Food is inescapable. No other life necessity so closely aligns itself with our well-being and our distress, our celebrations, and our grievances. We spoil ourselves with it, or we deny ourselves until it spoils on its own.
Food is also meaningful. It is a friend when we are lonely; it is revenge when we are hurt; it is even occasionally (sorry, frozen peas) a compress when we are injured.
How do we ensure this complicated relationship is a healthy one? First, we have to understand it.
Psychotherapist and occupational therapist Ann Kerr explains that food is, at times, a mechanism for emotional healing.
“It’s a wonderful sensory experience. It’s a very social experience. And we have to eat … If people are feeling very troubled or anxious, [food] can also be a big distraction; it resets them … Some people depend on that to kind of cope.”
It’s all about balance
Potato chips are my coping mechanism. But, like so many, I struggle with portion control. Prior to 1926, the only way to purchase potato chips was from a shopkeeper, who scooped them from a larger barrel into a sensibly sized bag.
Today, there is no gatekeeper between the individual consumer and the family-sized bag of chips. It’s all too easy to scarf it down solo.
Still, Kerr says we are well-equipped to self-manage. Nature awarded us with an appetite. When is it time to stop eating? When “you feel full,” she says.
“You have good satiety cues, and all of a sudden, you just don’t want anymore,” Kerr explains. “It’s either too sweet, too salty, too fatty, or too much.” Your body will tell you that.
Resisting outside influence
It’s also helpful to tune out others. My sister confesses that she has her own food issues, many of which were triggered by our mother.
“She used to make a comment [to me]: ‘You’re not overweight; you’re just under-tall.’ She used to say these things when I was coming back from the pediatrician’s office. I must have internalized that to a certain degree,” says my sister.
Today, she’s found balance through yoga, golf, and giving herself permission to enjoy food again. For her, that was a decades-long process. A real long-term relationship.
Go ahead: Crush on carbs
At this time of year, many of us crave comfort foods more than ever. I find the cold hand of winter urges me to wrap my fingers around a forkful of pasta.
Registered dietitian Leslie Beck says not only is it healthy to enjoy those starchy February meals; biology actually pushes us to do just that.
“Winter food cravings are linked to levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that improves mood, reduces your appetite, promotes sleep, etc. Research has found that our brain’s production of serotonin is lowest in the winter months,” says Beck. “Carbohydrates are important; they help to balance serotonin levels in the brain, and it’s just a matter of having the right size [of servings].”
Beck also stresses the importance of being kind to yourself. A piece of cake? An extra dessert? If the occasion calls for it, she says, “Do it. Because if you decide to give yourself permission, you’re less likely to overeat. You’ll have it; you’ll enjoy it. Whereas if you go into something saying, ‘I can’t, I shouldn’t, this really isn’t part of my plan’ … Then you end up eating more than you wanted to. You feel guilty. You beat yourself up, and it’s harder to get yourself back on track with the next meal or the next day.”
As for me, I accept that I love chips. But from now on, I must restrict myself to dating them only occasionally, and only a few at a time.
Timing is everything
These steps toward healthy eating patterns will also reduce stress and provide comfort.
- Embrace routine: It’s healthy and keeps you motivated.
- Meals are three times per day—no skipping.
- Allow yourself regular snacks and tea breaks.
- Keep up a healthy sleep schedule.
- Add exercise.