If you’ve ever found yourself confused by what it means to eat well, you’re not alone. For many, this is a sensitive topic that often brings up issues related to weight, body image and self-esteem. Conflicting media messages around health and food can also raise a lot of questions around what to eat.
This article is intended to help you better understand the connection between eating well and your physical and mental health. If you, or someone you know, struggles or obsesses with eating, you may also want to read our article on overcoming an eating disorder and the steps you can take towards recovery.
Below, we’ll focus more on general guidelines to follow when it comes to eating well.
Why eat well?
Eating well plays an important role in determining how healthy you feel both physically and mentally. How you eat can make a huge impact on how you feel on a daily basis, influencing your emotional well-being, social support system, stress levels, and self-esteem.
Many people believe that all the chemicals playing into our mood originate in the brain, but it was found that about 90% of your serotonin is produced in your gut! Serotonin is a chemical that influences your mood, sleep, memory, learning, appetite and digestion. It’s easy to see why it’s so important to give your body the nourishment it needs.
Eating well provides you with the fuel you need for physical and mental energy. By providing yourself with the necessary vitamins, minerals, and nutrients; you enhance your immune function, stress response, and mood.
What does it mean to eat well?
Eating well is not about following a set of rules, but rather about learning what your body needs. It has two components: “what you eat” and “how you eat.”
When it comes to “what you eat”, ask yourself:
- Am I meeting my nutritional needs by eating a variety of vegetables and fruits; whole grains; legumes (beans), seeds, and nuts; healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado, or flax seed; and healthy sources of protein like fish or lentils?
- What about enjoying dessert from time to time and taking pleasure in the social aspect of eating and meals?
When it comes to “how we eat”, think about:
- Trying to have a flexible approach to eating that doesn’t cut out food groups or label foods “good” or “bad”
- Using your sense of hunger and fullness as a guide to what and when to eat
What are the benefits of eating well?
Eating well can strengthen the positive relationship between our body image and food. How and what we eat often reflects how we treat our bodies more generally and if we learn to eat well (i.e. intuitively and without rigid restrictions), we may also start feeling better toward our bodies.
When we treat our bodies respectfully by listening to and meeting cues of hunger and fullness, we are not only eating well–we are practicing self-respect and self-care. When we refrain from restricting certain food groups and practice a flexible approach towards food, we are practicing self-compassion, which in turn can increase positive body image.
Tips for Eating Well
Your eating patterns, like any behavior, take time to change. If you have struggled in the past with eating, it’s natural to have questions or feel nervous. Being patient and kind to yourself as you try to make changes is a key part of the process. Here are some ideas that might help you in eating well:
Dieting vs Lifestyle Changes. Dieting is an approach to eating that prioritizes making rules for what, how, and when you can eat. It doesn’t alleviate the origins of the eating issues and research has found that many people will regain the weight they’ve lost on a diet because it was not a sustainable change. Many diets will lead you to ignoring your body’s signs of hunger and fullness, which decreases our understanding and awareness of our bodies. Shift your mindset from going on a diet to making a new lifestyle choice that includes making healthier choices about what you eat. In practice, it is better to make adjustments to your diet and eating habits slowly, so as to not overwhelm yourself and will help you create long-lasting changes you can stick to.
Practice intuitive eating. Eating intuitively is the idea that you should “eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re full”. Mixed messages from peers and the media, past eating habits, and previous dieting practices might make it difficult to identify and respond to inner body cues, making it difficult to distinguish between physical and emotional feelings. Some of the principles of intuitive eating include: rejecting the diet mentality, honoring your hunger, making peace with food, challenging ideas of “bad” foods, and respecting fullness. It also includes differentiating between physical hunger and the urge to use food to cope with stress, loss, lack of control, or anxiety. For more on intuitive eating, click here.
Be mindful. Intuitive eating is based in learning to be in tune with your body so that you can accurately detect sensations of hunger and fullness–and differentiate these from emotional feelings. One way to do this is “eating mindfully” or paying intentional, non-judgmental attention to the experience of eating and drinking. It might seem strange to pay attention to the taste, colors, textures, and flavors of our food, but this attention, combined with mindfulness regarding the way we think about food and the way eating affects our mood and emotions, allows a greater awareness of body cues and eating patterns. It can also be an effective grounding tool that keeps you present with your body.
Start small. You may want to change certain eating habits like eating past the point of fullness, ignoring or not noticing hunger, or not paying attention when you eat. Lasting change happens from many small changes made over time. So, as you make efforts to change, try to start small and simple. If you’re working on paying attention to hunger, experiment with carrying snacks with you so you can eat when you feel yourself becoming hungry. Or if you’re experimenting with noticing fullness, eat slowly and wait in between additional helpings. Give yourself time to notice how full you’re actually feeling, perhaps drinking some water as you wait.
Taking an interest in what you eat. Taking part in planning what you eat and cooking your own food is a great way to connect to the experience of eating and self-care. As we become aware of the food we eat, where it comes from, and how it’s grown, this awareness can motivate us to make healthy choices. Planning, cooking, and other forms of preparing our meals (doing the dishes!) are all places you can practice mindfulness.
Self-compassion. Give yourself permission to eat and respect your body. Make food choices that honor your health and taste buds—and be committed to learning what it is that makes you feel well! Remember that your worth is not dependent on what you eat and that you don’t have to eat a “perfect” diet to be healthy. Eating well is about your relationship to your body and food choices through balance, flexibility, ease, and enjoyment. Progress, intention, and mindfulness matter more than the illusion of perfection.
Get support. If you’re finding it challenging to make changes, you may find it helpful to talk to your medical doctor, a dietitian, or a nutritionist. With support and resources, you can develop a realistic plan for eating well and being healthy.