Of all the components of HELP, food is the most complex issue. This is an extraordinary age of abundance of food choices for those of us living in Western society. The growing, hunting, gathering, and obtaining of food are not tasks that most people, with the exception of farmers and backyard gardeners, experience anymore. Instead our food appears on the shelves of nearby supermarkets, takeout shops, and restaurants. The variety of food displayed and accessible is astounding at times, with a stream of temptations created by clever advertising and packaging, enticing smells, and the guarantees of fast, reliable, and efficient service and quality. No wonder food is such a sensitive issue. It is no longer a means by which we sustain ourselves, but has become a wonderland of choices, many of which come from a wide variety of cultures and culinary styles. Are we eating to live, or living to eat?
Now, not only do we have an abundance of foods to choose from, but we must also learn how to make the right choices, selecting foods that will be both attractive to our taste buds (which often lead us into temptation) and conducive to physical health. This is not an easy task, and it is made all the more difficult by advertising, information, diets, advice, vested business interests, and the ethnic, cultural, and family conditioning we have experienced while growing up. If we want to target healthy foods, how far do we go when confronted by choices of organic, biodynarnic, minimum pesticide, no preservatives, no additives, no artificial coloring, low cholesterol, fat-free, sugar-free, low salt, no salt, no cholesterol, low cholesterol, “natural,” macrobiotic, vegan . . . and the list goes on?
Food awareness can be very confusing. We are confronted with complex choices and bombarded with sometimes conflicting information, while being enticed by temptation and put off by alarming health studies. We have had little education in nutrition, and what information we have received about what we “should” be eating may be biased by underlying vested business interests. While our average weight is going up, the range of diets being recommended is expanding faster than people’s waistlines, and the food choices continue to multiply. Will the HELP approach add yet another twist to this never-ending road of junctions, hairpin turns, dietary traffic signs, neon lights, and dead ends?
No! HELP is about awareness of the food we put into the body and, through this awareness, making decisions that will be conducive to our health. This program will not make the decisions for you. It will provide you with information that will help you to become more aware of your food choices, and assist you in ways to monitor the effects of these choices on your well-being. Unless you take the responsibility to tune into the needs of your body and the effect that certain foods have on your health, the confusion will continue unabated. Even if you understand the principles and theories behind food choices, if you are not attuned to the effects of various foods on your body, mind, and spirit, you will be a victim of your food environment rather than a master of it.
There is no question that the food or fuel we put into the body affects us. We all know that taking coffee is one way to stimulate the system, while eating large amounts of heavy foods is one way to slow it down. Yet, because of our lack of education in the area of nutrition, our food awareness is often limited to these more obvious conclusions. We need to learn the skills to fine-tune our diet in order to satisfy our needs without harming ourselves by our choices.
For a long time health professionals have directed their energies to repairing the body, rather than explaining what to put into it. Nutrition was not believed to be an appropriate subject for most medical schools. It is only recently with the compelling evidence of the importance of food awareness that things are beginning to change. These changes will lead to more information for the general public, as well as for health-care providers.
Making the wrong food choices can be hazardous to our health. Health practitioners are now developing dietary guidelines to respond to a series of health problems including heart disease, high blood pressure, tooth decay, liver disease, obesity, diabetes, stroke, osteoporosis, gallstones, and cancers of the colon, prostate, and breast.
But at the same time as being therapeutic, proper nutrition can be a tool of prevention. Educate yourself on both your individual body and mind, and the types of food that will allow you to strengthen your body and mind given their properties and your needs. It is a simple process if you take the time to do it. Given the wide choice of foods available to us from all over the world, nature’s pharmacy is at our doorstep.
In addition to acknowledging the importance of food to the maintenance of the body, research now confirms the close interrelationship between the food we eat and our psychological disposition. Not only do the foods we eat affect our moods, but also the way we feel affects our food choices. Food is a medicine of sorts, as it can produce certain effects in the system that our mind may be looking for. Like medicine, the food we eat can create moods as a result of its effect chemically on the body and mind. When we binge on food or take in excessive sweets, there is a release of the body’s natural pain-relievers-which temporarily relieve any psychological or physical pain we might have. Certain nutrients in the foods we consume have a dramatic impact on our memory, attention span, and moods. The effect of food can be like that of a drug. Developing our awareness is the only way to break the addictive habits that we may be a victim of, given this interactive dynamic of food and mood.
The way to begin fostering food awareness is to look closely at how and what you are eating now. It may be that, with a few slight modifications, your diet and habits are completely in line with a healthy life. Or perhaps you recognize emotional patterns that seem to trigger poor eating habits on your part, and which could be overcome through greater awareness. As with all the other components of HELP, we have to develop a sense of perspective through examining our lifestyle now.
Answer the following questions in your journal. Then indicate if you can improve in any of these areas, and how you might go about doing SO.
As with every part of life, balance and moderation are the key. As highlighted throughout this guide, HELP is not a program of extremes but is always trying to maintain the integrity and harmony of body, mind, and spirit.
First, keep track of your diet over a period of time in your journal. Then evaluate it, listing percentages of the categories of foods: grains, fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, animal products (if not a vegetarian), and the occasional indulgence. Aim to have a diet, which emphasizes grains, fruit and vegetables, and minimizes animal products and indulgences. Like all other aspects of HELP, food awareness must be fun and enjoyable if you are going to stick with it.
