How to Use Food as a Tool to Be Well and Stay Well
With the proper diet and relationship to food, we can achieve mental well-being.
Posted December 10, 2019 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
Establishing healthy behaviors is key to being well and staying well. And few behaviors affect us more than our relationship to food.
As social animals, the rituals of cooking and sharing meals, of wholesome food in healthful quantities, are profoundly important to recovery, wellness, and well-being. Food is loaded with meaning and emotion. It can be a positive connection associated with family, tradition, and comfort—notably seen during the holiday months—but food and eating can also serve as a means of harmful self-medicating, with many of us using food and alcohol to mask or alleviate negative emotions like stress, anger, depression, anxiety, frustration, or loneliness.
The dangers that accompany this type of eating, or overeating, can include obesity and higher levels of inflammation in the body, which can lead to long-lasting, or chronic, pain—all of which are stifling to emotional and physical health.
Let’s learn to address your relationship to food and modify potentially harmful behaviors to promote and support health and wellness as we enter the new year.
Build a Positive Relationship with Food
Begin your behavior modifications by first understanding the role of food in your life. Food is used to fill physical hunger or to enjoy the taste—not an emotional void that needs to be filled. Consider making shifts in thoughts and behavior associated with food and eating, such as the following:
- Accept that the food rules or family traditions of your past may no longer be needed or helpful. One such example is that it is, in fact, OK to no longer finish everything on your plate.
- What is presented to us in the media is not always true. If you struggle with a healthy body image, it may be helpful to limit your exposure to unhealthy or unrealistic body images.
- Mindset matters. Be positive, even when discussing food. Thinking about in the narrow scope of a diet, or “good” versus “bad” can add judgment. Changing your language can enforce good behavior and offer positive mental associations to healthy food routines.
Avoid eating without even a thought. Learn to pay attention to the food in front of you and be conscious of whether you’re hungry or when you’ve become full. Keep the following in mind:
- Eat slowly. By engaging in fast eating the body doesn’t have time to cue your brain that you are full. If eating slowly is a challenge trying zeroing in on enjoying the meal not slowing down.
- Eating involves all of the senses and by paying attention to that multisensory experience you can engage in “eating mindfully.” By doing so you can learn your sense of fullness instead of simply waiting for a bellyache.
- Use a smaller plate. Research shows that people automatically cut down on how much they eat if they simply use a smaller plate.
Food is Your Fuel
Your well-being should not be centered on depriving yourself of food. Instead focus on adding good, whole foods. Consuming the right food and drink, like those that reduce inflammation, can improve your mood and even reduce chronic pain. Consider the following when focusing on food.
- Keep a food journal. Track what you eat throughout the day with pen and paper, the notes section on your phone, or even a phone application. This exercise will help you actually (and accurately) understand what, and how much, we are eating.
- Substitute foods with sugar, or high-fructose corn syrup—that will make your blood sugar go up quickly—with foods that come from plants—the whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds that lower inflammation.
While eating too much and not exercising are the usual causes of obesity, they are not the only ones. Especially in times of stress, the problem might be eating enough or not eating the right foods. For a basic anti-inflammatory diet, you can use the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate example.
Lastly, when ensuring a healthy relationship to food always, always remember to drink water. Water affects weight loss, muscle fatigue, skin health, kidney and bowel function, and more. Water is our functional foundation and without properly incorporating it into our diet, we cannot hope to achieve wellness of any kind.
For some of us, a health care provider or dietitian may be useful in helping design a healthy eating plan and set realistic weight goals to keep us healthy. But, for the most part, we can address the behaviors associated with food by being mindful and attentive. By ensuring we are fully engaged in the routines and rituals tied to the consumption and cooking of food, all of us can work towards a path of well-being.