Since practising and teaching mindful eating for the last 4 years, I’ve frequently been struck by our use of the word ‘treat’. With mindful eating we strive to eliminate value judgements of eating behaviours that are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, as that judgement could potentially cause stress within the physical body. If you contemplate the scenario of over-eating foods that we perceive are ‘bad’ for us, some of us as a result of that, can then experience guilt, self-loathing, anger or frustration and many more emotional responses in a stick-beating approach to ourselves. Instead, cultivating acceptance and non- judgement towards our self may help to break a cycle of self-imposed suffering which can lead to more over-eating. This isn’t to say that we are in denial of the choices that we make, that they don’t have consequences, it is with awareness of the choices that we make and noticing what happens when we do make them. Sometimes we just know we are going to eat something that doesn’t particularly agree with us, no matter how we try to convince ourselves not to. Judging ourselves on top of that probably won’t stop that from happening if we want it that ‘badly’.
Skilful choices take time.
Accepting that learning new eating habits and choices, can take years (we are a work in progress!) and part of that journey can involve a ‘2 step forward, 3 steps back’ experience. We can learn from the choices we make and the consequential experiences that aren’t so skilful. By noticing how healthful and balanced we feel in mind body and spirit, when we make skilful choices, we observe and watch our reactions to food consumption. When we pay attention, this is mindfulness.
Our approach to ourselves and noticing what is happening for us physically, mentally and emotionally when we make unskilful choices is, as already said, unlikely to be rectified by being harsh on ourselves. Take the example of overconsumption of calories. If we make or have made that choice, we can allow ourselves to adopt an approach of kindfulness, a compassionate nurturing enquiry, or a curiosity of ‘what is happening for me physically, mentally and emotionally right now?’. This can help us to understand ourselves and our habits better.
Pausing in this way, reflecting, meditating, taking a breath or similar can then break cycles. It may give us a moment to see that the choices of over-consumption that we would like to make are driven by emotion or thought that may pass or dissolve when noticed or given attention. In that moment, the need for emotional eating might pass, when we acknowledge and accept ourselves exactly just as we are in the here and now. We may say to ourselves, ‘there’s greed’, without judging that or realising that greed in that moment comes from a lack of needs being met. We may then decide to nurture ourselves in another way, taking a bath, booking in for a soothing massage or similar. Or, we may mindfully decide to proceed with eating the food, because we do really want it. Eating it slowly, savouring it and noticing how our body responds to it brings awareness to the experience. We might realise that the consumption doesn’t feel comfortable internally or benefit us in other ways and remember that for next time we are challenged in a similar situation.
Strengthening our Functional Intuition
As we tune into our body at deeper and deeper levels, we strengthen our sense of what I call functional intuition i.e. that personal intuitive physical sense of what helps us as individuals to function well or even optimally. This is where the switch starts to happen, the recognition of how our body responds to various foods and do they suit us? We are then getting deeper, to the heart of nourishment and compassionate feeding. This may go a step further, when we focus on gut health and the microbes in our gut, which evidence suggests can support our mental health and our immune system. We can start to think with compassion about how to feed our ‘inner army’ of gut microbes.
It illustrates further the concept of ‘if your body was a car would you put the wrong fuel in it?’. You pull up to the petrol station, put diesel in the unleaded car…the mechanic must then be called to drain it. If we aren’t fuelling and nourishing our body’s kindfully, is it any wonder we keep needing to call the doctor? Correct nutrition helps to fuel us better and, on some level, I think we probably know this, but our denial and fear of change can stop us from acting on our intuition is telling us. My own experience reflects that this is not an easy journey and transition to make by any means! I have always had a healthful homecooked diet, 5+ a day etc, but with the addition of high sugar processed foods and a preference for white bread in the past.
As my journey has progressed, healthful natural choices have replaced others in a step by step process. Instead of buying high sugar foods such as biscuits and cakes, I’d make them with the best ingredients I could afford, whilst addressing underlying emotional issues until that desire began to ebb. Low sugar and homemade wholemeal /spelt seeded bread is what my body now wants. As I feed my army of gut microbes, they seem to really appreciate that nourishment and gravitate towards that choice naturally with enjoyment, but it hasn’t always been that way, so from experience I realise the importance of not forcing things. When I do make other decisions and experiment (I like this word as it encourages the attitude of curiosity and noticing rather than judgment) I notice how my body and mind responds. This takes away the attitude of ‘good and bad’, ‘right or wrong’ and the subsequent guilt which can weigh heavily on our emotions and physique, that kind of thinking can be another source of stress.
