Content warning: Article contains examples of trauma experiences with food and nutrition.
As we come into a new year, many of us are drawn to the idea of making resolutions to improve our lives. Our resolutions may include nutritional goals, which have a powerful connection to mental health and one’s overall well-being. In prior years, I might overhear my loved one’s resolutions include targets that fall into diet culture and/or the emphasis may be on weight loss. Through this post, I aim to bring a strengths-driven and trauma-informed perspective to this goal-setting season with the topic of intuitive eating.
Understanding the connection between food and our mind
Our mental and physical well-being are intricately linked, and what we put into our bodies can significantly influence how we feel. There are many studies that have explored this brain-gut connection, many of which have revealed interesting insights into how our stomach and brain communicate.
Think of it as a two-way street: not only does your brain have influence on your gut, but your gut may also play a part in influencing your brain chemistry. Some of these studies have found that the trillions of microbes living in our digestive system play a crucial role by producing chemicals that communicate to our brain. This communication may affect processes related to our own stress and/or inflammation responses. All to say, a balanced and diverse gut biome may contribute to a more balanced mental and emotional state.
It is also important to remember the influence that our mind has on the rest of our physical body. A strengths-focused approach to nutrition involves building awareness, appreciation and naming of the positive aspects of our relationship with food. We can celebrate the nourishing choices we make and recognize the resilience of our bodies, rather than focusing on intake restrictions or continuing to feed negative self-talk that perpetuates our shame around food.
And since we all exist with external influences as well, I would be remiss to not mention the intersection of trauma and nutrition such as, but not limited to:
- Unpredictable or unreliable mealtimes
- Body shaming
- Using control or manipulation tactics with food
- Having food be a reward system or punishment
These experiences can shape our eating habits immensely. Adverse experiences may result in dietary behaviors such as:
- Hoarding food
- Binge eating
- Reliance on/limited access to only convenience foods
- Eating disorders
- Food addictions
Discussing this topic with a trauma-informed lens means we acknowledge the importance of fostering a safe and empowering space for individuals to make choices about their nutrition. Intuitive eating and self-compassion are key elements in this process as well.
Ways to embrace intuitive eating
Intuitive eating is a holistic approach to nourishing the body that emphasizes tuning into internal cues and creating a mindful relationship with food. Instead of rigidly following external rules or diets, intuitive eating encourages you to listen to your body’s signals of hunger and fullness, and to honor your cravings without judgment. This practice involves attunement to physical sensations, emotional cues and the pleasure of eating. By embracing intuitive eating, you can step away from the cycle of restrictive eating patterns, promoting a healthier and more sustainable connection with food. This mindful approach not only supports your overall well-being but also fosters a positive and empowering relationship with your body and the act of nourishment.
Practicing intuitive eating involves nurturing a mindful and attuned relationship with one’s own body signals and responding to them with kindness and respect. We aim to focus on nourishing our body based on its biological needs rather than external rules, like dieting.
Here are a few steps for moving towards intuitive eating habits:
- Start by honoring and listening to your hunger cues; eat when you’re hungry and savor your food’s flavors without distractions.
- Allow yourself to enjoy a variety of foods without judgment or strict rules, embracing both nutritional and pleasurable aspects. Developing self-compassion and patience is key to this approach.
- Pay attention and stay curious about how different foods make you feel, both physically and emotionally. Learn to recognize when you’re comfortably full and respect that point.
- Develop a consciousness of what your physical hunger cues may be compared to other cues, such as emotional or stress-related signaling. You can address these signals with non-food coping mechanisms when needed.
- Find joy if you are able to, whether that’s in cooking yourself a meal or sharing the table with your loved ones.
- Avoid the use of moral language when describing your food and body. Instead of ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ or ‘healthy’ vs. ‘unhealthy’ we may opt for a more neutral and descriptive way of talking about our food, bodies, or eating habits. Rather than ‘I was so bad I ate a burger today, but I was good because I had a salad for dinner,’ try instead, ‘I enjoyed a burger at lunch and my dinner was a nourishing salad. By removing these moral judgements from our food descriptions, we can approach eating with a more balanced and accepting mindset.
Nourishing your mind through nutrition is a powerful way to support your mental health. Recognizing the interconnectedness of mental and physical health, intuitive eating empowers individuals to break free from restrictive diets and embrace a sustainable, compassionate approach to food. By listening to hunger cues, savoring food without judgment, and respecting the body’s signals of satisfaction, intuitive eating becomes a powerful tool for promoting mental well-being.
As we honor our bodies through intuitive choices, we not only foster a positive relationship with eating but also pave the way for improved mental resilience and overall emotional balance. It is absolutely a possibility to foster a positive relationship with food if one desires to. Remember that small, consistent changes can lead to significant improvements in your overall well-being. Celebrate your strengths, be kind to yourself, and let the nourishing journey begin.