“What do I eat?” As a diabetes educator and dietitian, I am asked this question every day – and even more so during the holidays! Mindful eating isn’t about eating a specific food or limiting yourself to a set number of calories or nutrients. It is about becoming curious and aware so you can make conscious decisions.
In Chapter 9 of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes we answer this challenging question by teaching you to ask more questions:
What do I want? Most of the time when you’re hungry, a specific food, flavor or texture comes to mind. As you get used to listening to your body’s signals, you’ll begin to recognize what type of food or taste matches your particular hunger at the time. Asking yourself, “What do I want?” is an important initial step to determining what to eat. (I know this question can feel a little scary; keep reading! I’ll talk more about that below.)
What do I need? The next question is “What do I need?” Food decisions are neither good nor bad, but clearly, some foods offer more nutritional benefits than others and affect your blood glucose in different ways. As you consider what food to choose, ask yourself, “What does my body need?”
What do I have? The final question is “What do I have?” This step can be summarized in one word: planning. Having a variety of foods available is critical if you’re going to learn to use hunger to guide your eating. If you feel hungry and the only food available is from a vending machine, you’ll probably choose a snack that may not be very healthy, may not taste very good, and may not really be what you were hungry for anyway. Take charge of your diabetes by keeping meals and snacks on hand that are a good fit for what you want and what you need.
One of my patients, Mike, found these three questions to be really helpful at first. However, on a follow-up visit, he told me that he had been struggling with cravings. As Mike and I explored the issue, we could see that he had slipped back into a Restrictive Eating Cycle (review chapter 1 of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes.) He said he was afraid to ask the question, What do I want? because he thought he wouldn’t make healthy choices.
However, when he only asked, What do I need?, he began to feel deprived, resulting in strong cravings. His cravings increased his fear that he wouldn’t make healthy choices, but the more he tried to avoid the question What do I want?, the stronger his cravings became.
Fear-based thoughts like “I won’t make healthy choices” strengthens cravings, reinforces faulty thinking, and allows doubt to grow. (If you find you are struggling with cravings or fear about considering what you want to eat, read “Let Go of Fear-Based Thoughts” in chapter 9 of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes.)
To help Mike understand why his restrictive approach was counter-productive, we compared restrictive eating to mindful eating: restrictive eating is about trying to stay “in control” whereas mindful eating is about being “in charge.” (For more comparisons, see lists in chapter 3.) By considering what he wanted to eat in addition to what he needed to eat, Mike was able to cultivate curiosity and awareness instead of fear and restriction. As a result, he was able to take the power away from the food and his cravings diminished!
In my next post, I’ll share something else that helped Mike: Gratitude.