If you’ve been around the block a few times with various health and fitness plans and always end up at square one, by regaining the weight you lost and needing to repeat the process, you may be getting worn out. I know, I’ve been there too.
We can keep doing what we’re doing (restrictive diet and gain back the weight) or we can cultivate a more effective, everlasting tool, which is self-awareness. I know the concept sounds super simple, however, it’s so simple it often gets overlooked.
The caveat here is that we first need to fully understand and have a good grasp of what it takes to be self-aware and then practice it daily, moment to moment until we master the skill.
When mastered, being aware of ourselves, from moment to moment becomes something we do unconsciously and instinctively, mostly without effort and mostly without thinking.
My experience of living with a Frenchman in France for many years gave me great insight into the French culture or ‘way of being’ and I can honestly say it changed me. The French, as a culture, are very self-aware. They develop discernment from very young age. The internal dialogue of ‘is this a yes for me or is this a no for me?’ gets pondered internally, sometimes at length, especially when it comes to food decisions.
The version of me prior to living in France, was a different person. Growing up in Australia and America, I was more or less disconnected from my body and oblivious to my behavior around food. I was also a chronic people pleaser, so I didn’t like to decline an offer of food, afraid I might offend someone.
Often we are mindless and unaware of why, when, what and how much we are eating because we simply don’t pay attention. If we didn’t have the behavior modeled for us, it’s something we don’t really get taught. Unless through observation, which is how I learned.
We live in a mindless eating world with food prompts at every corner. In fact, food marketers actively encourage us to eat their ultra-processed food and drinks anytime, anywhere. And when we grow up in a household of chaotic eating and a scarcity approach to food (finish everything on your plate and don’t waste food), it’s easy to gain weight, without self-awareness of our own behavior.
Depending on how we grew up, most of us have work to do to untangle ourselves from these deeply ingrained beliefs and habits.
Lacking self-awareness is a big reason I struggled with my weight. I knew what a healthy meal consisted of, my main hurdle was having the ability to slow down and let the sense of satiety register and to stop snacking unconsciously.
For improved self-awareness, we aim to be the observer of ourselves, without judgement. It’s really important not to judge ourselves and remain neutral because we don’t need the psychological stress of self judgement.
Gentle self-observation can help us repair damage done by stress, and reshape our brains in a way that makes us better able to regulate emotions, without needing to turn to food.
The next time you’re about to reach for the oversized bag of potato chips, imagine you’re watching yourself on a movie screen. By stepping outside of a situation before reacting to the impulse, you’ll gain an instant, calming sense of perspective rather than getting caught up in the moment.
When we zoom out and learn to observe ourselves and our behavior objectively, we realize that we always have choices and that, whether we like to admit it to ourselves or not, but we chose to eat when we weren’t hungry. This is the power of self-awareness. Self-observation empowers us, whereas a rigid diet plan can eventually make us feel like disempowered failures.
The newest research about change reveals that our brains are capable of being rewired and learning new ways of behaving but that doing so requires repetition, focus and consistency.
In effect, this means radical self-awareness, from moment to moment, overtime. It means being alert to ourselves and fully awake, rather than in a food trance and on autopilot. We need to fully focus within, steadfastly and stop allowing others to suck us so dry that we lose our ability to care for and pay attention to ourselves in the moment.
If we are sloppy with our eating habits by eating in the car, at our desk and at night after the kids go to sleep, we are using food to comfort ourselves.
The concept of being fully aware in order to facilitate change can sound daunting. Especially because we have jam packed, busy lives and most of us are stretched too thin. To have another ‘task’ piled on top of our already stressed lifestyles seems overwhelming.
Yet, while it takes conscious awareness to pay close attention to our body and food, the ‘effort’ required doesn’t need to be hard or exhausting. It’s simply holding the magnifying glass, steadily, without force.
Although shining the spotlight on ourselves can be confronting. The confrontation of realizing, through self-observation, how we have used food as a coping mechanism is a hard pill to swallow. It’s really important, therefore, to observe ourselves in a non-judgmental way.
Berating ourselves is not productive. Punishing ourselves more, with accusatory self-talk can set us back. Instead, use a kind and compassionate voice, as though we are talking to a child and guiding them to learn a new skill. Falling down and getting back up is a natural part of the process. For many, food is our ‘best friend’ and soothes us beautifully. Breaking up with ‘food as comfort’ is not an easy relationship to let go of.
