I know there are some people out there who find it beneficial to follow a diet, have boxed meals delivered to them daily or to commit themselves to a regime of intermittent fasting. I am far from dismissing these ways to eat healthy. We are all wired differently and therefore need different things.
If your default is a “can’t be bothered” attitude, then some self-imposed discipline may serve you well. But there are also people like me, who, by default, are hard on themselves whenever they don’t succeed in executing a pre-conceived plan. And that is counterproductive — because we all fail at some point.
So my path of self-improvement — including improving my relationship with food — is a constant strive for a balance between goal pursuit and enjoying the process.
Trying my best while taking it easy on myself.
Reaching out for “perfection” — and at the same time learning how to enjoy life exactly as it is right now.
Allowing myself to eat whatever I feel like proved to be my best strategy with food so far. Does it sound ridiculous as a way to improve my health and well-being? Only if you think that “eating whatever I feel like” must be paired up with mindlessness.
When I eat whatever I feel like, and I do it mindfully — that’s a whole different story. Let me show you why.
Our diets are so dependent on others
Nourishing ourselves is such an individual and intimate part of our lives. At the same time, it is one of the most easily influenced by others.
First and foremost, it is our parents or caregivers who plant in us very strong assumptions about what a “good diet” is. For the first years of our lives, they dictate the times of meals, what and how much we eat. They even trick us into eating more than we want to by pretending that the food on the spoon is an aeroplane! I mean, how crazy is that.
Before we develop a decent level of conscious awareness, we are already strongly primed for how a good diet should look like. As a consequence, absorbing any new information about how we could or should eat becomes increasingly difficult — especially when it stands in opposition to what our caregivers believed was good for us.
An example a lot of people may relate to is cutting down on — or even eliminating — the meat in our diets. In the past decade or so, the evidence has been growing that meat may not be nearly as good for us as the previous generations thought it was. But I personally had a hard time accepting it — because in my family the notion that a good diet must include meat is very strong.
But I guess we shouldn’t blame our families for everything. Once we are adults, we begin to understand what may or may not be good for us — and we start taking responsibility for the way we feed ourselves. Except for we are still so influenced by others.
Eating is such a social thing — it is very hard to separate the way we eat from the diets of the people around us.
Over the past few years, I experienced this acutely, as I lived in a few different countries, surrounded by various people and their culinary habits. I almost can’t believe now how much I adjusted my diet based on my environment. But when I was there, then, in those specific circumstances — it only felt reasonable to align with what people around me were eating.
- When I lived under one roof with my raw vegan friends, I assumed that this was what I should be striving for — eating less processed food and more fresh plants. I followed suit by sometimes only eating fruit for lunch or having my last meal of the day at 2 pm — because this was what they did.
- Working my ass off in a guest lodge in the French Alps, I developed a preference for elaborate, flavourful evening meals that stood as a reward for a long day of hard work. I also resorted to cakes and other sugary snacks in the middle of long shifts as a waitress, to simply keep myself going — both physically and emotionally.
- Living with my parents as an adult, I comforted to their eating habits out of laziness. It was easier to eat lunch cooked by my Mum, even if it wasn’t something that I would normally eat on my own. And then when I was the one cooking, I made adjustments to my recipes so that the result would suit my parents’ preferences — sometimes more than my own.
It happened that complying with the diets of others had a good impact on me — and on other occasions it literally made me feel like shit. And it wasn’t necessarily that raw vegan was always amazing and late night meals in France made me feel sluggish. It was never nearly as simple.
The main problem was that my food choices were based on other people’s preferences, rather than on what I felt would be good for me at that specific moment. For way too long, I was overly reliant on others for something as basic and individual as my diet.
At some point, I realised that this had to change.
What healthy food has to do with beliefs
Recently I have been spending quite some time with a friend whose ultimate goal is to stop eating altogether. He basically wants to continue living without having to rely on food. Leaving out the question of whether this is possible or not, I looked closely at how he is dealing with food right now, as he eases into eating less and less.
What he does is very simple: he just eats whatever the hell he wants and whenever he wants it. Sometimes it means eating only eggs for a few days straight. Sometimes it means a bowl of ice-cream for his main meal. And let me tell you that he’s not rolling like this since a week or two. He’s been eating that way for over a year.