Style of eating is particularly important. We can be eating the most nutritional food, but if we are rushing while eating and not chewing properly, it becomes difficult for the body to digest. Overloading the stomach when feeling anxious about upcoming events, and anticipating more to come when we have not even finished what is on our plate, results in poor digestion and the release of detrimental neurochemicals. Eat while you eat, work while you work, play while you play, and sleep while you sleep. When you mix these up, you get mixed up, and so does your body and health. It is all quite simple. Style and balance go together.
Take a moment to answer the following questions in your journal:
Given the abundance of food choices, it is often tricky to know exactly what types of food we are eating. So many different ingredients and techniques are used to make and prepare food these days for a host of reasons (cost, health, availability, mass production, appearance) that we can no longer assume what we are eating is what we think we are eating.
The food looks great, but where was it before it wound up on your plate: frozen, in a packet, in the garden? What has happened to it since that time: fried, microwaved, baked, just sliced? The answers to these questions may give you some information on its freshness, vitality, and nutritional value. If you are trying to reduce the fat content in your diet to the Heart Foundation-recommended level of below 30 percent of daily intake of calories, these factors will be helpful to know.
If you seem to develop wind after a meal, it might not be the beans, but perhaps how they were prepared, what you ate them with, how much you ate, and whatever may have still been undigested in your stomach that they were competing against. Food combinations and the quantity of food you consume may be relevant factors when examining how specific foods affect you, as much as the particular foods themselves.
Be aware of your foods now, before your body and mind force you to become aware.
The best diet is the one that is enjoyable to you, allows you to feel good both mentally and physically, leaves you with plenty of energy, is not an ordeal to prepare, and does not harm the planet, which we all depend on for our survival. Try not to be dogmatic or evangelical in your approach; this could cause you to push your diet onto someone who is not ready, or who needs things you may not be aware of. Keep track of the foods that work for you and eliminate the ones that do not. You can share the process with others, but do not get attached to the idea that your results are for everyone.
How can you tell what is a good diet? There are some basic guidelines that just about everyone agrees upon; beyond that it is a matter of experimenting. Assume the challenging role of a detective. While simplifying your diet and testing different foods, keep good notes on your levels of energy, health, and ease of digestion and elimination. Increase your sensitivity by practicing the other components of HELP: yoga postures, breathing exercises, meditation, relaxation, awareness, group support, and so forth. Eliminate certain foods one at a time for five days and see if there is any reaction upon reintroducing them. Increase foods that help the body eliminate such as fiber-rich grains, fruit, and vegetables, then slowly introduce other foods that you would like to add and note their effect. If you have a bad reaction to a food, try it once or twice more just to verify it. Before eliminating it from your diet, check that you are combining your food properly. Adjust the times when you eat, trying to eat several smaller meals during the day to avoid eating a heavy meal before sleeping, and observe the effect.
If you have a specific ailment, you should seek out specialized diets. The above guidelines reflect more of what is traditionally known as a maintenance diet for good health.
Making the changes in daily patterns of behaviour that will allow you to break the habits of many years is not easy, but it is possible through dedication and discipline. Rather than trying to meet all the above guidelines, set goals, which target the areas that you need to work on the most. Be aware of other parts of your life that may conflict with these goals (e.g. social commitments, partner, and so on), and seek a happy compromise. Begin with goals that are realistic, such as “I will try to reduce my current consumption of fat to a level less than 30 percent of total calorie intake over the next two months,”(if that is realistic for you), rather than “I will never have any foods that contain saturated fat” (if you suspect that is unlikely). Try also to be specific, with targets that are measurable and attainable within a given time context.
Create a detailed picture of the type of diet you are striving for and use it as a model. Write it down and visualize it as clearly as possible in the mind’s eye whenever sitting down to eat. Take a moment before eating to ask yourself whether you are living this goal. The more specific the diet is, the easier this will be.
Be clear as to what the achievement of this diet means to you in terms of your own emotions, physical well-being, mental peace, or other desires you might have. Make a commitment to it by knowing how important it is to you, and what you are willing to do to achieve it.
Have a plan as to how you will be able to implement this diet, taking into consideration how the diet may be challenged through eating in restaurants and at friends’ homes, eating takeout, your partner’s desires, your job functions, workplace limitations, and so forth.
Be flexible: if for some reason you are challenged in a way that you least expect, try to adapt and adjust, remembering to enjoy the journey of food awareness. If you fail at first, do not get discouraged but rather be a bit more realistic in your plan and forgive yourself. The next day, start afresh with full commitment.
When you are successful, take some time out (perhaps at the end of the day) to pat yourself on the back, boosting both your motivation and spirits. It is important to enjoy your accomplishments.
Enlist the support of family, friends, and others, by telling them of your goals and asking them to assist you if possible. At least they will understand why you have chosen to be more aware of food without seeking to convert them. Seek out like-minded people and books, or other sources of information such as cooking classes or nutritionists, to answer questions that come up, and reinforce your commitment.
Above all, have a sense of humor, remembering the joumey is to be enjoyed. Give yourself a break, and do not be in too great a change overnight. It is far better to begin slowly and adhere fully to your plan than to set unrealistic goals and meet them once every four days.
Through food awareness, combined with the other HELP components, you will be able to maintain the weight that is right for you. You will have an easeful body that takes you where you want to go, and a tranquil mind allowing you to enjoy the wonders of life.
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Department of Health and Human Services (US), Public Health Service. The Surgeon-General’s Report on Nutrition and Health, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1988.
Ornish, Dean. Eat More Weigh Less, harper Collins, New York, 1993.
Robbins J. Diet for a New America, Earth Save, felton, Stillpoint Publishing, Walpole, New Hampshire, 1987.
Wurtman, RJ. “Behavioural Effects of Nutrients”, Lancet, 1 (8334), 1145-1 147.