We can, however, make the process of letting go a positive, even fun game in our minds. It can be fascinating to learn what our triggers for eating (when we are not hungry) are. We can get to know ourselves intimately through simply observing, through mindfulness. What our habits reveal tells us a lot about ourselves. Who triggers us to stress eat? Is lack of sleep a trigger? Are we unhappy in our relationship which cause us to turn to food?
As long as we don’t judge ourselves. We can start to address the triggers, the root causes of our overeating, rather than use food as a way of coping. As a way of letting go, we can metaphorically thank our stress eating habit for being the best way of coping we knew, and now we don’t need to do this anymore. Release it. Wave some sage around the room. Release the need to rely on food as a way of coping with life.
We can derive more pleasure with life and our improved relationship with food when we put food in its proper place.
Lasting change happens when we are ready to do the inner work. In the same way that it takes concentration, focus and practice to learn a foreign language or ride a bike, until doing so becomes automatic and we do it naturally.
According to behavioral scientists, there is no shortcut in rewiring our brains. Learning to eat when we are hungry, stop when we are full and allowing ourselves to feel our feelings without turning to food takes focus. And not just one time, but consistently, overtime. When we slip up, as we inevitably will, don’t miss the lesson. Every slip up is an opportunity to know ourselves and our triggers better. With this knowledge, we can learn to preempt situations that trigger us and derive a better plan for coping each time.
Remember, the more time we spend ignoring our food-and-weight problem, wishing and hoping for it to just go away, the more we agonize over our feeling of being a failure. Why can’t we lick this food thing? Why don’t my jeans fit? Why is my face so round? Why are my thighs so big?
Instead, we can invest our time and energy on looking inward, observing ourselves with compassion and without judgement. We simply notice and learn.
I am not special or more disciplined or lucky, the only difference between me and you is the time and attention I spent on developing a new relationship with food. You can do this, too. No matter how many times we try and fail, lasting change is possible. It isn’t luck; its time spent. It’s consistency overtime. However long it takes. And it all starts with awareness. Because we can’t change what we are not aware of.
We’ve all heard the phrase ‘you can’t out train a bad diet’ which, even among the fitness enthusiasts, most people agree with. The other popular phrase ‘weight loss happens in the kitchen’ (as opposed to) the gym, implies that we can’t rely on exercise alone as a weight loss tool. What and how much we put in our mouth is probably more important.
So how do we commit to regular exercise when it may not even help with achieving our happy weight? It starts with knowing what exercise does for us. One benefit is that it helps to manage our stress levels, which means we do less stress eating. This is a good reason to burn off tension, so we don’t try to eat (or drink) the stress away.
Also, we need to look at what we define as exercise. Like the French, I am big on incidental exercise. This type of exercise involves no changing into lycra. For some of us, ‘shopping’ really is our cardio – and that’s okay, if it works for us. It’s the walking to the shops or around the mall. It’s the housework. It’s the walking the dog. If we make it fun, and integrate it into our daily lives, then we exercise without even realizing it. Carrying bags of groceries is an opportunity to tone our arm muscles. Or we can lift dumbbells, we get to choose.
It’s easier to move more when we don’t force it or feel obligated to, or even worse, feel guilty for not working out. When we focus on health, self-care and feeling good, we naturally want to move our bodies. It’s true, energy begets energy. If we redefine what exercise means to us, essentially we are exercising when we vacuum or mop the house or walk up and down the stairs.
The key is to acknowledge how much better we feel by moving our body every day. Let’s face it, aesthetically, a toned thigh looks better than a flabby thigh, so building muscle is a good thing!
Exercising regularly has shown to be wonderful for mental health. Studies have shown that a half hour walk outside every day can be as effective as an anti-depressant. If we change our perspective on exercise, from looking at it as a burden and obligation to something that we ‘get to do’, it really shifts the needle.
There are enormous physical benefits to exercising daily. Firstly, muscle is more metabolically active than fat, so we want to develop and maintain muscle in order to enjoy an efficient metabolism. As we age too, we want to avoid muscle atrophy, and osteoporosis (loss of bone density) so doing some weight bearing exercise is hugely beneficial.
Some high impact exercises include;
Some low impact, weight bearing exercises include;
Working out, in whatever capacity we can, is a valuable partner in maintaining a healthy mind and body. The key to consistency doing it, is to make it fun. Whatever takes your fancy? Follow your highest excitement. Change things up to avoid being stuck in a rut. Exercising can be dancing around at home like nobody’s watching (my favorite).
