Finding balance with food, movement, and community for my (dairy-free) family.


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Become a Competent Eater: Connecting before Eating

A Little Back Story

All through my teens and twenties I struggled with overeating and emotional eating, occasionally interrupted by mostly unsuccessful restrictive dieting attempts.  For a lovely three-year window in my early thirties, I was a very successful intuitive eater.  As an intuitive eater, I

  •  relied on my hunger and satiety cues to determine when and how much to eat, 
  • selected food based on what sounded most satisfying, 
  • and ate with awareness to make sure I was getting maximum satisfaction from what I ate.

Spinach preparation shouldn't cause
 paralyis by overanlysis. 
An injury that disrupted my exercise patterns coincided with other discombobulating life events, leading to a recurrence of depression.  The depression tipped me back into some old emotional overeating patterns.  Rather than persisting in my newer intuitive eating habits, I responded by wandering into controlling, orthorexic thinking and eating patterns.

One day after picking fresh spinach from my garden, I found myself paralyzed by fear:  should I eat it raw in a salad or smoothie and risk the oxalic acid preventing absorption of certain minerals and perhaps contributing to kidney stones? Or, should I cook it to minimize the oxalic acid, but risk destroying the valuable and delicate B vitamins in it?  My total paralysis in the face of this simple question woke me up to how disordered my thinking about food had become.

Trusting My Body

Today, three years later, I'm working to get to a balanced place with food and body image and am committed to finding balance in eating for both me and my family.   At this moment, I'm not sure if that balance is going to look more like  Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch-style intuitive eating or Ellyn Satter-style competent eating.

The good news is that these two approaches share a lot of philosophical ground and part of breaking away from orthorexic tendencies is rejecting black-and-white all-or-nothing thinking, so I can embrace the best of both.

My starting is place is based on two key principles shared by both models:

  • Trust:  I can trust the intricate internal regulatory systems of my body for reliable information about when I'm hungry and when I'm satisfied to determine how much food I should eat.  
  • Tuning in:  Identifying my hunger and satiety signals requires connecting with my body and paying attention to how it is feeling before, during, and after eating.  My body is a reliable source of information--if I tune into it.  

In Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family, Ellyn Satter lays out six steps to recovering the ability to internally regulate food intake.  Her first step is to "center and give permission before eating."   She recommends settling into a chair, taking 5-10 centering breathes, and reminding yourself that you have permission to eat foods you enjoy in amounts you find satisfying.

As I've been sitting with this advice for the past few weeks and working at implementing it, I've been surprised at how hard it is.  Often I'm three quick bites into my meal before I remember.

Slowly, I'm developing my own little ritual to accomplish this goal of getting centered before eating.  The key word for me has become connecting.  

Connecting before Eating

Connecting with my body--Taking deep breaths has been a great way for me to reconnect with my body.  I spend a lot of time lost in my thoughts, disconnected from the sensations of my body and the present moment.   I may be folding laundry, but my mind is busy planning my garden, composing kind (but pointed) responses to stupid things people past on Facebook (I usually come to me senses and refrain from posting them), or fretting about retirement savings.

I employ the same strategies I used during child birth.  Deep breaths in through the nose; focusing on the breath and following where it goes in my body; identifying muscles holding tension and softening around them; then releasing the air and letting tension go with it.

These deep breaths are also the perfect time for me to pause and really think about my stomach (just below my rib cage) and the sensations of hunger in it.

Connecting with God--Saying grace before a meal is such a habit it can become rote.  Pausing to authentically connect with God requires intentional effort.  Taking a moment to imagine where the food came from--the tiny seed full of potential, exposed to moisture and sun, life emerging under God's sovereign supervision.  Knowing in His omniscience that this carrot, tomato, or spaghetti squash would be His gift to me in this moment to nourish and fuel my body because I am His personal concern.  Being filled with gratitude for His care over every detail of my life.

Connecting with the food--As much as I enjoy and look forward to eating, so often when the moment comes I plunge in recklessly and carelessly.  Pausing to really take in the food helps me get grounded and prepare to truly enjoy the food before me.  What colors are there?  What textures?  What taste am I most eager for?  What combinations of food could I load together on my fork to enhance one another?  

Carryover for the Kids

One of my motivations for finding a balanced place with both food and exercise in my own life is that I want to model this balance for my kids so that they can walk in freedom in these areas and resist the cultural lies that pull us to extremes.  At this point, I'm counting on modeling and a trickle down effect rather than direct instruction.

The kids have noticed and asked about my sitting quietly after our family prayer before I begin to eat.  I've kept my answer simple:
  • I'm relaxing for a second so I can focus on enjoying my food.
  • I'm thanking God for all the beautiful colors in this salad.
  • I'm trying to decide which part of dinner I want to try first.  

Based on Satter's recommendation, I'm sticking with just this baby step until I'm remembering to take this moment to connect before eating at least half of the time.  I'm getting close!  Baby steps are good steps.

photo credit: via photopin cc

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Becoming a Competent Eater

The Events Sparking this Post

Recently a number of events have converged to cause me to focus again with more intention on how I am feeding my family.

I have had an ongoing struggle with my body image, a tendency to eat for emotional comfort, and, on the flip side, a tendency to control food and food intake to achieve an ideal diet and change my body.  In trying to get it all figured out, I've tended to idolize food and health and allow it to take up far too much of my mental space.

My daughter(5) has had some ongoing stomach troubles, which caused us to start keeping a food log looking for patterns and connections.  This process sparked her to make some comments that startled and terrified me because they reflected my own disordered and controlling thinking about food.  It also caused that controlling part of me to panic a bit as I saw the pattern of her food intake (so many carbohydrates, as refined as possible).

Ellyn Satter to the Rescue

I am grateful to God that I had recently stumbled across a recommendation for Ellyn Satter's work and had actually checked out one of her books from the library.  It had been sitting on my shelf for weeks (a bad habit of mine is checking out WAY more library books than I actually have time to read).

I am thankful to God that I turned to her sensible, evidence-based work and not the opining of some kooky-health-conscious-mommy-blogger (pause for an irony check).

Since then, I've read most of her books.  There is significant overlap among them as her basic message is very simple.  For my place in life, my favorite is Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family.

The key to all of her work is the division of responsibility in feeding.  The bottom line is that as a parent, I am in charge of the what, when, and where of feeding and the child is in charge of the how much and whether of eating.

The goal is to raise children who are competent eaters.

She cautions readers against plunging into a radical food makeover.  (Thank you, Ellyn Satter, with my tendency toward black-and-white thinking, I was gearing up to do just that.)

Satter also emphasizes repeatedly that, ultimately, our children will eat the way that we as parents do.  Therefore, before plunging into helping my kids become competent eaters, I've got to become one myself.

My Next Step

Part of being a competent eater is relying on internal regulation to dictate food intake.  That is--trusting my body, tuning into its preferences, its hunger, and its satiety signals.  In a culture flooded with messages about food and body, it's tough to tune out the externals and focus on the internal.  However, I trust God that He designed my body to do this and, in His strength, I can tune into those internal cues.

More to come about the what those steps to internal regulation look like for me . . .

Any other fans of Ellyn Satter out there?  How has her advice played out in your family?