenishing my stock once or twice a week.
If this doesn’t work for you, there are a lot of other strategies like meal clubs where you cook once a week for a group and everyone else brings you food the rest of the week, cooking leftovers, repurposing leftovers into new meals, food delivery services… whatever works for you.
As you can see, I’m not talking about a set of hard and fast rules, but a set of strategies that allow you to “set it and forget it” so to speak, so that you can eat well and reach your goals with minimal effort, and less brain space. The consequence of this: the less you think about food, the less you obsess about it, and the easier it is to fall into a pattern that serves you and your body without wanting to rebel or binge.
Each of these strategies deserves a blog post or two of their own, so watch for those coming in the next few weeks as I complete this series.
But in the meantime, I want to hear from you:
In what way are you already a conscious eater?
What’s one strategy that appeals to you for becoming a more conscious eater?
Let me know in the comments below