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SALT LAKE CITY — As the winter season approaches, it can be even more important to focus on what’s most important for personal and family well-being.
Influences on ability to maintain healthy eating and other lifestyle habits include personal preferences, daily life demands, as well as individual relationship to food and eating.
In particular, practicing self-awareness and acceptance in navigating eating experiences during the holidays can support increased trust in relationships with food and family during this time of year.
Trust in eating experiences
It can be difficult to trust information about what to eat. This may in part be due to conflicting external messages about “good and bad” foods in the environment as well as messages received from friends and family.
Researchers and experts in areas of internal regulation of eating often focus on helping individuals bring awareness to their own eating experiences while learning how to appropriately interpret external advice on what to eat. This process of learning to listen to internal signals can help individuals build trust in eating choices that reflect both enjoyment as well as health.
One model developed by Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian nutritionist and family therapist, called eating competence may help individuals navigate a variety of life situations as both “eaters” as well as “feeders” of others including children.
Eating competence is defined as “being positive, comfortable, and flexible with eating as well as matter-of-fact and reliable about getting enough to eat of enjoyable and nourishing food.” For example, those with higher levels of eating competence may feel more confident in choosing foods they enjoy at a holiday party without feeling guilty.
According to Satter, as individuals become competent eaters, they are more likely to “go to meals hungry, have food they enjoy, tune in while they eat, and eat as much as they want. Then stop, knowing another meal or snack is coming soon and they can do it all over again!”
Or in the case of family meals, supporting development of eating competence for toddlers through adolescents means parents can focus on the what, when, and where of eating while supporting children in their choice of how much and whether to eat.
In addition to building trust in eating choices, it has been found that eating competence contributes to healthier eating patterns and more enjoyable eating experiences without specific rules on what foods to eat.
Mindfulness and how it helps
In addition to models such as eating competence, researchers have also been exploring mindfulness-based methods for supporting healthy behaviors and overall well-being. While there are varying definitions, mindfulness has been defined in some recent research as the “tendency to be highly aware of one’s internal and external experiences in the context of an accepting, nonjudgmental stance towards those experiences.” These researchers have identified awareness and acceptance as two key elements of the practical experience of mindfulness.
The Center for Mindful Eating (TCME) states that "healthy eating is enjoyable eating that meets nutritional needs. They go on to state that the practice of mindfulness while eating intentionally brings awareness to the internal and external environment while eating." Acceptance, in particular, can be thought of as fully experiencing eating while resisting judgment and staying open to explore what’s present in the moment.
New or surprising discoveries can occur with acceptance and awareness while eating that may help individuals better understand motivations for food choices as well as patterns of eating behavior both positive and negative. This knowledge from personal experience can be helpful towards making healthy eating changes that can be sustained.
Acceptance of eating and other life experiences can be more difficult when things don’t go as expected or uncomfortable experiences arise. Consider feelings of guilt when foods considered “forbidden” are eaten, for example, or when concerns about the health of children or other loved ones contribute to desire for more control of eating habits.
In these and other situations, mindfulness can support healthy relationships to food and family by providing a framework for awareness and acceptance of eating experiences and how they affect us physically, mentally, and emotionally. In some cases, this may help individuals release guilt or judgment related to eating and build more trust in their individual food choices.
Meeting food needs
The psychologist Abraham Maslow included food along with warmth, water, and rest as part of basic physiologic needs at the foundation of the Hierarchy of Needs. Meeting the needs of ourselves and others by creating a healthy relationship to food and eating can support learning and growth in a natural way based on individual differences.
Ellyn Satter’s work also promotes a food hierarchy that can be a foundation of learning how to nourish ourselves and others. According to her food hierarchy, “you will gain eating capability when you are ready… and it has to feel genuinely comfortable, or it won’t last."
Consistent with Maslow’s work, individuals may make progress at different rates towards eating competence, and may also have times of setbacks, yet are capable and have an innate desire to learn and grow. Trusting in this process of learning to take better care of ourselves and others can support nourishing relationships this holiday season and beyond.
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