It’s true that exhaustive training can increase our appetite. An intense spin class, for example, definitely makes me hungrier, and I know I will be ravenous and eat more at the following meal. However, a spinning class, for me, is also very uplifting and such a fun class, a bit like a disco on wheels. If the teacher and music are good, we can feed off the energy of the class and feel inspired to keep up with the tribe.
When we come away feeling exhilarated, we don’t care if we are hungrier than usual. They key is to have a plan with what we eat after class. The idea is not to dive on a jumbo bag of potato chips and negate our workout. We may want to have a protein bar or some almonds and a drink ready to consume post class. A brisk walk, every day, on the other hand, makes no difference to my hunger levels.
With awareness, we can anticipate how we are going to feel after exercising. We can have plans for what we are going to eat or drink when the hunger strikes. If we feel in charge of our eating routine and engage in exercise that feels good to us, then exercising really is a key component of a healthy lifestyle.
Therefore, the key is to make exercising fun. When we have fun moving our bodies, we naturally have a better attitude to life. Our mindset is more positive.
It is beneficial to pick a time to exercise – and stick to it. Personally, I’m a morning person and love to exercise after my first coffee and before breakfast. We get rewarded with improved mental health, body awareness, make better food choices and are better able to maintain a healthy weight over the long term.
Exercising is also about self-care and the message we are sending to ourselves by carving out the time to move our bodies in a way that feels good. If we feel like we don’t have time to exercise? Just think about former, and extremely busy, President Barack Obama. He scheduled in time to go for a run. It’s all about priorities!
We can also join forces with friends, neighbors or family members. This helps keep us turning up and accountable.
When the last thing we want to do is exercise, be flexible. We can go easy on ourselves. No-one is holding us at knife point. Some days we may need a rest day, and that’s okay. What always gets us over the hump, is finding joy in the activity itself, and loving ourselves compassionately, rather than beating ourselves up.
No matter who body shaming comes from, it can be hurtful. We can be body shamed by strangers, by people online, by family members or by people we know. Everyone is susceptible to it, large and small, young and old, male or female.
I’ve had my fair share of it over the years. In fact, not long after I met Frederic, the Frenchman I dated, many years ago, I was gob smacked when he came out and told me that, while he thought I was pretty, I could do with losing my “puffiness”. I promptly told him I was happy with who I was.
Unfortunately, people are judged for being a higher weight in this society, mainly because of our idolization of skinny people and a general fear of fat.
However, on the flip side, naturally thin people are often on the receiving end of harsh comments about their bodies as well. ‘You’re so thin, why don’t you eat more?’ My sister in-law, Louise, a high school teacher, is in a healthy weight range for her height. I was alarmed to hear that, even she was being judged by other teachers for being “too thin”.
Such comments are ignorant and don’t take into account the state of someone’s health. Sometimes illness or stress can cause weight loss, just as certain medications or underlying health conditions can cause weight gain. For instance, a bout of hypothyroidism.
Either way, we can’t win in a society that continues to pass judgement on the superficial. Beauty really does comes from within, from the soul and spirit, regardless of size of the physical body. The most important thing is to feel comfortable in ourselves, whatever size we may be.
It’s awful that we live in a judgmental, often openly hateful, body shaming uncivil culture. Social media and online bullying has exacerbated the problem too.
When people feel at liberty to pass judgements about our bodies, no matter how rude or hurtful it might be, we need to feel strong and secure within ourselves to drown out the negative comments.
If someone says something unkind about our weight, we can feel free to say something back. It’s good to have a few phrases up our sleeve for when the occasion arises. For instance, we can say, “My weight is none of your business” or
“I love my body just the way it is” or
“There is more to me than the size of my body” or
“Why does my size bother you?”
We can choose not to internalize their negative comments, because, well, they are the ones with the problem, not us. No-one can make us feel bad, without our permission.
When people judge other people, they are really judging themselves. It’s also known as ‘projecting’, a term referring to unconsciously taking unwanted emotions or traits we don’t like about ourselves and attributing them to someone else.
Hence, we need to keep telling ourselves: there is nothing wrong with me, but there is something wrong with people who judge me for my weight.
While it’s never okay for someone to pass judgement on our body, we can decide if we want to allow their comments to have a negative impact on us or not. For instance, if someone says, “You could do with losing a few pounds”, it’s helpful to consider where this person is coming from. Is it a place of genuine care for us? Or are they deliberately hurting us because they themselves, are hurting?