The most surprising thing? He seems much healthier, clear-minded and fitter than most other people I know.
When I talk about establishing a healthy relationship with food, I mean eating for the primary purpose of providing our bodies with the necessary energy and nutrients. The opposite of that — and what I have been doing most of my life — is emotional eating, which is primarily aimed at trying to fill our emotional void with food.
The latter is impossible anyway — and this is one of the reasons I want to abandon this way of eating altogether. It just doesn’t make sense.
However, eating healthy food seemed like a lot of struggle to me most of my life. The main idea was to eat fruit and veg, grains, and other stuff that I didn’t feel like eating when I knew I should.
This meant an ongoing internal conflict. I could either eat the stuff I felt like OR I could eat healthy. These two options seldom seemed to go together.
That was until I started realising that I consider certain foods healthy and others not because of specific beliefs. The less fat, the better. The more raw fruit and vegetables, the cleaner my body gets. The earlier I stop eating before bed, the happier I will be the next day.
Looking at my friend now makes me seriously question the above beliefs. And it certainly gives me a strong hint that there are no absolute truths when comes to food.
Is it really that fruits are always the best meal choice I could make — no matter if I am sick, angry, exhausted or relaxed?
Could there ever be a one-size-fits-all diet prescription that benefits everybody regardless of their lifestyle, age and occupation?
How much of our ideal diet is strictly circumstantial?
What percentage of how food impacts us depends on our beliefs?
As a society, we are becoming increasingly aware that our minds influence our bodies and vice versa. We are slowly unlearning to perceive these two as separate entities, and start to understand that they are infinitely correlated. Scientists no longer argue whether the placebo effect is a thing and some studies have found that cancer patients who don’t identify themselves with the disease recover much faster than the ones who do.
Why wouldn’t the mind-body dynamics also condition what is healthy for us to eat, based on what we believe?
Mindful eating 101
I have been experimenting with the above hypothesis on and off since a couple of years. How? I simply observed myself throughout periods when I allowed myself to eat pretty much anything I wanted.
The biggest revelations I want to share with you come from this experimentation.
With what I said about myself in the beginning — that I have a tendency to be hard on myself for even minor failures — I knew I had to find a stress-free way to establish a healthy relationship with food. This implied reducing the negativity around eating “forbidden” foods — something I used to feel a lot in my college years.
Although I never experienced a severe food disorder, I certainly had body image issues and cultivated destructive patterns of starving myself — followed by bingeing.
The first experiment with eating whatever I felt like began when I moved to Edinburgh in 2015. This was also the period when I was discovering meditation and exploring what it means to be present in the moment. And I am mentioning this for a reason.
I think mindfulness is the key reason why this approach to food works for me.
When I choose to eat mindfully (i.e. without doing anything else at the same time, ideally also noticing the nuances of the taste, smell and texture of the food) several things happen that completely transform my experience of eating. And when I am more lucid also before and after I eat — this adds even more bonuses, which allow me to make better food choices in the long term.
Let’s say I crave some white chocolate — and I know that I have a bar in the cupboard. Because I decided to allow myself to eat whatever I feel like, I am also allowed the chocolate. But first, I need to ask myself a basic question:
Do I really feel like eating it?
A food craving can be easily confused with some other need — we all know it. If we live our lives mindlessly, we may establish behaviour patterns that we are not even aware of. For example, some people tend to confuse emotional discomfort for physical hunger — and this is where mindfulness certainly can help. But I am not even talking about real hunger here.
The question is even more basic than that. It is about whether the experience of eating chocolate is actually what I want.
If I catch myself before eating the food I crave, I sometimes notice that what I am really after is, for example, a moment of rest rather than a snack. With such a realisation, I naturally give up on the chocolate and go lie down on a couch for ten minutes. But if I was to feel that giving up the chocolate is any kind of sacrifice, then I better go and eat it.
How does it feel to eat it?
If I decide to eat the chocolate — let me enjoy it! And to fully enjoy it, I will not be reading, scrolling down my phone or watching a video while eating it.
The point is to experience the taste I am after, right?
Deciding to focus on eating and nothing else has two very important consequences. Firstly, it allows me to really enjoy it — which brings the desired positivity to the act of eating, rather than shame or guilt. Secondly, I am paying attention to the quantity I am eating and hence I am more likely to notice the moment when I had enough.