Not so long back, a penchant for some high sugar granola with dark chocolate struck me as I walked around a supermarket. I used to love cocoas pops as a child, as a ‘treat’. The thought niggled me as I walked around and the desire so strong, I listened and bought a packet, deciding to mindfully experiment. When I did have a bowlful, I wanted more and went with it. My energy levels dropped after eating it, my body didn’t feel as functional. Rather than judging it and thinking ‘oh no I shouldn’t have eaten that’ (and more!) I noticed and stored those observations as an experience. I realised, with quiet acceptance, that the combination of sugar led me to want more and more and it just didn’t suit me. I naturally didn’t then want to finish it off and it sat in the cupboard for a few months. When I found it again, I decided to have one last piece before throwing it away – it just didn’t taste wholesome, it tasted false. My friend said not so long back, something which makes me smile, it was a comment about how some things on sale are ‘food like substances’. It was so heavily processed, away from a natural food, that I think of it as a ‘false food’ for my body.
What’s your poison?
Which leads me to the musing over the last few years. ‘The treat’. An item that we may also think of as ‘bad’ for us, is named a ‘treat’. I appreciate that this is referring to the suggestion of only having it every now and then. However, if this is the case and our body respond with imbalance, it certainly isn’t a treat, it’s the opposite in actuality! It’s an antonym. A ‘harm’, a ‘hurt’, an ‘injury’, a ‘neglect’, a ‘poison’ or a ‘bad fortune’ or a ‘disregard’. And often that is what we are doing when we don’t consider our true health when we choose foods, we are disregarding, harming and poisoning ourselves albeit in minor ways in the short-term, but long-term consequences can as we are all aware of be more severe with the risk of diabetes, heart health etc. Admittedly as Marc Jacobs points out in the Slow Down Diet, ‘it’s the dose that makes the poison’ and this is so true. Unfortunately, the modern diet and availability of food, as well as our attitude, provides us with an over-dose!
How skewed is our thinking or terminology, in truth? What was a treat in the past might now be a misnomer? As I was out running the other day it struck me, it would be termed more appropriately as ‘an occasional’. A treat, something that is good for us, would be best characterised by an apple. (And on that note, I wonder how many teachers would appreciate the apple, apart from with humour, if they were to receive one!) Ironically, when we recover our sense of taste by eating heartfully, with a low sugar diet, the apple does then become the ‘treat’. I speak for myself, as a human I have gone on a skewed journey of excess and over-dose, I know I’m not alone. This has led to desensitisation to sugar as we have become used to higher and higher levels. Our ‘treats’ have become our ‘usual’s’ or normal for us, which changes the palate so that we can’t appreciate the subtle nuances of food flavours. Sugary treats are literally addictive as some of us literally need more and more, but that’s a blog for another time.
Reward or Punishment?
The things that we give children to ‘reward’ them, really are skewed, ‘here’s some sweets you’ve been a good boy’. How would a child respond to ‘here’s an apple you’ve been a good boy, so I will reward you with health’ – after all, it keeps doctors away. There’s many a true word spoken in an established saying that has longevity. Food can also be used as a form of control.
Our thinking is habitual, it’s the way many of us are ‘programmed’ – for now – but I think we are coming to realise, we are awakening to new ideas of health or perhaps more aptly put, going back to old ways. I guess, only now can I appreciate how my early days at school I was given an apple for break which was the provision of a healthful diet. I watched enviously as friends had chocolate biscuits and crisps. We didn’t have fizzy drinks; we had a handful of sweets once a week and crisps were handed out to us and a packet of biscuits for the family once a week. Consequently, when the reins came off as an adult I did overeat, as well as emotional eating.
‘Everything in moderation’ is a phrase that I was brought up with, but at the time coupled with other factors it characterised deprivation and lack for me. We are human and that is perhaps our challenge as moderation can be a difficult road to walk for some of us. I have frequently learnt the hard way, it informs part of my work (been there done that, I can empathise with clients!) As we learn to sit and listen to our emotions and release them, instead of stuffing them down, we may come to find that we begin to change our approach to food, viewing it as fuelling and powering our body, rather than using food soporifically to dull the emotions. I find Tara Brach’s RAIN meditations useful for this. ‘Compassionate Nourishment’.
So, the reframing of treat to an ‘occasional’ certainly sits more aptly for me. Those things that we do know we are likely to eat from time to time, without judgement, when eaten mindfully and with acceptance can be truly savoured. When we slow our eating down and savour the experience of the occasional, the chocolate slowly melting on the tongue, how our body responds to that, the array of flavours within each mouthful, the texture and so on, we may be less inclined to eat more of it and feel more satisfied and satiated with our nutritional experience. We may over time then come to view this experience differently and naturally make more healthful choices that aren’t forced with ‘should’s and ‘ought’s’ as we cultivate a more compassionate nourishment approach to our eating habits and towards ourselves. It’s certainly food for thought, in more ways than one.
Copyright 2020 Emma Sims Holistic Therapies