I am always reminded of a favorite Buddhist quote by Sri Chinmoy which is “Judge nothing, you will be happy. Forgive everything, you will be happier. Love everything, you will be happiest.”
So, the next time someone says something unkind about our size, we can send them love. People can and will have opinions, but we should never let those opinions let us doubt ourselves. Ultimately, it’s our body, our choice. The only opinion that ever really matters, with regards to our body, is our own.
What about you? Have you ever been body shamed? What did you say?
We, as a general population, are always trying a wide range of techniques to drop excess weight. There is one technique, which once mastered, is very effective.
This idea is one of the best tips I ever learned, whilst room mating with a Japanese girl, Mari, and it is only eat until 80 percent full. So simple right? Yet so effective when practiced regularly and loyally adopted.
It makes sense to take a tip from our friends in Japan, particularly the Okinawans, because they start each of their meals with the Confucian inspired adage of “hara hachi bu”, which reminds them to stop eating at 80 percent full. The reason we should pay extra attention to the Okinawan philosophy is because Okinawa is one of the healthiest places on the planet and has a higher percentage of centenarians than anywhere else in the world.
I believe the secret to eating in moderation in the long run is emulating this practice with mindfulness and awareness, until it becomes automatic. There is a significant calorie gap between when an American (or Aussie) says ‘I’m full’ and an Okinawan says, ‘I’m no longer hungry’ or ‘I feel satisfied’.
In my mind, the key to being able to do this successfully is reassuring ourselves that if, by chance, we find ourselves starving two hours later, we can choose to eat again if we really need to. It may be that we put some food from the meal aside, with the view to eating it if we need to later on. This is why I love the concept of the ‘doggy bag’ in restaurants.
Since the portions are very generous in America, requesting a doggy bag is a helpful way to practice ‘hara hachi bu’.
Whilst living in Paris, I found that the French also have a good grasp of when they’ve had enough to eat, and most French people I know naturally stop eating at the 80 percent mark. By doing this, we don’t stretch out our stomachs out (because stomachs do naturally stretch like balloons, to accommodate more food).
Furthermore, by not stuffing ourselves to the brim and potentially feeling bloated or suffering from indigestion, we remain in the ‘pleasure zone’ with eating. Feeling good after we eat is the main aim. When we feel good, we digest better (and sleep better too!).
Simple changes in everyday eating habits can help put the philosophy of ‘hara hachi bu’ into practice for improved health and pleasurable weight management.
Eat slower, because eating fast results in eating more, sometimes without even tasting the food. Focus on the food, and when eating, just eat. Try using smaller plates, bowls and glasses because by doing so, we are likely to consume less without even thinking about it or feeling deprived.
Anyone, with awareness, can make changes to their eating patterns or environment, enjoy food way more and never feel stuffed like a turkey again. Here’s to hara hachi bu.
I sometimes get asked, by people wanting to lose weight, what exactly can they eat, in order to drop the stubborn pounds? There seems to be much confusion these days around the topic of what to eat, exactly, in order to achieve our optimal health and weight.
The answer I give is, well, it depends. And since I prefer not to forbid any foods, I find myself somewhat at a loss for words.
Michael Pollan, the author of “In Defense of Food”, famously said, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. This was his short answer to the supposedly complicated question of what we should eat in order to be maximally healthy.
I agree that lots of salad and non-starchy vegetables is a wonderful thing to be eating. However, I would add, eat plants (and everything else) only between physical hunger and satisfaction. Munching on carrot sticks to alleviate stress is still risky, because one day we might tire of carrot sticks and mindlessly reach for the potato chips instead….so the habit of mindfulness is at the core of good health.
When my book “Losing It in France – Les Secrets of the French Diet” was published in 2011, the media attention it received was accompanied by lots of images of croissants, baguettes, whipped cream, red wine and camembert. The message this alluded to, was very much about eating indulgent, rich, “forbidden” foods with abandon and still dropping kilos, which, of course, is not true.
While we all secretly dream of eating whatever the heck we want in copious amounts and still losing weight, the habit of overeating is not listening to our body cues or cultivating a healthy relationship with food. I would explain to my coaching clients that the goal is to tune in to our bodies and remain in the “pleasure zone” when eating, so that our bodies can signal to us when we have had enough to eat. Leptin, which is the hormone that enables us recognize the “off switch” when eating works effectively when we slow down our eating, chew and digest properly and eat real food such as protein, healthy fats and plants.
