Follow these simple rules (and a secret fourth) and change how you eat.
Most of us have a complicated relationship with food. We learned to associate food with love back when we were babies, and it doesn’t take long to pick up our social and cultural neuroses about body weight. Our culture moralizes sugar, carbs, salt, and fat as evildoers and obsesses about the superfood of the moment (it’s broccoli! No, it’s goji berries! Now it’s butter!). We’ve all tried a diet or two that promised to solve all our problems. We eat for emotional, social, and other psychological reasons, not always because we are hungry. For some of us this has been true for so long we no longer feel our hunger and fullness cues.
I suspect that if we could shed all these neuroses and simply eat when we were hungry and stop when we were full, we’d be healthier, more relaxed, and love our bodies more. Our weight would probably fluctuate and we’d all probably look different from each other (let alone the models in glossy magazines) but we’d probably feel pretty good in our skins. What we put in our mouths matters, of course. We need certain nutrients to be healthy and we know that too much processed food is bad for us. But though we obsess about what foods to eat or avoid, we rarely talk about how we are feeding ourselves.
Recently, I started implementing three simple rules (and a secret fourth) to change how I eat. The practice has been profound: I am learning to respect my body and my relationship with food. Layers of old habits and anxieties around food are showing up and then peeling away. I’m genuinely enjoying the experience of eating. My digestion is better, my stress is lower, and I even lost a little weight, even though I felt like I was eating more!
1. Sit down.
When we are sitting down to eat, we are showing our food some respect. We’re more likely to feel relaxed and be present. We can’t digest very well when we are in a stressed out fight-or-flight mode because the body directs energy away from the digestive system and to the extremities. The relaxed nervous system state is called “rest and digest” for a reason: we need to be at rest to digest.
Digestion starts in the mouth; chewing helps us process our food. Chewing can also slow us down and give the stomach a chance to respond to our food. The hormone ghrelin, which gives us the signal that we are hungry, prepares the body for digestion. If we eat before we get this signal, digestion works less well. I’ve also found that if I eat when I’m not hungry, the signal that I’m full never comes. Honoring our body’s cues for hunger and fullness is a vital way to teach ourselves that our desire matters, how we feel matters, and that we respect and care for this body we live in.
3. Relax your belly.
This one surprised me: I can’t believe how tense my belly often is when I’m eating. Relaxing the belly helps us enter rest-and-digest and to stay conscious of how our bodies are receiving our food. Taste becomes a whole-body experience rather than something that only happens on the tongue.
Secret rule #4: Be gentle with yourself when you break these rules.
This rule is vital; don’t forget it even though it’s a secret extra rule! Life is busy and it takes work, attention, and plenty of forgiveness to change. Most of us have had messed up relationships with food our entire lives, and it takes time to unlearn decades-old habits. The intention of these rules is to bring relaxation, pleasure, and attention to the experience of eating, so do the best you can to make it work for your life and be gentle when things inevitably go off the rails.