It’s no secret that I am a huge advocate for balanced eating and all foods can be consumed in moderation. This approach to food underpins my falling in love with philosophy, which has helped many women (and men) to develop a healthy relationship with food.
The plethora of diets circulating the media has lead to many of us harbouring ill feelings towards certain foods or banning them entirely. This has caused some of us to draw a line between “good” and “bad” foods and no longer capable of eating in a balanced way.
It only makes sense that dietary restriction leads to being consumed by the foods we can’t eat which results in overeating or binging on such foods. This sets up an unhealthy cycle of restriction > binge > restriction > binge.
When stuck in this cycle, it can be difficult to see how it is possible to find a healthy balance with food. Specifically, “treat food” vs “everyday food.” I am here to tell you, it is possible and here are my tips on how:
Being aware of what your body needs nutritionally to feel your best is an important part of learning to eat in a balanced way. When we are satisfied with our food, we are less likely to seek out treat foods. An easy way to get insight into how your current diet stacks up, is to keep a 7-day food diary and make notes of how you feel after eating, any areas in the day when you are excessively hungry or lacking energy. For example, if you find you are binge eating chocolate at 3 pm because you are hungry and tired, look back at breakfast and lunch and make sure they contained adequate protein and fibre to stabilise blood sugar and support satiety. From this information, you can start adapting your diet to better meet your needs and achieve balance with food.
Additionally, understanding that you can have treat foods, as part of a healthy balanced diet is important. Specifically, when our day-to-day diet, which I like to refer to as our food foundation, is balanced and full of nutritious foods, adding in a few treats through the week when you feel like them, will not cause harm and is a healthy approach to food.
Our thoughts around food can easily become complicated and this can cause uncertainty around what to eat. As a general rule, try sticking to the simple formula of making sure each meal contains a source of lean protein (fish, meat, lentils, tofu, nuts/seeds, eggs, dairy etc), healthy fats (extra virgin olive oil, fatty fish, nuts/seeds, avocado etc), complex carbohydrates (sweet potato, whole grains, oats, fruit, lentils, wholegrain bread etc) and vegetables (leafy greens, tomato, capsicum, carrot, cucumber, eggplant, broccoli, cauliflower etc). Our body feels most satisfied when eating in this way and this is an easy to follow template on how to construct your meals which helps to cut down on confusion.
Our temptation for treat foods isn’t just influenced by what we eat, but also how we eat and mindful eating is key. When we eat mindfully, our body is ready to receive food and we eat according to our true hunger as opposed to in response to emotions. This means we will eat until satisfied rather than full and be more appreciative of the food in front of us. This appreciation can deepen our connection with food, which in turn helps to prevent mindless eating and always being on the lookout for what is next ie, treats! Therefore, if you regularly arrive at a meal in a stressed state, try breathing deeply and slowly for 5 minutes before eating and eat away from distraction including phones!
Practicing self-compassion is key to achieving balance with food. For example, if we enter lunchtime with “good” intentions and convince ourselves to order a salad, but we turn around and order a fried chicken burger, the narrative in our mind is likely to be one of self-criticism. This self-criticism can then lead to thoughts of “I have blown it, why stop now” which causes us to search for a pick me up, such as sugar and chocolate. This can lead to increased feelings of poor self-worth and the cycle continues. On the other hand, those who practice self-compassion will not view it as a failure but instead as a learning opportunity to listen to their body and know that they are doing the best they can. This helps to break the negative cycle of compensating for ‘bad’ choices and instead of moving forward and putting it in the past.
Taking a moment to consider why you are craving a certain treat food or why it makes you feel good is an important part of the process. For example, if you turn to chocolate when stressed, think of alternative ways to de-stress such as phoning a friend, going for a walk in green space, meditating or sipping a relaxing tea. If you find that you like to sit on the couch with a large packet of chips late at night as a way to relax, look for other ways to relax such as a nighttime yoga class, Epsom salt bath or a relaxation tea. Remember, turning to treat foods here and there when stressed or upset, isn’t a problem, it becomes a problem when we feel out of control and it starts to affect how we feel about ourselves, perpetuating the cycle.
By Zoe Bingley-Pullin, Nutritionist, Chef and Author of Falling in Love with Food