If you’ve ever eaten a top quality steak or salmon with a salad made with good olive oil, and perhaps a some baby potatoes, followed by chocolate mousse, made with real cream and a top quality dark chocolate, you’ll understand how difficult it is to overeat. Good quality food is very satisfying. It cuts hunger. It fills us up without making us feel bloated and uncomfortable. When we choose quality, the need to eat in excess or to overshoot satiation is naturally reduced.
When we pay close attention to our bodies and how certain foods taste and make us feel after eating them, I believe we are naturally drawn to fresh, quality foods, which in turn, reduces the desire and need to overeat beyond comfortable satisfaction.
The French Paradox has often been perceived as somewhat of a mystery, and sometimes gets reduced to the idea that the French are ‘genetically blessed’, so they can get away with eating “sinful”, calorie laden food, drinking wine with every meal and still remain enviably slender. Truth is that healthy fats and proteins are extremely satiating which leaves little room for “le dessert”. Three bites of a decadent, rich sweet usually will hit the spot.
Eating intuitively and mindfully, a la French, is not about eating as much as we want and abandoning nutrition altogether. Croissants have no resounding nutrition, apart from the butter. However, the croissants in France and the croissants in America are in fact, not created equal. Studies have shown too, that American croissants tend to be “supersized” and often made with cheaper fats, such as seed oils.
However, losing weight is not about rigid rules either. Slim Americans eat croissants too. When we give ourselves unconditional permission to eat all foods, without feelings of guilt, we naturally want to honor our health and taste buds, so we are naturally more aware of quality because we want to feel physically and emotionally satisfied after eating.
To be honest, I am not a fan of “labeling” when it comes to eating. I am not loyal to one way of eating. I like to go by feel. For example, some meals I might feel like eating Vegan, even though I don’t identify as Vegan. Sometimes I eat meatless, even though I’m not a vegetarian. Sometimes I eat Keto meals, because that is what I fancy at that particular moment in time. I buy Paleo foods, even though I don’t call myself Paleo. I like dairy, because I tolerate it fine. Sometimes I intermittent fast, because it suits my schedule. Sometimes I drink almond milk, but mostly I prefer whole, full cream milk. I do, however, chose to eat gluten free, due to my Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune condition I suffer from, which also causes an underactive thyroid.
However, if I slip up at a restaurant or while eating at someone’s home, fortunately, eating gluten will not make me topple over in pain, as it can do to a celiac, for example. I may, however, suffer from a migraine a day later, which is never fun.
I have to admit, too, that it took me no less than two years to fully commit to being completely gluten free, in honor of my health. Sometimes I admit, I do feel deprived when I can’t eat certain cakes or pizzas with my husband and kids. However, I often plan ahead with alternatives for myself and it is becoming a lot easier these days when eating out. Being gluten free also encouraged me to get creative in the kitchen with dinners and with baking, which I’ve enjoyed experimenting with.
Admittedly too, it was only when I fully understood what gluten was doing to my gut (basically punching holes in the gut lining every time I ate it) and antagonizing my immune system that I was able to commit, wholeheartedly, to being gluten free forever. The hardest part for me was travelling to Paris in 2018 on vacation with my family and not being able to enjoy baguettes and the delicious pastries in every delicious looking boulangerie. I did, however, hunt down gluten free bakeries which offered amazing gluten free versions of my favorites!
I am not saying everyone needs to be gluten free, it’s just something I choose to do for my health. However, my husband and kids are not gluten free and have no apparent intolerances.
I often say that worrying about nutrition and the anxiety involved in making sure we’re eating the healthiest foods can be an added form of stress, in our already stressful world. With this in mind, my recommendation is to relax and take pleasure in eating mindfully, between hunger and satisfaction.
Ironically, when we raise cortisol levels in our body, due to stress, it becomes difficult to release our excess weight.
Therefore, instead of forbidding any foods in particular, focus on quality and the joy and satisfaction of each meal. When we take the time to consider what we are really craving on that particular day and honor our cravings, we are better able to stop eating at just enough. Eating around our cravings can sometimes mean we feel deprived and overeat later on. Our bodies really do know best, when we truly listen to them.
While making drastic changes to our eating can help with weight loss, at least initially, going to extremes is often not sustainable over the long term. Think of The Biggest Loser approach. Why punish ourselves and then end up back at square one?
This is where mindfulness comes in. By paying close attention to our bodies and honing tweaks we can live with, for the rest of our lives, we feel self-empowered. Cultivating body trust, with awareness, is what will get you to a healthy weight, a weight you can happily maintain over the long term.
