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You are what you eat – how to develop mindful eating habits

Do you remember the snakes and ladders game? Do you recall how you’d get to a certain point on the board, then with a single roll of the dice you would suddenly end up back where you started? No doubt you had that same reeling feeling of disappointment and frustration of having to go over old ground that I had? It’s not even the winning that matters at this point of the game – it’s the irritation of having to go back over all the spaces where you’d been before. Just when you thought the finish line was in sight, here you are again back near the beginning. For anyone who’s ever tried to change their eating habits, it’s easy to find yourself in the same position. Here’s how to fight back.

A friend and I were chatting and she said how her recently healthier eating habits had reverted back to old ways, because of the stress that she was feeling in the current situation. It’s completely human to resort to what you know, what is familiar, during times of stress – and comfort eating is one of those safety nets. Learning something new can be very difficult when you are in survival mode, let alone changing your habits. Let’s take a closer look to understand where you are at right now.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a very common depiction that you may have already encountered if you have dug deeper into the psychology of the mind. It demonstrates how we all need to have, or build on, good foundations. It is these foundations that provide for our physiological needs, our safety and security. Without satisfying these basic needs, it’s more difficult to do much else.

It’s very much like the concept of the root chakra. These good foundations to build upon are vital (literally) to reach the peak of self-actualisation, where we really truly ‘get it’ and can ‘live it‘ and importantly stay there in that place. Self actualisation points to mastery of ourselves. These are the moments of expansiveness at the peak, ‘I truly know how to do this‘ type moments. It can be the feeling of accomplishment, of being on a good run of snakes and ladders game. Pride tends to come before a fall in my experience and back down the ladder I go!

Stages of Change

All this back and forth business is quite normal.

Stressful experiences such as relationship challenges, financial difficulties, changes in your work or uncertainty about the future can all have a big emotional impact on us –  and in recent times most of us have experienced all of this at once, as our entire lives have been turned upside down overnight.

It is unsurprising that we fall down the ladder or take a backwards step, if new habits aren’t yet ingrained. During such times it’s common to fall back to our default and resort to the old. Let’s take our eating choices as an example. There are stages of change when we learn something new. The first is called unconscious incompetence, when we aren’t aware of our choices, so we unmindfully or unskillfully reach for the cake. We do it without even being aware or thinking, ‘mmm yummy, lets eat’. It’s automatic, with no real regard for the consequences, it’s our default programming.

As we begin to gain the awareness that our choices aren’t benefiting us anymore, the next stage is called conscious incompetence. We know consciously that what we are doing may harm our health – but we may feel quite powerless if we don’t know how to go about making those changes we now recognise the need for. We may feel out of control until we find methods by which we can change our behaviour – so the tendency is often to feel guilt, which creates an emotional reaction and causes you to repeat the very habit you are trying to overcome.

Once we find our how, we are able to take steps to change. We may begin, for example, with a decision to only have cake twice a week instead of every day and practise a mindful approach to eating. We may choose to mindfully notice the effects that cake has on our body and how we feel physically if we eat it. We might not have paid much attention to that before, we are learning. We start to build an awareness at the level that is called unconscious competence. 

Unconscious competence is where our inner programming and our old habits are still running the show in the background. In the foreground we are gaining mastery and the ability to make more skilful choices. We are mindfully pushing, forcing or willing ourselves to do that. The unconscious is the familiar place that drives us automatically, it probably still wants the cake rather than the apple. It is now doing battle with that part of our awareness that reminds us that ‘eating the cake 7 days a week isn’t the most skillful choice for me, particularly as I’m not getting any exercise…etc etc‘. I’m sure you recognise your own self talk.

It’s literally a lot of food for thought and at this stage it is very difficult to digest. 

What can help me?

A great way to overcome this challenge is by practising mindful eating. That is to stay present and pay attention. Focus on your thoughts and feelings when eating the apple or the cake. You may notice that your body feels more vibrant, more alive when you eat the apple. There’s a part of you that still wants that cake, but you are determined. At this point you may go back and forth, between apple and cake. Apple or cake. Cake or Apple… And when you lose the battle and arrive at cake you may think that you are going back to the beginning of the snakes and ladders game. You’re not – you will never go back to that stage of unconscious incompetence because you have noticed and become aware, you are conscious.

So the good news is that, you never go right back to the beginning. You know the journey, you’ve been there before and worn the t-shirt. You have more awareness, you have experience to draw on. What you have learnt is still in there somewhere, you know the route now, that is within you. It’s just that, for whatever reason, you have resorted to the pre-programmed way of old.

