I was originally going to call this post "Your Diet Should Be an Act of Self-Love." But let's ditch the 'shoulds,' shall we? They don't promote a very loving way of thinking. Instead I'm going to talk about how we can feed ourselves self-love and why what we eat plays a vital role in the relationship we forge with our sweet selves. The way we eat says a lot about how we feel about ourselves. It's no wonder that many of us have a complicated relationship with food. We're inundated with advertisements depicting impossible bodies and being told that the only way to obtain our "dream bodies" (read: the body society thinks we should have) is to get on this restrictive diet or partake in that obsessive fitness fad. We see the 'it girl' on our favourite TV show gorging on hamburgers and pizza while staying supermodel thin and we think there's something wrong with us when our body doesn't react the same way.
But the truth is, most of us know how to live healthily: eat sensibly and exercise regularly. Of course that will look different for each of us and just because it's simple, doesn't mean it's easy. But we're never going to find the answers in crash diets or at the bottom of a bag of potato chips.
It turns out that self-love is at the root of a healthy diet. When we take better care of ourselves, we're less likely to binge eat. It makes sense: they call it emotional eating for a reason and if our emotions are relatively balanced, we probably won't engage in this kind of behaviour. But studies show that if we're burnt out or not sleeping well, we're more likely to reach for a bag of cookies to soothe our frazzled minds.
Does it work?
Of course not; we end up feeling sick and guilty. But it can feel like an impossible cycle to break.
There's a cyclical pattern between self-love, our emotional well-being, and the way we eat. How we feel effects what and how much we eat and in turn, what and how much we eat effects how we feel. It's no exaggeration that we are what we eat. Food is fuel for our bodies and the building blocks for our cells, but it also effects us on a mental and emotional level. You might find that some foods cause you to feel vibrant and energized while others leave you sluggish and foggy. Or perhaps you haven't made much of a connection between what you eat and how you feel, but I promise the more you tune into your body and pay attention to your diet, the more clear these connections become.
Most of us eat for many reasons other than sustaining our bodies. We eat for pleasure or comfort. We eat to celebrate or to grieve. We eat to numb ourselves or to savour a tantalizing flavour. There's nothing inherently wrong with any of these reasons for eating, but it means that over time most of us have disconnected with our natural hunger. Becoming more mindful about what we eat can be as simple as slowing down, chewing thoroughly, and savouring each bite. There's even a Mindfulness Diet and trying one of their mindfulness eating exercises is a great place to start.
I started to clean up the way I eat about six years ago. It hasn't been a completely linear journey. I started by dabbling in healthy eating and have bounced from obsessively eating only clean foods to emotionally eating my way through a bag of crisps every night to a healthy balance and back and forth, back and forth.
I feel pretty comfortable with my current eating habits. For the most part I eat clean, whole foods. And when I don't, I've made a conscious choice to, so I don't feel guilty about it.
But rather than feeling restricted by a healthy diet, changing the way I eat has introduced me to so many new foods. My diet is much more diverse now and over time my palate has changed immensely. It's hard to believe that the girl who once loathed any vegetable that wasn't a carrot covered in ranch dip, now craves raw kale salads and scrambled tofu. But it's true. Foods I used to love, especially candy, now taste artificial and sickeningly sweet. I still eat dessert, but now I generally prefer dark chocolate or a whole food, vegan recipe.
And when I do decide to indulge in a decadent slice of cake or over-the-top chocolate treat, I try to make sure it's the best possible quality. I savour every bite and don't make myself feel bad about it.
Some people decide to give up certain unhealthy foods completely or to eat 100% clean all of the time. Other than being a vegetarian, I don't tend to be that restrictive (anymore). But it's all about figuring out the balance that works for you. Everyone's different and no one knows your body as well as you do. See what feels good for you and remember that even if you decide to set some rules, they don't have to be set in stone.
Here are some ideas for cultivating a more loving relationship with food:
Focus on adding things in, rather than subtracting. When I tell myself I can't have something, I generally want it even more. Instead of denying yourself, think about what healthy additions you can make to your diet. Adding 2 litres of water, a green smoothie, and large salad to your daily routine will do wonders for the way you feel, but start with whatever feels comfortable. You might feel inspired to make more healthy changes and over time your cravings will start to change.