There is no one size fits all diet either. We are all individuals with underlying pre-existing medical conditions, such as the state of our thyroid function, or our resistance to insulin, whether we are aware of them or not. These conditions inevitably affect our metabolisms. Hence why some individuals can drop weight easily and others struggle, even when eating the exact same calorie amount.
Back when I was addicted to sugar and simple carbs in my twenties, I was unaware that I had polycystic ovaries, insulin resistance and candida. Ironically, I developed polycystic ovaries due to being raised on excess sugar and simple carbohydrates, like lots of pasta, sweets and bread, however, I didn’t even know what these conditions were, let alone how to treat them.
I suffered from Candida, which is an overgrowth of bad gut bacteria, due to chronic antibiotic use (for my severe acne). I didn’t understand that my gut was leaky or that my chronic migraines were an indication of an underlying sensitivity to gluten. It was a vicious cycle of beating myself up and not really understanding the underlying causes of my conditions.
However, these somewhat “invisible” conditions that I was unaware of, caused me cravings so intense that they were stronger than my ability to say no. Then I would start a diet which forbid these foods completely, and I would be miserable. It became a form of physiological torture.
The main reason restrictive diets don’t work is that most of us can’t stay on a diet for a long period of time because we often crave the food we are avoiding. Also we are not addressing the root causes of our cravings. And when we have been using certain foods as a way of coping emotionally (from a bad boss for example), to take away our lifeline feels like freefalling into our own private hell. We get hangry. We suffer immensely without our trusty support system because we haven’t replaced it with a healthier coping mechanism. We lose our patience. It usually doesn’t end well.
Diets also tend to encourage unrealistic restrictive eating habits that are neither sustainable nor healthy. I’ve seen some women attempt to go keto, only to end up exhausted and adrenally fatigued. Most busy women, especially busy mum’s need some complex carbohydrates to make it through the day.
Eventually what happens, when we feel deprived and tired, resistance creates force, we start to resent the restrictions and we overeat the foods that are forbidden… Then there is literally no. Carb. Left. Behind.
Or, another big one is alcohol. Dieters are prepared to abstain, until the Champagne starts flowing at their best friends’ birthday party…or work function. Or anniversary….or Christmas.
I once read in a book that most alcoholics are potentially hypoglycemic, which means that they crave alcohol due to having low blood sugar. If this is true, then we would be best to focus on keeping blood sugar stable through better eating and reduce the need for liquid sugar, in the form of alcohol. However, I believe that for some people, abstinence from alcohol is the best solution. It’s up to us to really know ourselves. Yet, we can’t abstain from food, so we need to figure out a way to work with it.
I know that restricting carbohydrates works for weight loss. But does this mean we need to be Keto or zero carb in order to be a healthy weight? Such extremism is usually not necessary. In fact, doing keto properly is actually very hard to do and to maintain over the long term.
While being in ketosis has its merits scientifically (for example, I would go keto if I had cancer, to starve the disease of its sugar source) however, often just emphasizing more quality protein and healthy fats in our daily eating routines simply helps to satiate us more and leave less room for the “play foods” such as cookies and ice-cream.
But can we still have a cookie or some chocolate ice-cream? Yes! In fact I recommend having foods we love, mindfully, with intention and attention, following real food and in small quantities. We need to have our protein first, then we don’t tend to overeat the treats.
In my mind, it’s up to us to experiment and figure out our personal carbohydrate tolerance. For example, how much can we eat and get away with? And we do this by paying attention to our own bodies. We become nimble and non-judgmental. If our jeans are tight after a day of too much cake, we make adjustments the following day, and perhaps eat lighter that day, to maintain our equilibrium. No need to beat ourselves up or be riddled with guilt.
There is no such thing as “good” or “bad” foods. In fact, it’s best not to morally judge food, because it’s just food, whether it has nutrients or not. There’s a time and a place for all foods, if we really want them, in a well-rounded eating plan. At the same time, just because we can eat everything, doesn’t mean we need to or even want to.
By forbidding certain foods, we tend to increase their allure, which can then lead to the paradoxical effect of weight gain and decreased confidence in our ability to do something as elementary as feeding ourselves.
When we take a step back from diet culture and focus instead on learning to recognize and understand our hunger cues, both emotional and physical, we naturally become in better tune with our bodies.