You have not yet reached the mastery which holds your decisions more firmly in place. So, as you go back and forth between apple and cake, you go back and forth between the stages of conscious incompetence and unconscious competence. If you focus on this as being part of the learning experience, you can allow ourselves to cultivate an attitude of acceptance which takes the negative self talk or pressure off. You are still learning. It’s okay.

Making value judgements

Note also, I don’t refer to good or bad decisions. Good or bad are value judgements and not always helpful. They can compound a stick beating, self-deprecating approach. Instead using the terms ‘skilful’ or ‘unskillful’ can encourage a more compassionate, kindful approach to self.

So each time you go back and forth between apple and cake, you notice where you are at mindfully. You cultivate awareness of your inner process. You can ask yourself: How does this make me feel when I eat cake? What am I feeling when I reach for cake? What is cake substituting in my life? What is driving me to do this? What are my triggers..? 

Nurture and self-compassion

You can then follow that up by further asking yourself, how can I take care of myself now? Would I benefit from doing a RAIN meditation (where you allow yourself to feel your feelings), having some counselling, hypnotherapy, EMDR, reiki or Holistic Therapies to relax? Ask yourself, ‘what can I do for me instead of eating the cake?’.

Noticing your triggers

Helpful at this stage is to notice and try to shift the old blocks that maybe causing you to go back to your old ways. This may be achieved by some of the methods above. Look at the things that keep you in the same old patterns, what keeps you stuck. Look at the underlying triggers such as feelings of shame or sorrow that you may want to assuage by stuffing those feelings down, because you don’t know how to deal with the feelings.

As I sat in meditation and allowed myself to feel the feelings that I was suppressing with my love of sugar, it came to me that I wasn’t very ‘sweet’ to myself. I was looking for a kindness substitute, because my self-talk was without compassion for myself.

Allowing yourself to feel the underlying emotions can let them go. I sat with the sadness for my lack of self kindness, and allowed myself to feel that feeling of sorrow until it dissipated. You can find out more about this by listening to the RAIN meditation. Your competency increases by being still with your issues. As you notice those issues and accept them, it frees you up. Also through the practise of continued mindful observation ‘the apple feels good, the cake makes me sluggish’, you can reprogramme yourself.

Overcoming adversity

Going back to Maslow’s hierarchy, when life throws us the curve ball and our security and survival are tested, it is completely understandable that we go back to old choices. Our underlying programming is indicating another layer of experience has emerged or surfaced to be addressed, it is a process.

If we are still doing inner battle, it can help is to remember that ‘What we resists persists’. It is but an indicator for the deeper work that we’ve looked at above. We haven’t truly got there yet, if we are going back and forth and that’s okay. I think it’s comforting to recognise that conscious incompetence is just another part of our journey and perhaps cultivation of patience for example could be addressed . It is one of those slippery ladders. Allowing ourselves to feel that, with acceptance of our resistance, can be helpful. Just naming whatever is going on for us right now, not judging it, for example ‘I’m resistant right now and that’s OK it’s a journey’.

The Destination to unconscious competence

Over time, you then reach the level of unconscious competence. If you are lucky and have an epiphany, you roll the dice to climb the snakes and ladders and have a short cut to this place, but it is usually reached through hard worth and back and forth. The stage of unconscious competience is where you do it naturally; it becomes automatic. You naturally choose the apple because you know on a deeper level that your body and mind want it. You are making choices automatically now. The thought of the cake isn’t as appealing and you don’t have that inner battle of having to deliberate between eating the cake or eating the apple and trying to resist it.

This level of change may seem odd in itself. It’s a strange new place when all of your life you may have wanted cake and now your body says ‘apple’. It is poignant that you have come to a place where you do actually listen and pay attention to your true self. I liken it to the ‘want, want, want’ inner child that runs riot in the sweetshop… instead, it’s now become the mindful adult calmly making choices in the greengrocers. It’s allowing yourself to feel the vibrancy of certain foods and how they suit your system. You come to the end of that game board and realise that it doesn’t really matter whether someone’s got there before you or not. You notice the benefits of getting to your destination, that self-mastery is about becoming the winner of yourself, noticing that and making unconscious, healthful, vibrant food choices that truly reflect your inner self.

This is an adaptation of a post by author Emma Sims that originally appeared here.

Emma Sims
Emma Sims is a complementary Holistic Therapist and Reiki Master Teacher with 20+ years experience in the field. She is based in the Community Resource Centre, Gwersyllt, Wrexham, North Wales.

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