Guest blog by Vicky Ware,
Focusing on what you eat is the usual plan when you’re trying to eat more healthily, a plan that many people find challenging. But what if there are other behaviours surrounding eating that can impact not only what you eat but how much you eat and how satisfied you feel with your daily quota of food? Researchers have found that these things we do surrounding the actual eating of food can impact health too.
As I discovered when researching the world’s healthiest diets, healthy longevity is about much more than just what you eat.
Your lifestyle as a whole impacts health too. The Mediterranean diet may be healthy but how many of the health benefits come from the specific foods and how many from the way they’re eaten as a part of a lifestyle?
Busyness is valued in our culture and taking time to eat is one of the first things to go in a busy day. The humble brag about how much time you’ve spent at work is commonplace and the lunch hour has turned into ‘email checking and eating a sandwich at desk’. This won’t impact health once in a while but might if it becomes a daily ritual.
That’s if you even have a set lunch; it’s all too easy to snack your way through the day without a set meal structure and not really remember what you’ve eaten. Will cramming a few olives in to your mouth while running between meetings have the same impact on health as taking a chilled siesta with friends and snacking on the same food? Probably not.
Let’s take a look at some of the behaviours surrounding eating and how they impact what we eat and how healthy we are.
The more scientists find out about the full role our gut plays in health the more important they realise our digestive systems are to lots of health related areas including how we feel1. This lends a new slant to the idea of ‘emotional eating’. There is even research suggesting how the type of bacteria in our gut may lead to cravings for certain foods2. So in some cases, you might be eating because the bacteria in your gut want you to.
Food is intimately entwined with family, love and how we feel about ourselves. Are you eating because you’re sad, angry or just bored? Making the decision ‘to eat, or not to eat’ is actually quite complex3.
Finding out what you actually need is also challenging and takes practice. If you find yourself reaching for the cookies when you’re annoyed, sad or angry try stepping back from the situation for a moment and thinking about what will actually make you feel better. Phone a friend, take a walk or have a bath. Ultimately this is about a journey to self-discovery, there are no quick fixes.
It feels great to satisfy a need that really needs to be met. If you’re lonely, it’s great seeing a friend for lunch. If you are constantly surrounded by people it is bliss to go home and lock the door safe in the knowledge no one will bother you. Food is the same. If you’re really hungry, anything you eat feels like the nectar of the Gods. If you have forgotten what it feels like to be hungry, you’ll search for ever more enticing options to get some satisfaction from eating.
One way to practice getting to know yourself and your feelings surrounding food is mindful eating. Studies have shown being mindful around food may help you eat less and enjoy your food more4;5;6.
Mindfulness is the practice of being present — actually living in the current moment rather than worrying about the past or stressing about the future. It’s about planting yourself firmly in the here and now. It makes sense then that this could help appreciation of food, leading to greater enjoyment and even different food choices. If you really focus on what a doughnut feels like in your mouth versus the textures, flavours and feelings of eating a plate of whole foods you may realise you actually like the latter more.
If eating can be a time to sit, relax and a time when you’re not clock watching, your meal times become a sanctuary within the day.
Do you have an area that is dedicated to eating, or do you eat in front of the television next to your open laptop while checking social media?
Research has found that eating while distracted means you’re likely to eat more later because you don’t register you’ve already eaten, or that you’ve snacked a meals worth of food over the course of the morning7.
This links to the trend in busyness too — whether you feel like you ‘deserve’ to sit and spend time eating in a dedicated eating area, or you ‘should’ continue to work while eating.
Studies have shown that people eat more calories when they’re out of the house, leading to suggestions that increased eating out could be one reason for the current obesity epidemic. However, it seems you’re only at risk of consuming more calories when out if you don’t eat out regularly. People who frequently eat out consume the same number of calories whether they’re at home or at a restaurant8.
A parent's eating behaviour impacts how their children will eat in adult life9.
Studies that look at children who eat meals with their families have also found they are less likely to be overweight10; have greater academic achievement11; eat more healthily10; and have better mental health12. Many of these studies don’t take into account whether it is actually eating together that causes the benefits, or if the types of families that eat together are likely to have children who are healthier.
When ruling out the effect of these other factors, researchers found that people who eat meals as a family are less likely to suffer from depression — as a direct result of eating together13.
On the Mediterranean, people savour their food. Every meal is an excuse to have a mini-celebration and catch up with friends or family members. Social interaction and a feeling of belonging are also really important for happiness and health, lowering markers of inflammation14.
If you have a designated place to eat and you sit down to eat your meal as an event in your day, you have the opportunity to really focus on this gift you’ve been given: food! You give yourself the opportunity to think about the fact that you’re getting food, rather than thinking about the TV programme you’re watching15.
Each meal time is an opportunity to sit and take some time to just be, focus on the food you’re eating rather than worrying about work. This is easier said than done. It can be helpful to think of it as a practice, rather than making each meal the end goal during which you have to be perfectly present.
You could consider practicing:
Food is so much more complex than what we eat and like so many things in life, there is no shortcut to a well-balanced eating-lifestyle. The first step is just being conscious that your behaviour while eating can impact your health, alongside what you’re eating. Sometimes it’s a good idea to sit back, relax and savour every mouthful.
Vicky has a degree in Biological Sciences with a focus on biochemistry and immunology and is currently studying for a MSc in Drug Discovery and Protein Biotechnology. She is also an endurance athlete.
1. Schmidt, 2015. Mental health: thinking from the gut.
12. Eisenberg, 2004. Correlations between family meals and psycosocial well-being among adolescents.
16. Headspace, 2016. www.headspace.com
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