Our intention is to achieve a sustainable, pleasurable health focused lifestyle based on the pillars of self-love and self-care. Only you knows what feels right for you. In addition, I’ve found that quality sleep, physical activity and stress management are all important categories of a healthy lifestyle and go a long way in helping us manage a healthy weight.
One aspect relating to the French way of eating which, once adopted, really helped me, was being fully present and mindful as I eat.
Although mindfulness is trendy these days, it’s hardly a new concept. Ideas like patience, living in the present moment and practicing gratitude stretch back to ancient Buddhism.
The French, as a culture (and the Japanese too, from what I’ve experienced) have always eaten this way. It wasn’t until the 20th century, though, that applying the concept to, say, eating a slice of pizza in America became popular. Which is wonderful, because, the practice of mindful eating can be applied anywhere (geographically) and to any food.
A practice as simple as mindfully eating a raisin, with all five senses, can be a sensational experience. So mindful eating is universal and it’s free. The French have always done it, eating mindfully, with an intuitive sense, forms part of their cultural tapestry. What’s not to love, right?
Yet, what does eating mindfully mean exactly? And how does it differ from the concept of “intuitive eating”?
In my mind, being more mindful when we eat starts with minimizing distractions during mealtimes. When I lived with a French family in Paris, one thing that stood out was that the TV was always turned off at mealtime and no phones were present at the dinner table. Mealtime is sacred time to connect with each other and savor the food shared at the table.
Perhaps unconsciously because the habit is so deeply ingrained, the French, as a culture, tend to experience their food with all five senses, eating slowly and chewing more thoroughly.
Mealtimes are not rushed or something to be “gotten out of the way”. Moreover, it’s the time of day when everyone comes together, surrounded by good food, to share stories from the day and to converse about topics of interest. There are, inevitably, often some passionate debates too, because, well, the French are passionate people.
Relaxing at the dinner table, means we take smaller bites and set the utensils down between bites. We may sip some wine or water in between mouthfuls. There is also a certain sense of gratitude for the food, such as rhapsodies about the flavorful tomatoes or a delicious cheese.
Baguette is passed around, as is the salad. There is always a protein simply served, whether it be meat, poultry or fish and often with a tasty sauce or simply Dijon mustard. There are healthy fats present, such as olive oil, real butter and cream sauces and yoghurt to finish. Fresh fruits of the season, whether its berries or peaches are enjoyed with enthusiastic delight.
Eating more mindfully has proven positive effects, beyond just helping us enjoy our meals more. Research has linked increased mindfulness to weight loss, better self-management of type 2 diabetes and a reduction in binge eating and emotional eating behaviors.
Intuitive eating is, by differentiation, a concept which aims to free people from the damaging beliefs about food (such as, that fat or sugar is bad), with the goal of establishing judgement-free eating. It teaches us to eat in response to physical hunger and satiety cues while also being aware of emotional eating.
Intuitive eating helps us to cultivate the ability to notice and identify sensations of hunger, fullness and satisfaction as they arise in the body. Intuitive eating encourages us to cope with our emotions with kindness and to honor our health with gentle nutrition (as opposed to military) and to make peace with food. It teaches us to respect our body and to reject the diet mentality.
Intuitive eating, therefore, is associated with higher levels of self-esteem and lower levels of body image concerns and psychological stress around eating. While weight loss is not the goal with intuitive eating, the body trust that results often is associated with a lower body mass index.
When we find food freedom and have less guilt around certain foods and eating, our relationship with food is transformed in a positive way.
Mindful eating and intuitive eating are by no means mutually exclusive. Both philosophies address the ways our mental state can influence our food choices, and our satisfaction levels during and after eating. In my mind both practices, help us to cultivate an “off switch” when it comes to knowing when to stop eating, naturally.
Used in tandem, the upside is infinite and we reap the benefits of staying in the present, eating when we are truly hungry, stopping when we are pleasantly satisfied and thoroughly enjoying each bite.
How can we take the sting out of saying no to certain foods and even alcohol, when we are scared of missing out?
I still remember my mum’s second husband, John, couldn’t (and wouldn’t) say no to any offer of food or drink at all. In the end, I think it drove my mum crazy, for some reason she found it astonishing that John had no restraint. He was afraid to miss out and he carried the excess kilos to prove it.
Over the years, I have learned to say no politely, graciously and with feelings of guilt or deprivation. We live in the abundant Western world, so at least when it comes to food, most of us are not really at risk of starving.
