How Eating is a Form of Self-Care

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There is a lot of talk about self-care these days in the health and wellness industry. It is largely because self-care is a core component to our well-being. What is “self-care”? At its most basic definition, self-care is simply what it sounds like: nurturing yourself! It means treating yourself as kindly as you do others in your life. When I think of self-care, I think of the oxygen mask in the plane. The flight attendants instruct you to put your oxygen mask on first, before helping others. Why? Because you can’t help others if you can’t breathe yourself!

There are many self-care practices you can employ to help you create more peace and joy in your life (see the chart below for some ideas). Women often put self-care last on their list as they are busy caring for everyone else around them, investing all their energy into their career, or doing a combination of the above (and more)! As a registered dietitian, I have counseled many women who admit to putting their self-care on the back-burner, which can even include eating. Whether it means eating as fast as possible between tasks on the to-do list, getting too busy at work to stop and eat, or avoiding hunger to lose weight – ultimately, preparing foods and eating almost becomes a burden and a nuisance.

 
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Eating in of itself is one of the core components to self-care because it literally is nurturing our bodies to exist. We can’t live very long without enough food or water. This leads me to a thought that has been on my mind lately: eating is a form of self-care, and what, when, and how much we eat can play a role in how we feel and show up to life.

How is eating a form of self-care? Here are a few of the ways that fueling our bodies nurtures us:

 

Food affects our performance and energy levels.

If you go long periods of time without eating during your waking hours (i.e. greater than 5-6 hours), the body does not function at its best. We may not be able to think clearly as our brain is starved of glucose (aka, carbohydrate). We may also experience fatigue, low energy levels, or headaches. If we are planning to exercise or our day involves a lot of movement, we may not have the best energy levels to get through it. Food is what gives your cells the energy they need accomplish their tasks. Include a balance of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats throughout the day to help nourish your cells with what they need to help you perform. Having a balance of these three nutrients is what I call the “energy trifecta” – it helps keep blood sugar levels more stable and helps you feel more energized throughout the day.

 

Food can impact our mood.

Food provides important compounds that contribute to the hormones in our body which regulate our mood. In particular, carbohydrates and protein affect our ability to make serotonin, aka the “feel good” hormone. Both of these macronutrients also contain important vitamins and minerals that affect our neurological system. When our cells and brain are not receiving enough fuel, we can experience irritability or what is commonly referred to as being “hangry! On the opposite end of the spectrum, if they are given too much fuel at one time, we may experience lethargy. Tune into your signals of hunger and fullness as well as how foods make you feel. Use the hunger/fullness scale below to practice identifying your signs of hunger. Avoid getting to a level 1 on the scale and try to stop eating when you are at a 5 or 6.

 

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Food provides comfort and satisfaction.

We are given taste buds because food is pleasurable and meant to be enjoyed. Ultimately, food tastes good because it helps keep us alive. Food can provide comfort and satisfaction in different ways – from a nice hot bowl of chili on a cold day or a refreshing bowl of ice cream after dinner. It is when we turn to food as our only way to soothe uncomfortable emotions that it can become problematic. Tune into why and when you eat to identify if you are turning to food as a coping mechanism. If you often find yourself eating to soothe uncomfortable emotions, instead of passing harsh judgement on yourself, approach from an angle of curiosity and self-compassion. Ask yourself what you are really needing in the moment and experiment with alternative activities to address feelings that you may be experiencing.

Nourishing your body with food is just one of the ways that you cultivate health. Dieting culture often makes food out to be an enemy and something to be controlled. On the contrary, food is one of the core components to our existence. Through the act of eating, you are investing in your life as food is full of nutrients that help you care for and allow your body function at its best.