Last Friday night Chris organised to take me on a surprise date. He picked a restaurant, booked a table, and didn’t tell me where we were going until Friday morning. He’s a keeper. Sitting down at the cosy table at 1889 Enoteca I picked up the menu and took a deep breath. I was so excited to choose the meal that I felt like right in that moment. For interest sake I ended up with the bread and olives to start, cacio e pepe with a dry white for main, and the tiramisu with a glass of Vin Santo to finish off the evening.
Later in the evening as I was falling asleep I took some time to reflect on how different I feel when I go out to eat nowadays. A few years ago an unexpected date night at an Italian restaurant with lots of rich choices, homemade bread on the table, and multiple glasses of wine would have been a major source of anxiety. In fact, if Chris had sprung a surprise date on me on a day when I didn’t have time to exercise I would probably have been so anxious that I would have picked a fight and ruined his wonderful intentions. That anxiety around food and meal times is a product of diet culture, and being sold the idea that we have to earn our right to eat and enjoy food.
Breaking news: You DO NOT have to earn your right to eat and enjoy food.Since discovering Intuitive Eating and a world of helpful blogs and resources dedicated to embracing life outside of diet culture I have learned to reduce my anxiety around food and meal times, and just enjoy them for what they are: a chance to nourish my body and connect to people I love the most.
Now, it wasn’t as easy as just deciding not to be anxious around food, so today I would like to share with you a few things I did, and still do, to deal with and reduce my meal time anxiety. Just a note for those reading who may have an eating disorder, or are in recovery from an eating disorder, please contact a suitable health professional for individualised advice. This is just my personal experience and not intended to replace professional, individual counselling.
I tune into my hunger and fullness levels.
I like to get a gauge of how hungry I am before I look at the menu and order my meal. Perhaps I am very hungry that day and need a heartier meal, or maybe my appetite is only small and a fresh salad seems like the perfect choice. Rather than telling my body what it is allowed to have based on what I have eaten that day I trust my body to tell me what it needs to satisfy its hunger. I like to check in with my hunger/fullness levels about half/three-quarters way through my meal again to see if I am satisfied, or if I should keep eating. If I feel comfortably full then I am done eating. If I really like it (and it’s the kind of place you can do this) I can always ask for a doggy bag to take home for lunch the next day, or I can choose to keep eating past my fullness levels if I really want to (<– you don’t have to be perfect).
I take a few deep breaths before looking at the menu.
Then, when my food comes I take another few deep breaths before starting to eat. Taking deep breaths helps to decrease my anxiety around food and eating by bringing me back to the present moment. I am not thinking about what I ate or didn’t eat that day, I am not thinking about what I will or won’t eat tomorrow, or how I will have to exercise to ‘burn off’ what I am eating. I am just sitting in my chair, looking at my delicious meal, and focusing on the present. I can feel my heart rate slow, and my mind stop, refocus, and calm down. Deep breathing helps us to control the ‘fight or flight’ response that comes with anxiety. Our fight or flight response (when our sympathetic nervous system gets all ramped up over a real or perceived threat) can be helpful when facing a bear in the forest, but isn’t helpful when looking at a bear claw in the bakery. Focusing on our breath is one of the best ways to calm that response and get back into the moment.
I serve up my meal with a big side helping of gratitude.
Gratitude for having the financial means to purchase a meal (although all of these tips work just as well with a homemade meal!). Gratitude for my dining partner and the chance to share some pleasures of the table with them. Gratitude for being able to choose whatever I want from the menu. Gratitude for the talent of the chef. Gratitude for this life experience.
I accept and acknowledge the anxiety, but I refuse to engage with it.
When I was in therapy for some generalised anxiety issues I was having earlier in the year, my therapist asked me if I could possibly observe the anxious/worrying thoughts without engaging in them. The same can be useful when sitting down to a meal. When anxious thoughts pop up (how many calories are in this? have I eaten too many carbs today? have I exercised enough to eat this today?) I let them drift across my mind like clouds moving across the sky BUT I don’t latch onto any of them. I don’t think more deeply about the anxious thought. I simply observe and release. Even though I am totally at peace with food now, these anxious thoughts do pop up from time to time (especially when I am approaching my wedding and lots of social events). That’s okay. We are surrounded by diet culture how can we expect for these thoughts to simply disappear?! By knowing that they might pop up, I can prepare myself to observe and release, and then enjoy my meal!
Self compassion is the key.
Maybe I still panicked when I realised I wouldn’t have time to exercise before dinner. Maybe I still felt guilty when I ordered pasta instead of salad. Maybe I ate past the point of fullness. Maybe I ordered a salad and I’m still hungry. You know what, I am human, and I am always learning what my body needs, and how to filter out the voice of diet culture that is all around us. I will never be perfect (no one ever will) so self compassion is the key to a calmer life with food (and everything else). Realise that you can’t be perfect, so you may as well be human and enjoy the experience.
It takes time.
Learning to relax around all foods and accept that you really can have ALL foods in your diet takes time, so be compassionate with yourself. Every time you listen to your body for hunger and fullness cues, and choose what you really want on a menu (be it salad or pizza) you are learning and growing. If you need help with letting go of the diet mentality contact a Health At Every Size Dietitian or health expert.
Disclaimer: I am not a trained psychologist, counsellor, or therapist, so this advice is just what has worked for me, and how I might help clients in my role as a non-diet Accredited Practicing Dietitian. This advice is meant for general use only and is not intended as individual dietetic advice. If you need help healing your relationship with food and exercise please contact an Accredited Practicing Dietitian (maybe even me!).