Our relationship with food is a complex and multifaceted subject. Food is an unavoidable necessity, but can also be an enemy to be rejected. For many, it is an ever-present obsession in their lives.
It is hard to think of a biological function more essential to sustaining life than eating. For nearly all of us, breathing is an automatic process. The same applies for sleeping. Eating, instead, requires a degree of deliberate engagement in the acts of growing, gathering, shopping or going to a restaurant.
A recent survey into our nation’s eating habits has revealed that many of us eat together as a family around the classic dinner table less and less for a variety of reasons, ranging from a preference to watch TV to being distracted by technology.
With that information at hand, we sat down with Chartered Clinical Psychologist Dr Lucia Giombini to get some tips on how we can improve our dining habits and, consequentially the time spend together as a family.
The advantages of regular meals and dining at the table
The dinner table is more than simply a place where food is eaten. It may be where social support and family involvement come together. Undoubtedly, eating at a table and having a positive interaction are associated with stronger and more positive feelings that can supersede the tendency to overeat. This is confirmed by recent studies suggesting that eating in the kitchen or at the dining room table and remaining at the table until everyone is finished eating are both associated with lower BMIs for parents children. Such behaviour may be related to less distracted eating or less supervised eating. Furthermore, greater family meal frequency is associated with increased intake of dietary components related to improved health (e.g., fruits, vegetables) and decreased intake of components that are recommended to be consumed in limited amounts (e.g., soft drinks, fried foods) among children, teens, and adults. Despite the many benefits, few interventions have focused on increasing family meal frequency. The researchers encourage families to eating together at a kitchen table or dining room with the television off. Additionally, encouraging the children to talk meaningfully about their day might also be an easy change to make.
Those who successfully had family meals frequently did so by creating a family mealtime culture with the expectation that family members were to be present at meals, developing a structured mealtime routine (e.g., set the table, institute a regular time to eat each day), and communicating work and after-school schedules with family members.
Other parents indicated that a strategy they used to overcome resistance to attending family meals was making meals enjoyable and minimizing mealtime stress. Enjoyment-heightening and stress-reduction techniques included serving foods that children enjoy, getting children involved in food preparation and shopping, and keeping mealtime conversation fun and interesting for the whole family. Some parents used strategies that were incongruent with recommended child feeding methods, such as rewarding children for eating and insisting children eat specific foods, such as vegetables.
How to improve our relationship with food and eating
The act of eating possessed personal meanings, values that our family and culture passed down to us in relation to food.
Being aware of all the personal, familial, and cultural aspects inherent to food would help us to better know and understand ourselves, and so to avoid the extremes of resorting to drastic diets, binge eating or disordered eating. In fact, the word diet, originating from the Greek word Diaita, means to live in the best possible way to be healthy. It does not have anything to do with obsession, sacrifice, deprivation or engaging in reckless or other dangerous and unhealthy eating behaviours.
The practice of mindful eating could help us to improve our relationship with food and subsequently improving our well-being.
It suggests that we should simply eat and drink, while being aware of each bite or sip with our whole body and mind. It is an approach that involves bringing one’s full attention to the process of eating: to all the tastes, smells, thoughts and feelings that arise during a meal.
It becomes more and more difficult to do so, as we tend to skip meals, or eating them when rushed from one task to the other. Also, we tend to eat alone, while distracted by a constant overflow of information coming from the many devices we are surrounded by. These behaviours can increase negative feelings such as anxiety and sadness; and also lead us to be disconnected by physical sensation such as sense of hunger and fullness.
Conversely, people who practice mindful eating report many benefits such as: a reduction in over-eating, heightened enjoyment of food, improved digestion and an increased ability to draw a distinction between emotional and physical hunger.
Above all, they report they have rediscovered a healthy relationship with food, characterized by some of these elements:
- You feel happy and fully engaged when you are not eating;
- If you are not feeling hungry, you do not eat;
- You stop eating when you feel full and you are able to leave the food on the plate;
- You have intervals of at least several hours when you are not hungry or thinking about food, punctuated by meal times when you do feel hungry and enjoy eating;
- You enjoy eating many different kinds of food;
- You maintain a healthy weight, which fluctuates within a range of five to seven pounds. You do not need to weigh yourself more than once every few months or even years;
- You do not obsess about food or count calories in order to decide if you can afford to eat something or not.
Through the practice of mindful eating, even for a few minutes a day, we will become aware of what kind of relationship to the food we have at the present moment, and to ask ourselves what the path is we would like to take.