As soon as I feel that I satisfied my craving — I will naturally stop eating. The point is not to force myself to stop — but to wait until I feel I have had enough. And even if I overeat, what happens next will provide me with valuable insight — which, if I choose to pay attention, will help me navigate my eating decisions in the long run.
The trick is to stay present long enough after eating the chocolate and capture how I feel as a consequence.
How do I feel after eating the chocolate?
As you may have by now realised, this whole mindful eating is really about two things: the act of eating and the way you feel prior/during/afterwards.
This last step — realising how I feel afterwards — is the single most important one in teaching me what food choices to make in the future. It is a very straightforward message I get by feeling the consequences of what I ate:
I either feel better (i.e. healthier / lighter / more energized / happier) than before — or I feel worse.
If I manage to notice the consequences, this observation will incrementally contribute to informing my food choices in the long run. I will remember that eating half a bar of chocolate left me feeling sluggish and sleepy — or that I felt a lot of pleasure and no regrets, as I had lots of energy to go for a run later on.
In any case, no matter how “good” or “bad” my eating decision was in that particular case, I will see it as a learning experience — rather than a “win” or “failure” in a constant fight with myself.
Eating whatever I feel like is bliss — and that’s important!
These days my “eating philosophy” is mostly based on these three guidelines (notice the choice of words — I call them “guidelines”, not “rules”!):
- Eating whatever I feel like at the moment helps me gradually let go of the idea that I have to discipline myself to eat in a certain way.
- I accept it as a possibility that if I choose to believe something is “healthy” for me — then it indeed becomes healthier.
- By allowing myself to sometimes overeat foods that make me feel bad, I teach myself not to make the same mistake in the future. I experienced what the consequences may be, and therefore I am less likely to feel like eating something that will not serve me.
Obviously, I still make mistakes in the process of learning about what the optimal way of eating is for me. But now this process is akin to a game — instead of feeling like a tedious effort. After all, I think that this life is kind of an experiment, and although we should definitely respect it — we also shouldn’t treat it too seriously.
Eating whatever I feel like revealed to me some interesting lessons that I want to share with you as a parting message. Here are my personal takeaways:
1. Being able to enjoy the food you are eating, while you are eating it is everything.
As my mindfulness teacher told me — what you eat doesn’t matter nearly as much as how you eat it. And I couldn’t agree more. If I eat in stress, then regardless of how “healthy” the meal may be, chances are it will not serve me. On the contrary, when I am fully immersed in the eating experience and savouring some supposedly “not-so-healthy” food — I tend to feel much better afterwards.
2. The more I pay attention to what I eat, the more my diet naturally aligns with my needs.
By being mindful when comes to food, I eliminate the necessity to follow a rigorous meal plan or schedule. Instead, I become much better at telling what kind of food will serve me best in a particular moment. I can tell whether it is time for a pizza or an orange. For me, this is what healthy eating is about.
3. Sometimes binge eating is a valid coping mechanism.
I am all in for the idea of consciously feeling my emotions as a means to grow as a person. However, after experiencing a few panic attacks last autumn, I realized that there are moments when suppressing my feelings with food may be a sensible response. For example, when I need to take an important decision, but my emotional upheaval literally paralyses me.
Binge eating (or any kind of self-medication) is certainly not something I would recommend as a go-to way of dealing with your problems. However, I can well imagine situations in which it may seem like the only possible way to proceed.
4. The more I love my body, the more inclined I am to care for it — also by feeding it the right foods.
Until my mid-twenties I used to think that this works the other way around. If you don’t love your body, you adjust your way of eating and start exercising so that you can achieve your desired shape. But such an approach is a constant fight. Now it only seems reasonable to me to start the other way around.
Learn to love and be grateful for your body in the first place — then it becomes natural that you want to give it whatever nutrition and physical movement it needs.
5. There is no “one true answer” when comes to food.
And I can’t emphasize this enough. For one thing, people and their circumstances vary. A person who works physically all day obviously needs a different diet that someone who sits at the desk. But it doesn’t only vary from person to person.
Your own dietary needs are also in constant flux, depending on how much sleep you got last night, what you ate yesterday, how stressful the day is… and a million other factors. So the only true answer about food is the one you can give to yourself — basing it on mindful observation and being present in your body, right here, right now.