Spring into a new eating mindset

Jennifer Dalton, MS, RDN, LD, is the director of didactic program in dietetics at the University of Dayton. She teaches courses on nutrition and health and specializes in functional nutrition and digestive conditions. Email: jdalton1@udayton.edu.

Springtime is an exciting time of year when we look with anticipation to the flowers coming into bloom and trees budding out. With the warmer weather we pare down to lighter clothing increasing the awareness of how our bodies may have changed over the winter months.

As a result there seems to be an increase in discussion on my social media feeds describing restrictive diets and ritualistic eating plans individuals are employing to get their body ready for the summer weather and fashions. While the desire to want to feel comfortable in clothing and to feel comfortable in moving our body is understandable, my focus shifts away from dieting to normalizing our relationship with food.

This means steering clear of a ritualistic, restrictive food police mentality and move toward a more intuitive way of eating, the way our body was meant to answer the call to be nourished. Three strategies I like to begin with are mindfulness to how our body communicates hunger and fullness, environmental awareness to our triggers to eat, and giving permission to eat a variety of food.

Mindfulness to the signals to eat is one of the first steps to successfully answer the call to be fed and to be able to stop eating when the body has adequate nourishment. To satisfy hunger when those pangs call out to be fed and to stop eating when our body tells us “this is enough” rather than “this is too much” is a very important first step towards mindful eating.

In our culture of multi-tasking it becomes commonplace to ignore those cues as lunch is skipped to meet deadlines or tasks are performed during the meal which keeps our focus away from the eating experience. This limits our ability to fully hear the call to eat, the call to stop eating, and to fully experience and enjoy the sensations of eating in order to be fully satisfied from our meal.

Several strategies to develop mindfulness include: eliminating distractions from the mealtime such as reading materials and electronic devices, checking in close to typical meal times to recognize hunger pangs, and to put the fork down while chewing and waiting a minute or two before proceeding with the next bite.

Environmental awareness is a tool we can use to improve our awareness of what triggers eating and food choices. Our environment is full of food cues calling out for us to eat. In fact, it is estimated that we make over 250 food decisions a day, kind of incredible to think about that. Environmental food cues include: food smells, vending machines, pictures of foods, commercials, watching someone eat, and locations that hold special food meanings.

When we become more aware of our environmental food cues we really begin to see the strong influence the environment has our unconscious food choices. For example, I typically go into a lecture room to teach after eating a satisfying lunch. When I arrive to the lecture room I begin teaching and notice a few students eating a snack, I think to myself “oh that looks good, maybe I will get a cookie after lecture.”

When I look in the other direction another student may have a coffee beverage that looks refreshing and my thoughts again go to “that looks good, a coffee drink like that would taste great now.” While these thoughts often go unrecognized or are quickly dismissed, sometimes, especially when we are stressed, have skipped meals, or have inadequate sleep, we accept the cue and seek out food when our body is fully nourished.

On the days when an individual is experiencing more stress or has had inadequate sleep, paying careful attention to how we are responding to environmental cues moves us in the direction of eating more intuitively. Instead of reaching for the food to satisfy sleep deprivation or stress, choose an activity that will satisfy the non-food need of the body such as meditation, coloring, or taking a 20-minute nap break.

Food is such an important component of the human experience. Food not only provides us the sustenance for energy and growth, it is an integral part of our traditions and culture. When we are more mindful and trust the body’s call to be fed and to stop eating then all foods can fit into our lifestyle. The first step to giving ourselves permission to include all foods in our diet is to recognize that our body needs a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources every day.

Eating a variety of food sources allows our body to grow, development, maintain health, and to repair itself. These foods generally makeup about 90 percent of the calorie needs while the other 10% of calories can include “play foods”. Play foods tend to be those foods that are higher in sugar and fat and lower in vitamins and minerals. They are also the foods that often generate feelings of guilt and shame when consumed. Incorporating mindfulness into our daily lives allows us to enjoy these foods without feeling guilt, shame or remorse.

Spring into a new mindset with eating by working towards being more mindful to the full sensory experience of the meal, being aware of the food cues in the environment while including all types of foods. Contact a Registered Dietitian to learn more about intuitive eating, mindfulness, and how all foods can fit into your lifestyle.