Take a break, improve your nutrition

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I’m not above putting a task on my to-do list after I’ve completed it just so I can have the satisfaction of checking it off. Or listing things I’m unlikely to forget like “shower” and “make breakfast” so I can check them off and get that little dopamine reward in my brain. Feels good to get stuff done.

But there’s a dark side to buying into our culture’s penchant for busyness. Especially if you make your self-worth contingent on how much you get done in a day, compromising your physical and mental well-being.

If you have a hard time giving yourself permission to take regular breaks, there’s a good chance it’s negatively impacting your eating habits. How? Here are a couple of different ways this can show up—and what to do about them:

1)  You find yourself making numerous trips to the kitchen–even though you’re not hungry. If you struggle with giving yourself permission to take intentional breaks, your body and mind will settle for a pseudobreak: eating. You might rationalize, “Hey, everybody’s gotta eat. At least that’s productive.” Meanwhile, the mindless autopilot eating isn’t so satisfying, and overeating convenient snack foods may lead to less energy…ironically leading to even more eating to pick up your energy (or as a response to food guilt).

Try this: When you notice the kitchen is calling your name even though you’re not hungry, take a moment to get curious and ask yourself, “What am I asking the food to do for me?” 

Maybe your body or mind needs a break, and taking a few minutes to close your eyes, surf the web, call a friend, take a mini nap, step outside, read a magazine, make some tea or stretch would be more restorative than raiding the fridge and pantry. There’s evidence that giving the mind regular breaks improves productivity and creativity.

Or maybe you’re working on a project and hit a rough spot. The inquiry, “What am I asking the food to do for me?” may help you realize you’re tempted to procrastinate on the project and a trip to the kitchen sounds like a good way to distract.

Once you’ve named what’s going on, you can then make a conscious decision on what to do next. Maybe you decide you’re going to tackle the project for just 10 more minutes and then check in to see if you’re willing to do more. Or perhaps you decide to take a 15-minute break—or wait to tackle the project tomorrow. You might even decide to enjoy a snack mindfully even though you’re not hungry—without guilt. The key is to identify what’s going on so you can make a conscious decision, rather than eating compulsively (or restricting) and not knowing why.

The comedian Louis C.K. is a surprising source of nutritional wisdom. In a Rolling Stoneinterview, he says, “Once you say that to yourself, ‘Oh, this is anxiety,’ you get to say to yourself, ‘Why am I anxious?’ because when something’s bothering you, you don’t name it, you just start eating something. I’m still going to eat the two Twinkies, but when I start opening the second package, I say to myself, ‘What’s going on, buddy?’ That will get me to two Twinkies instead of eight.”

2)  You overpack your schedule. Whenever someone asks how you’re doing, your response is usually, “Busy!” Your hectic way of moving through your day leads to missed meals and snacks and/or mindless eating. You might experience more moments of feeling “hangry,” feeling more anxious/stressed or making food decisions that don’t feel so good to your body, all thanks to low blood sugar.

Try this:  If at all possible, try scheduling fewer things in a day (but you already knew that, didn’t you?). Experiment with blocking out a little “white space” or buffer time between appointments and tasks. It’s easy to underestimate the amount of time we need to do something or get somewhere. And it can be an act of wisdom and mercy to lower your standards.

Another idea is to schedule in regular meals and snacks, just like you do your other appointments. That may not feel “intuitive” but I assure you, it’s good self-care. Besides, when your schedule is hectic or chaotic, it can make your eating chaotic. It’s harder to stay connected to your body and be able to notice signals like gentle hunger and fullness when your body’s stress response is activated and adrenalin is high.

**This article is written by Minh-Hai Alex, a registered dietitian and certified health and wellness coach from Seattle, Washington. Her specialties include Intuitive Eating, eating disorders, emotional eating, sports nutrition, IBS, PCOS, and certain other health concerns.

Visit Minh-Hai’s website, and read her blog for more information: Mindful Nutrition

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