Count kilojoules, always eat breakfast, don’t eat carbs after 6pm.
Whether it’s public health advice or conflicting opinions in the media about nutrition, we hear a lot of messages about what and how we should eat. But there’s one message that needs to be louder, says Gabriella Heruc, an Adelaide based Accredited Practising Dietitian – listen to your body’s hunger signals.
According to Heruc, who specialises in eating disorders and disordered eating, tuning into your body’s inner appetite signals is more useful than observing external food ‘rules.’
“People often get fixated on counting kilojoules, for instance, but learning to count kilojoules doesn’t teach you to listen to your body,” she says.
“One characteristic of people who have a healthy relationship with food is that they eat more intuitively and are more aware of their appetite. They rely on internal hunger and satiety cues to know when it’s time to eat and when it’s time to stop – and their reasons for eating are physical, not emotional.”
But ignoring your body’s hunger and fullness cues, eating for emotional reasons, eating mindlessly or having your eating choices dictated by food rules that demand you avoid certain food groups may be clues that your relationship with food isn’t healthy, she adds.
Why do so many of us develop troubled relationships with food?
“The reasons are very individual and can include perfectionism, low self-esteem and poor body image. But they can also include the home environment, especially if there are frequent discussions around weight, appearance or diet in the home,” she says.
“Non-hungry eating is very common and the availability of so much food is one reason. But we also know that emotions and thoughts can override our physiological appetite signals – research has shown that stress can increase hunger and food intake in some people – although it can decrease hunger and food intake in others.”
Nutrition information – and misinformation – in the media may also be playing a part. In the past 10 years Heruc has noticed an increase in the number of clients whose disordered eating is driven less by concerns about body image and more by anxiety about particular foods.
‘I’ve seen many people who’ve had mild gut symptoms and who then self-diagnose a problem with wheat, gluten or dairy and cut out these foods – and even if the symptoms persist they still continue to avoid them because of fears that their symptoms would get worse if they went back to eating them,” she says.
“So many people are cutting out carbohydrates from their diets thinking that they’re ‘bad’ – yet carbohydrates are the body and brain’s primary source of fuel. They’re also an essential source of fibre that helps lower cholesterol, regulate blood glucose levels and optimise bowel function.”
Fat is another target, says Heruc recalling the client whose father had died of heart disease and who avoided all types of fat as a result.
“Fat is one of the most misunderstood nutrients. Yet fats are essential for optimal brain function and nerve signalling in the body, as well as hormone production – including production of hormones that are important for sending fullness signals from the gut to the brain.”
How can we nurture a healthier relationship with food? Eat mindfully – besides making you more aware of what you’re eating, it makes it easier to pick up your body’s hunger and fullness signals.
“So many of us eat in front of TV, at our desk or while talking to others, and don’t pay attention to our food – most people have experienced looking down at an empty plate and being unable to recall even eating the food that was there,” she says.
Sometimes, but not always, the seeds of future eating problems are sown in early childhood but there are ways to help prevent that.
“It’s good if we can keep emotions and food separated so that food isn’t seen as an answer when someone’s upset,” she says. “Teach children to listen to their hunger signals as well as to love and trust their bodies.”