In my mind, part of being able to say no to a delicious offer of food, without feeling deprived, is knowing that we can have it again, anytime we feel like it. And, just because the food or alcohol is free, doesn’t mean we need to say yes to it. In fact when it’s free, it’s not always the best quality.
Back in 2014, my family and I went on an “all you can eat” cruise around the Bahamas. As a keen observer of peoples eating styles, I was kept thoroughly entertained watching many passengers push to get their “fair share” of food, which, by the way, just kept flowing and flowing. There was clearly no shortage of good food, and yet most people’s attitudes were one of scarcity and fear of missing out.
This is where having an abundance mindset, rather than a scarcity mindset around food really helps us to say no when we are not truly hungry.
A friend recently told me that she had been put on medication which meant that she couldn’t drink alcohol or she would suffer serious side effects. Although she usually had a glass of wine at night to unwind (as did many people during Covid), she said it was no big deal giving it up because the medication would make her feel better and she didn’t want to cause herself harm by drinking. Sighing, she said if only she could say no to food that easily.
Truth is, we need a good “why” in order to change habits that are no longer working for us. Much of our eating and drinking is mindless habit. We are very suggestible to external cues and susceptible to ingesting food and drink simply because it’s there, it’s offered, it’s free or we get triggered by a television commercial or a drive thru.
We can easily get into the habit of a pick-me-up muffin at morning tea with our coffee, a bag of chips when we arrive home, a beer when watching the football, a drink before dinner or a snack before bedtime.
We don’t need to do any of these things, but they’ve become so integrated into our lives that we’re convinced we can’t do without them.
With this in mind, we need to view saying no to these habits that no longer serve us, as positive and effective self-care, rather than distressingly deprivational.
Being able to say no, therefore is all about our perception and how we choose to view the changes we are seeking to make.
Of course we deserve the small pleasures in life. We just need to be discerning. What’s the difference between habituations we can easily relinquish and those we would go down fighting for? Sometimes, we are just so into good chocolate that we would happily forgo the cocktail.
Sometimes, we realize we are saying yes to food and drink that we could, in fact, decline and not feel deprived at all. Personally, I have gotten fussy over the years, and I don’t eat just any chocolate now, in fact I’m a self-confessed chocolate snob. This makes saying no to certain offers really easy!
What are some foods or habits you can easily say no to without the consequences feeling too huge for you? Start noticing the level of pleasure you’re deriving from the often mindless, automatic habits we feel we can’t live without, and we can surprise ourselves how easy it becomes to say no.
If you’ve been around the block a few times with different diets, whether it be Atkins, Keto, Intermittent fasting, Paleo, Vegan or Dukan, you’ll know how important lasting results you can live with are.
This is where awareness helps. Mindfulness helps you develop a set of rules that work for you personally, simply by paying close attention to different foods and how they personally affect your body and make you feel. Lowering your carbs and improving your insulin sensitivity may help you achieve weight loss (I know it did for me). Yet how do we maintain the positive results over many years?
WE need to develop a set of rules or guidelines that we can live with happily, in the real world and over the long term. Ad you may know, I lost my 20 pounds (10 kilos) twenty years ago, whilst living in France with a French family.
Luckily, the same set of guidelines I used back then still work for me today, even during and post menopause.
If you’re wondering what my basic “rules” are, they are:
After quitting gluten, I also realized how less bloated I was, which was a clear indication, in hindsight, that my body was intolerant to gluten. Therefore, I find that when we abstain from certain foods due to health reasons and we witness the benefits to our health, it is much easier to maintain over the long term.
Truth is, many diets do achieve visible results in the short term but most are simply difficult to maintain over the long term, unless we feel so amazing that we want to eat this way forever. Low carb and keto diets get amazing results, there is no doubt because I’ve seen it many times with my own eyes, and yet, keto is very hard to do properly and for long periods of time.
Again, every individual is different and if our body has difficultly in processing fat, or we simply need more carbs to fuel our lifestyles, then it’s up to us to learn to be extra mindful and read our body’s needs.
Also if restricting carbohydrate intake too drastically results in feelings of desperation and increased cravings, then we need to think twice and consider what set of eating guidelines is sustainable over the long term.
G'day. Welcome to my blog, where I write about mindful eating. My name is Sally Asher and I'm a wellness author of three books. I hold a Health Science degree and have a passion for behavioral change. I live between South Florida and Melbourne with my husband and two teenagers. My husband and I run a real estate investment company. I love to help people eat mindfully and reconnect with the innate, intuitive sense of eating that we are all born with.