Go on an elimination diet. If you suspect you might have a food intolerance, experiment by not eating gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, fast food, or alcohol for 23 days. Mind Body Green offers a good primer on how to execute this.
Keep a food diary. Many of us are in denial about what and how much we're eating. Those 'occasional treats' might not be so occasional. Keeping track of everything you eat and how you feel afterwards, even just for a few days, will help you get a better picture of what your diet really looks like and how it's effecting you.
Eat things you already like. Trying to eat healthier doesn't mean you have to force yourself to eat kale if you hate it and you don't need to stock up on every superfood on the planet. Focus on eating more of the healthy foods you already enjoy and add in new things when and if you feel like it.
Choose your treats wisely. Make them worth it. I used to mindlessly mow my way through milk chocolate candy bars, but now I much prefer a beautiful handmade dessert or a small piece of expensive dark chocolate. They're more satisfying so I eat less of them and even though they're not technically healthy, they're made with real ingredients rather than a lot of processed garbage, so I don't end up feeling ill after eating them.
Write your food philosophy. Getting my thoughts down on paper is the easiest way for me to get clear on how I really feel about something so that I can tune out all of the garbage that my inner critic wants to throw at me. Write out a manifesto of everything you believe about food and eating and how you want that to manifest in your own life.
Replace your "trigger foods" with a healthier alternative. I can't be trusted around a bag of salt and vinegar chips. I either have to forgo them altogether or accept that I'll eat the whole bag, which usually makes me feel ill. But kale chips and roasted chickpeas give me that crunchy, salty fix without the terrible gut pain.
Plan your meals. I don't do this religiously, but when I find I'm slipping with my food choices, it's the first thing I do to get back on track. Having a plan for the week makes it easy to stick with eating foods I love, that also love me back.
Change your thoughts. Often we rationalize eating unhealthy food choices by saying that we don't have time for something healthier or we berate ourselves for having a treat. Try thinking about food differently. You could choose a mantra like, "Food is the fuel that helps me thrive." And when you eat something less healthy, make it a conscious choice and tell yourself that it's a pleasure you're choosing, not something to feel guilty about.
Clear out your cupboards. If there are foods you're trying to avoid or you're trying to makeover your diet, remove the temptation and make room for all of the awesome, delicious foods you do want to eat.
Prep on the weekends. If you have healthy meals and snacks on-hand throughout the week, it makes it a lot easier to stick to your guns rather than opting for frozen pizza or a bag of crisps day after day. I like carving out time on Sunday to make a big pot of something and a few snacks, like hummus or kale chips, so that they're easy to grab when I'm busy or tired after work.
Fall in love with food. Self-love is all about romancing yourself, but it's easy for food to become habitual and for cooking new dishes to feel like a chore. Allow yourself to really enjoy food and create rituals around eating that make you feel good. Visit a weekly farmers' market to buy your veg. Challenge yourself to try one new recipe each week. Take yourself on a date to a restaurant you've been meaning to try. Plan a dinner party and invite your favourite people. Try a vegetable you've never eaten before. Make food fun and take the time to really enjoy it.
And there are times on any self-love journey that we're going to need to ask for help. If you're struggling with an eating disorder, it's unlikely that you'll be able to deal with it all on your own. And you shouldn't have to! Confide in a friend. Enrol in counselling. But please, please, please don't suffer in silence.
We're all at different places on our self-love journeys and no two people are going to have the same relationship with food. If there are changes you want to make, just take a small step that feels good for you. Here are some more resources to help you get started.
Homework (totally optional, of course): The ideas in this article are all things that have worked for me, but you might have other ideas. I'd love to hear them in the comments! Rather than pressuring yourself to change your diet and feel completely differently about food overnight, commit to one simple change. Choose one from the list above or make it something you've been meaning to do for ages. Think of it as an experiment. Try it out for 30 days and see how it feels. You can always give it up after if it doesn't work for you. The more small changes you make, the more things start to snowball and pretty soon you might find that your relationship with food has completely changed.
What's your relationship with food like right now? Are there any changes you'd like to make to your diet?
Images via Tukru (you can buy this awesome illustration as a print or on t-shirts!) and New York Times Magazine.