Food Talk: Pay Attention!

It goes without saying that we are all just a little bit distracted these days. You may have finally clicked back to this article after updating your calendar for the week, firing off a series of emails, or jealously “liking” your friend’s vacation photos on Instagram. Or, maybe I just reminded you to do that right now. It’s cool…I’ll wait.  The point is, we are all so distracted that we don’t always take the time to focus on what’s going on all around us, let alone what’s happening inside of us.

When was the last time you checked in with your thoughts and feelings in general? (If you practice self-awareness consistently, that’s awesome, keep it up. If you don’t, no need to worry, you’re not alone). When was the last time you checked in with your thoughts, feelings, and your language about food? If you have a goal to “eat better”, “look better”, “feel better”, or lose fat, you may want to start paying attention.

Pay Attention

I used quotes around the phrases eat/look/feel better because these are broad, general goals that I hear on a daily basis. However, eating better or looking better are subjective outcomes and can mean entirely different things to different people. Recognizing that your goals may be a little too vague to inspire meaningful long-term change is something to pay attention to. Think about a nutrition goal you might have. Is the goal specific to you, or could it just as easily be a goal that your best friend, sibling, or spouse has also? If it’s the latter, it’s time to pay attention to what is prompting that desire for change. Becoming more aware of what it is we are or aren’t feeling, and what we wish to feel or not feel is a great step toward identifying specific nutrition goals and reaching them.

Great, now you’ve specified your goal and you’re working on building and practicing habits consistently. What sorts of thoughts, feelings, and words come up throughout your day? Do you tell your friends that you were “good” this weekend when you turned down a slice of your aunt’s famous cheesecake? Do you feel lousy because you “messed up” and had a few more than you’d planned to after an impromptu get-together with out-of-town visitors? Do you religiously follow “clean-eating” gurus on social media? These are behaviors that can create an adversarial relationship with food and derail progress. Characterizing eating certain foods (especially at certain times or in certain quantities) as “good” or “bad” creates an all-or-nothing approach to eating habits. You’re either good, and perfect, and only good things will happen to you, or you’re bad and deserve punishment. In reality, our behaviors exist on a continuum and our language should reflect that. So if you notice yourself using restrictive language, try to find other ways to express your experience. You’ll find it’s easier to reach your goals once you’ve removed some of the self-inflicted roadblocks.

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t mentioned any hard and fast rules to eating, looking, or feeling better. Well, for starters, there aren’t that many rules that can be widely applied to most people. Socioeconomics, culture, intolerances and preferences, knowledge and genetics all play a role in how we respond to the things we eat. Also, rules are rigid. Rules are great for surgical procedures, ship decks, and Rock-Paper-Scissors battles (once-and-for-all, it’s “Rock, Paper, Scissors, Shoot!” and you throw on “shoot.” But don’t ask me why paper beats rock, that’s just the way it is). Rules governing surgical procedures help to keep everyone safe and healthy. Food rules, on the other hand, make success less likely. People can move along the continuum toward their goals without sacrificing carbs after 7pm or swearing off eggs forever. What’s good for the goose is probably very different than what’s good for the gander and that’s normal. If you notice that you’re trying to follow all the rules laid out in the latest issue of a magazine, it might be a good idea to take a step back and reevaluate what truly works for you.

Paying attention and being aware of your thoughts, feelings, and language about food can help uncover more significant reasons for wanting to make a nutritional change. You will likely discover new, more specific goals and the steps to take to reach those goals. Even better, just practicing awareness can be a goal in and of itself. If you haven’t paid attention to your internal dialogue in a while, take the next two weeks to notice the things you think, say, and do when it comes to food and eating behaviors. Write your observations down somewhere and analyze them. You will have proven that you can practice a habit consistently and that’s a great foundation from which to build.

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