Ditch the Diet Rules: Listen to Your Body for Optimal Health
This post was written by Nia Shanks, a strength and conditioning coach, writer, leader of the Lift Like a Girl Revolution, and author of Sane and Simple Nutrition: The Ultimate Common Sense Approach to Eating for a Better Body. The opinions expressed herein are hers and hers alone. To learn more about Nia, check out her website or find her on Twitter or Facebook.
Your body is constantly providing feedback.
But, are you listening?
It’s easy to get so caught up in trying to eat “right” that we stop eating in a way that’s right for us. Part of the problem lies in the fact that there’s an overwhelming surplus of conflicting information about just what “clean,” “healthy” eating really means (If you’ve spent any time researching nutrition, or eating to build a better body, you know exactly what I’m talking about.). This information overload can leave us feeling confused, helpless, and completely out of touch with what’s actually good for our bodies.
Welcome to what I like to call Nutrition Insanity.
Just What is “Nutrition Insanity”?
To get a sense of what I mean by “nutrition insanity,” let’s use a quick Google search. A few minutes of searching will supply us with tons of information stating not to do the following:
- Don’t eat fruit
- Don’t eat meat
- Don’t eat eggs
- Don’t eat butter
- Don’t eat beans
- Don’t eat grains
- Don’t eat dairy
- Don’t eat cruciferous vegetables
- Don’t drink coffee
- Don’t use intermittent fasting
- Don’t count calories or weigh your food
- Don’t eat fat
- Don’t eat carbs
But here’s the thing: You could just as easily find equal amounts of information claiming that you should do all of the above. The same is true for myriad other nutritional do’s and don’t’s.
Because we want to feed ourselves correctly and build strong, healthy bodies that function as well as they look, we keep searching for the “right” answers. But in the end, many of us wind up more confused than ever and plagued by “analysis paralysis” — the feeling of powerlessness that comes from hearing so many conflicting messages about what (and how) we should or shouldn’t eat.
This is the result of nutrition insanity, and it’s something many people with an interest in health and nutrition, myself included, have experienced. Even after all our research and experimentation, we are still left wondering, “What the heck should we eat, and how should we eat it?”
What’s the Nutrition Insanity Cure?
When it comes to eating for a healthier body, I propose a simplified, common-sense approach. I believe the most important information to use when deciding what and when to eat comes from our very own bodies. The only trouble is, many of us have stopped listening to our bodies. Instead, their voices get drowned out by all the conflicting information that seems to be coming at us from all directions and at all times.
The good news is that it is possible to learn how to listen to our bodies again. It is possible to eat delicious food, feel satisfied, and achieve our physique and performance goals — all while regaining our sanity.
Learning to Listen to Your Body
We can apply a hefty dose of common sense to nutrition by listening to our bodies in three ways.
One: Eat when you’re hungry
Do you wake up hungry in the morning? Then eat. Not hungry first thing after you wake up? Then don’t eat. Just because someone offers you food or it’s technically “time for lunch” (or any other meal) doesn’t mean you have to eat. Eat if you’re truly hungry. Otherwise, wait until you are.
This is a great way to reduce the unnecessary stress that can arise from thinking you “have to” do something, such as eat breakfast or lunch, just because it’s “that time of the day”. Eating when we’re hungry, rather than when we’re “supposed” to, also gives us greater flexibility in our daily schedules — no more forcing yourself to take a lunch break at noon if you’re not hungry until 2:00 or 3:00, and no more restricting yourself past 7:00pm if that’s when your body is asking you to eat.
Eating whenever you’re truly hungry means less stress, a better relationship with your body, and no more random restrictions on when you can and can’t eat. Period.
Two: Stop eating when you’re satisfied — and before you’re stuffed
We don’t need to eat until we’re on the verge of discomfort. We can stop eating when we’re satisfied and before we’re stuffed, because we can eat again whenever we’re hungry.
When most people think about dieting, they assume they’ll be in a constant state of deprivation — and this can lead to over-eating at meals, since we’re not “allowed” to eat another meal for at least three hours (or whatever arbitrary number a diet plan calls for). In contrast, knowing we’re free to eat whenever we’re truly hungry should help us realize there’s no need to eat a ton of food all at once.
Of course, it’s important to remember that there’s a difference between eating for hunger and eating out of boredom or another emotion. Do you find yourself grabbing for something to eat when you’re anxious, bored, lonely, or upset? That is eating out of emotion.
To address emotional eating, it’s important to stay mindful while eating, notice patterns in your eating habits, and learn to identify the times you’re most likely to eat for some reason other than physical hunger (food journaling is an incredibly useful tool for getting clear about why you’re eating).
Once you’ve learned your emotional eating triggers, it’s time to replace eating with some other solution to a given problem. Bored? Go do something you enjoy. Lonely? Call up a friend or meet them at a coffee shop. Stressed or frustrated? Acknowledge your feelings, and address the problem if you can. If you can’t, then try to let go of worrying about it.
Eat when you’re hungry. Stop when you’re satisfied. Know you can eat again when you’re hungry. Address your emotions and don’t appease them with food. It may take a little patience (and there will definitely be a learning curve), but ultimately it’s that simple.
Three: Pay attention to how you feel after you eat
This point is particularly crucial. The next time you eat, really pay attention to how you feel afterwards. Do you feel energized? Lethargic? Bloated? Gassy? Pay attention to how certain foods and food groups make you feel. If a given food makes you feel terrible, stop eating it (or at least eat it less often). If a food makes you feel energized and nurtured, eat it on a regular basis. Easy-peasy.
Many people will read an article claiming that the only way to lose fat and be healthy is to avoid a certain food or food group entirely — and sadly, a lot of people follow this advice without questioning its value in their own life. Heck, I’ve been guilty of this myself. After all, we’re just trying to do “what’s right.” But instead of not eating something just because we read about it in an article, how about we let our bodies decide?
I can say from personal experience that listening to the feedback my body provides has been one of the most effective tools for maintaining my health and wellbeing. Over the past year, I’ve learned which foods make me feel great and which foods make me feel not-so-great. As a result, I eat more of the things that have a positive impact and minimize those that don’t. The end result has been much greater vibrancy and over-all-health than what I experienced prior to listening to my body.
This being said, it’s important to note that some foods may cause health issues even if they don’t produce noticeable side effects. As always, there are exceptions to every rule, and it’s important to consult a physician if you ever have concerns about food sensitivities or other health issues.
I’ll be the first to admit that listening to your body can be easier said than done. In fact, I myself was intimidated to follow the tips above after battling disordered eating habits for over three years. I wanted to be able to listen to my body, but after periods of overeating and OCD eating habits, I felt I could no longer identify true hunger, fullness, or other cues from my body.
If you’re in a similar place, or worry for any reason that you won’t be able to tell the difference between hunger and emotion, I encourage you to try listening to your body anyway. Like many things in life, patience may be required, but a process of trial, error, and a little self-compassion is the best path back to a healthier relationship with your body.
The more you listen, the more feedback your body will provide — and you will be on the path back to nutrition sanity.
What are your favorite tips for learning to listen to your body? Share in the comments below!
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