CW and Note: This is part of an ongoing, occasional series based on the work I’m doing as a participant in Balance 365. You can read about my decision to join the group here. Discussion of nutrition habits and diets. Feature photo credit: Mick Haupt via Unsplash
Are you struggling to make changes to your nutrition without swinging between extremes–first you’re on a roll, aiming for optimal and then you’ve got a big case of the eff-its and eating ALL THE FOODS? In order to make healthy, consistent changes to our nutrition habits, we need to have healthy, consistent thinking about them and find a way to reduce these swings in behavior. If you were raised in a “Western” society, your thoughts have been influenced by diet culture, even if you’ve never been on a diet. Diet culture and it’s equally problematic sister, dieting mindset, make it harder for us to make the consistent habit changes we aim to make.
Diets limit when you can eat, how much you can eat, and/or what you can eat. Each one of these limitations creates patterns of thought that we might need to address in order to successfully make healthy changes to our nutrition habits. Today, I’m going to address only the first one, how limiting when we can eat influences our mindset. Diets might say you can’t eat before or after a certain time each day, or when it’s ok to eat your next meal. Even if you’ve never been on a diet, you’ve probably been told everyone should eat breakfast or avoid late night eating. The coaches at Balance 365 teach that these kinds of rules create habits of thought, and therefore behaviors, that can contribute to diet mindset, and we must address our mindset, if we want to make long-lasting, sustainable changes to our behaviors.
Returning to my area of expertise, my own experiences, I can see that I sometimes have thoughts about limiting when I can or should eat. I wrote this summer that I’d noticed that I was experiencing hunger between breakfast and lunch and was preventing myself from eating more because it seemed like I “shouldn’t” be hungry. If I didn’t want to add a snack between breakfast and lunch, there were other options besides just going hungry. I could change what I ate for breakfast to something more satisfying. Or, I could increase the size of the portions of some or all of what I was eating at breakfast. Notice that in order to consider these options, I had to first be ok with the reality that I was hungry between meals and accept that it was problematic for me. The dieting mindset showed up as invalidating the information my body was giving me, and telling me to ignore my hunger. My solution this summer was to increase how much protein I got at breakfast–making sure I have eggs AND Greek yogurt most mornings. Recently, I’ve also started adding kale or some frozen veggies to my eggs, and I’m finding that it is helping me feel even more satisfied and to have stable energy levels before lunch.
Another example of time-based restriction I’ve observed in myself is that I adhere to strict meal times. I don’t ever remember deciding that breakfast is at 8:00am, lunch is at noon, snack at 3:00, and dinner at 6:30, but every day this is my routine. I look at the clock, and use that cue to inform when I am eating. 3:00pm snack can be especially powerful, and I sometimes find myself anxious if I’m doing something that interferes with this schedule. Diet mindset kicks in, I become worried I’m going to go hungry (another consequence of dieting mindset, fear of hunger and treating it like an emergency, worthy of a post all its own), and I begin to figure out how I can make that snack happen. A downside for my health is that I often make less nutritious and less satisfying food choices when I eat in order to assuage my anxiety. For now, my solution is to preplan some healthy afternoon snacks so I know I have options that will keep me satisfied without ruining my dinner, and I’m working on tuning into my internal hunger and satiety cues to determine when I eat, at least to the degree that I can within the confines of my job. This is a bigger task, and I imagine it will require some time for me to become consistent with this skill.
Diet culture tells us to use external factors like time to determine when we eat. Unlearning this element of dieting mindset requires noticing when we are limiting ourselves temporally, and finding solutions that work for us that address the underlying challenges. How this shows up will be different for each of us. For me, I’m noticing that I have strong feelings about when it’s ok to be hungry and when I expect to eat. I look forward to a time when I have fully let go of some of these restrictions and anxieties and have found patterns that support my health and help me feel my best in a sustainable way.
Have you ever noticed yourself using external, time-based restrictions on when you eat? Does it feel problematic for you? Is it a mindset that you’ve considered changing?
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found noticing how she feels before and after meals, picking up heavy things and putting them down again in Portland, Oregon.