(Note: this article is part of a series. You might want to read the previous installment, Moving Your Body, first.)
The road to wellbeing can seem daunting when you first begin to travel it because there are many components: physical health, emotional health, stress relief, a healthy environment, and solid relationships. Want to develop your capacity for wellbeing, but feeling overwhelmed about where to start? That's why we're spending this summer looking at each of these components one at a time.
In this article, we'll take a look at diet and nutrition. It's important to understand that what you put into your body is going to have a big effect on the way that you feel.
Why healthy eating is important
You probably already know that one-third of American adults are obese, and this is partly due to our "fast-food culture." It can be hard to make healthy choices when we are constantly faced with unhealthy convenience--super-sized fries, sugary sodas, and enormous buckets of buttery popcorn.
But the food you consume (and how you consume it) affects more than just your weight. An unhealthy diet is directly related to diabetes, heart conditions, stroke, and certain types of cancer. But it doesn't stop there: unhealthy food choices can cause tooth decay, affect memory, and aggravate conditions like depression or anxiety. Because of its effects on both physical and mental health, diet is an important component of overall wellbeing.
The first step: Take note of your current eating habits
The first step in every personal transformation is simply looking at where you are now.
So, for the next few days, pay attention: what are you eating? How do you feel afterward? Are you tired, sluggish, or overly full? Do you eat in a rush, grabbing the quickest snack you can find? How full is your plate? Don't judge yourself; just be aware of what you are putting into your body and how you are feeling. If you see that you are eating until you are stuffed, take note of that. If you find yourself eating because you are bored or emotional, rather than hungry, notice that as well. If it helps, you may decide to write down a few notes after each meal, indicating what you ate and how you felt afterward.
Practice mindful eating
Mindfulness is the practice of being present and aware of whatever is going on right now. When we eat mindfully, we reduce our stress, make better choices, and help our bodies digest. Studies have shown that our bodies are better able to absorb nutrients from food if we pay attention while we eat. This is because the mind perceives distraction as stress, and when the body senses stress, it doesn't consider digestion and metabolism a high priority.
You don't need to radically transform your life to incorporate mindfulness into your meals. Start out gently: Practice by eating one meal or snack slowly, without distractions. Turn off the television and put your cell phone in a drawer. Take the time to chew and swallow your food carefully. The Enlightened Diet authors Deborah Kesten and Larry Scherwitz describe mindful eating as being present, moment-by-moment, for each sensation that happens during eating, such as chewing, tasting, and swallowing. "When you take time to experience your food through all your senses; taste (flavor), smell (aroma), sight (presentation) sound (of surroundings), and touch (movement of utensils and the feel of the food)," they suggest, "you are likely to be truly nourished."
It might feel uncomfortable to slow down at first, but after a while you will find yourself naturally eating more slowly and becoming more aware of when you are full and how you are affected by different foods.
Build a healthy plate
Now that you have some practice in mindful eating, you will begin to appreciate the impact that healthier food choices have on your overall wellbeing, and those healthier choices have a better chance of sticking.
Harvard's School of Public Health recently developed the Healthy Eating Plate, a graphic that illustrates healthy food choices and portion sizes. We recommend following this guide when deciding how to fill your plate. Here are the key points to remember:
- Half your plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables-as varied as possible-and no, potatoes don't count.
- Skip the red meat in lieu of healthier (and cheaper!) proteins like poultry, beans, and fish.
- Always pick whole grains, like brown rice, quinoa, and whole-grain breads.
- Drink water with every meal, and throughout the day.
There's also good evidence to support the fact that a Mediterranean diet has a positive impact on physical and emotional wellbeing. This diet incorporates fish, healthy oils, nuts, and lots of fruits and veggies.
Utilize social support
It's easy to fall back into old habits and patterns if there's no one encouraging you to keep going. Implementing serious transformation in your life is much easier if you have some support, whether it's from your family, friends, or an online community. Here are some tips:
- Cook healthy meals for the whole family, replacing old favorites (beef tacos) with new healthy alternatives (black bean enchiladas) that everyone will enjoy.
- Find a friend who is interested in mindful eating and share a silent, mindful meal together. Talk about the experience afterwards.
- Join an online community, like Everyday Health, and share your experience with others.
Remember: take small steps. Appreciate the simple rewards that occur when you pay attention to what you eat. Be friendly to yourself and understand that even slip-ups are a chance for you to practice mindfulness. Good luck!