Food is far from a simple means of nourishment. It's a wellspring of comfort, a social lubricant... and, for many, a source of stress. But as widespread as food-linked anxiety and guilt are, allowing ourselves to get stressed about what we're eating is counter-productive – not just for our physical health, but for our mental health.
Even for the cleanest of eaters, there will be occasional mishaps and missteps.
“We all have what I like to call those uh-oh moments,” says Elise Museles, Certified Eating Psychology and Nutrition Expert and founder of the Food Story concept. “Just understand that, and have that deal with yourself. It's not giving yourself permission, but really just saying - life happens to everybody.”
The alternative – beating yourself up about a brownie, a plate of French fries, or one too many glasses of wine – could be detrimental to your health.
Worrying about a poor eating choice creates a stress response in the body, much like the ones caused by being overwhelmed at work or stuck in traffic. These responses originally evolved to help us in life-threatening stress situations, like being chased by a bear: non-essential bodily functions are suppressed to give our full energy to avoid a predator. But when we're constantly stressed out, these functions – digestion, metabolism, and nutrient assimilation – are all affected long-term.
“From a scientific, physiological point of view, you're actually doing damage to your system by having those negative thoughts,” says Museles.
So how do you stop? Here’s what our experts say.
1. Be kind.
We’re often so much meaner to ourselves than we would ever consider being to our friends. If the way you talk to yourself after making a poor eating choice is too mean a thing to say to your sister, mom, or BFF, nip it in the bud.
“If you can switch that conversation to being a little bit more loving and compassionate, then that also helps take away from some of the stress,” says Museles.
Of course, turning off negative self-talk is easier said than done.
“It does take time and practice to let go of the negativity,” says Dr. Terry Wahls, M.D., a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa and author of several books on functional medicine. “It is like learning any new skills.”
“I start with positive affirmations of the new skills I am acquiring,” she continues, noting she recommends using your own first name when you talk to yourself and speaking aloud, hands on hips, repeating the affirmations three times.
“For example: ‘Terry, you are trying new tastes and new foods. Good for you for exploring new things.’”
“When we use our first name we are a friend to ourselves and studies have shown greater success with adopting the new behavior,” she says.
2. Ask why.
Instead of beating yourself up about a poor eating decision, consider asking yourself why you made it.
“Put on the detective hat, and say, ‘OK, I'm curious. Why did I go and raid the refrigerator at 10 o'clock at night?’” Museles says.
Possible reasons might include eating an unbalanced or unfulfilling dinner, dehydration, fatigue, stress, boredom, loneliness, routine, or a myriad of other reasons.
“Was it impulsive?” says cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf. “If so maybe in the future you need to think more before making a quick decision. Were you stressed? Maybe in the future, avoid eating at all until you are calm and collected so you can make better decisions.”
“The point is," she continues, "turn this ‘bad choice’ into an opportunity to learn HOW to make better decisions; conduct a mental autopsy and be intentional about setting up a plan so this does not happen again.”
“You really have to ask yourself those hard questions,” says Museles. “But when you come from a point of curiosity instead of judgment, it's so much easier to say, ‘Aha, now I see why I do that,’ and be able to auto-correct and not do it anymore.”
Pushing away from judgment can also keep less-than-ideal eating choices from becoming a cyclical problem.
“Thinking of foods as only good and bad can lead to shame and low self-esteem,” says JD Roth, executive producer of NBC's "The Biggest Loser," ABC's "Extreme Weight Loss," and host of Z Living's "The Big Fat Truth."
“If you eat a food that you have given a ‘bad’ label to, you will only start feeling bad about yourself, and your choices, leading to worse decisions and maybe even falling off the cliff of caring.”
3. Set yourself up for success.
Selecting the foods that you surround yourself with may make it easier or harder to make eating choices you feel good about.
“Food today is designed to be addictive and make us make irrational choices," says Leaf. "This is by no means an excuse to keep making bad food choices, but it is helpful and comforting to know that it is not because you are weak.”
That said, depriving yourself of something you love could make you crave it even more and thus make you susceptible to caving when it crosses your path. To combat this problem, Wahls recommend food swaps.
“I encourage people to identify food alternatives to anything that is being excluded from the diet for health reasons,” she says. “If I am asking people to remove dairy and cheese, I find out what dairy products they most enjoy and help the person identify suitable alternatives. For example, if people miss yogurt - then we discuss coconut and nut milk alternatives. Likewise, if they miss cheese the most, I review options for coconut or cashew cheese alternatives.”
And Roth notes that you can set yourself up for success by starting every morning off on the right foot.
“Remember eating well, and treating yourself better, is a decision we are all faced with at least three times a day,” he says. “Starting off the day with a good decision typically leads to more good decisions.”
4. Don’t define yourself by your eating style.
It's super trendy these days to not only pride ourselves on making healthful eating choices but even to use these words as identifiers: “I’m paleo; I’m keto; I’m vegan.” But we are the sum of many things, and defining ourselves by how we eat could make any slip-ups feel like a much bigger deal than they really are.
“You may be more inclined to follow a plant-based diet or a paleo diet or vegan or whatever... but that's not who you are,” says Museles.
“It's only 'easy' to avalanche if you allow yourself to think in that catastrophic cascade of ‘might as well...’” says Monica Auslander Moreno, MS, RD, LD/N, nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition. “Realize that one 'strange' eating experience does not completely derail your entire dietary pattern or health in general. Think rationally about what makes a person ‘healthy’ – is it really one meal or item?”
Reframing your eating pattern as a series of choices rather than an identity makes it much easier to move past one deviation.
5. Get back in touch with your body.
Choosing food is certainly a mental exercise, especially these days: we research the sustainability of brands, pesticide contamination, animal welfare, nutrition, and more before making a purchase. But food should be a bodily experience as well.
“You don't eat something just because you saw it on Instagram via your favorite influencer,” says Museles. “It's really always about checking back in with your body and seeing how something feels.”
Some foods that work well for others – like eggs, turmeric, or mushrooms – or diets that others swear by – like plant-based or paleo – might not be right for your tastebuds or your body. And that's OK!
“You're the only one who's going to know how it's going to feel," says Museles, "so at the end of the day, you really have to be checking in with yourself.”
“Some people have some kind of structure," she continues, "but I'm always pushing for flexibility within that structure, just depending on what's going on inside of you.”
Just as important as grounding yourself in your body is grounding yourself in your mind and your emotions.
“We are far more likely to buy impulsively and eat reactively (such as grabbing that tub of ice cream when we feel worried or upset) if we are not in a good state of mind,” says Leaf.
“I always tell people this: Eat real food MINDFULLY,” she continues. “You can eat the healthiest kale salad, but if your mindset is toxic your body will battle to make the best of that salad, even if it is organic, local, sustainable et cetera.”
Dr. Will Cole, leading functional medicine practitioner, IFMCP, DC, and author of Ketotarian, echoes this call for mindfulness.
“Close to 90 percent of our daily thoughts are repetitive, so if your thoughts are mostly negative, you may not even realize it,” he says. “Tools like mindfulness meditation will help you to become more aware of the present moment so you can better hear your thoughts and become an observer of them rather than letting them control you.”
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