Mindful eating - you are what you eat? Maybe it's not just what you eat but how you eat

Latest research from leading centres such as Harvard University show the benefits and longstanding effects of mindful eating upon our mood, physical health and weight. The research highlights common sense understandings of eating as well as new found research in relation to our physiology, the interaction with stress and our relationship with food.

It can seem a strange concept, the idea of having a relationship to food. One way to understand this is to think about the last time you looked at that tasty treat in the shop (whatever it may be, chocolate, cake, crisps, cheese etc) and thought to yourself “should I, shouldn’t I?" That internal dialogue is helping you to decide to buy the treat. Then biting into the treat with feelings of possibly joy or relief. In finishing the treat maybe you feel contentment or maybe guilt. How you interact with the food leads to a whole series of internal thoughts, physiological changes and feelings. Sounds a bit like a relationship, hey?

This relationship has got some history as well. A significant part of this history we can’t actually remember. We experienced this part of our history before we could speak, before we even knew who we were. As babies, humans are pretty helpless and you could say a little clueless! When babies are born they can only see about 10 inches in front of them, they have very little intentional control over their limbs and they are very dependent on their mothers to support their needs.

This means that it takes a very attentive mother to read the signals and support a baby to eat, even before the baby knows how to ask for milk. If the mother has many other tasks (work, household, other family members... any multitude of tasks) the baby can experience high levels of anxiety alongside feelings of hunger. For another mother wanting to do her best, she may offer milk when the baby does not feel like eating, this can give rise to feelings of intrusion and anger. These feelings can map onto the physical feelings of hunger. Throughout a person’s life, when hunger is felt, so are those emotions. It will be slightly different for each of us.

Then when babies grow into toddlers there are increasing challenges. Parents attempt to teach toddlers the ‘rules’ to eating. At this point we start to get an interesting interplay of getting needs met, conforming to rules and asserting independence. “Why can’t I throw my food all over my face and kitchen?”. In addition giving food can be seen as a reward and taking food away can be seen as punishment.

Toddlers become children who further assert their preferences. These preferences can be met with obstacles as “ice cream is not your main dinner”. Depending on people’s circumstances a whole range of different emotions, behaviours and thoughts become associated with food, leaving us with a very complex relationship to food.

All of this before we reflect on the impact food has upon our body image, confidence and energy levels. Put on top of all this how people perceive what we eat, 'the lunchtime conversation at work what are you eating today' etc.

In short this relationship is complex. It both drives a number of choices we make throughout the day and effects our physical and psychological wellbeing.

One way to investigate this relationship is to practice mindfulness and compassion based techniques, or to sign up to mindful eating course.

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Ware, Hertfordshire, SG12 9LH
Written by Greg MacKenzie, BA, MA, CBT (accredited)
Ware, Hertfordshire, SG12 9LH

I am an integrative psychotherapist, CBT psychotherapist and Psychodynamic practitioner. I have over ten years experience in adult mental health, assessing and treating.

I have taken a keen interest in Mindfulness and compassion based practice. One of my goals is to increase how these practices can be integrated into everyday life.

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