Stress can do a lot to you, especially when going through a divorce or any big life change. One of the major ways we react to stress is through how we eat. Mindful eating can be a great help in times like this, and it seems to be a catchphrase that’s being used quite a bit these days. But what is it, how do you do it, and how does it actually make a difference? T.H. and Jessica spoke to Hillary Irwin of Hillary Irwin Nutrition on the Divorce etc… podcast to discuss mindful eating and how this can ease the stress in your life. (Oh, and fun fact: Hillary is T.H.’s sister-in-law!)
What is Mindful Eating?
Mindful eating is being aware of what you’re eating. A lot of us will go through phases where we walk into the kitchen, grab something to eat, and don’t even enjoy it yet continue eating it anyway. Mindful eating is about being aware of every bite and choice you’re making and enjoying the food that you are eating. “It’s really about self-care and taking time for yourself and just being aware of your choices,” Hillary explains.
So How Does Eating Correlate With Stress?
Stress plays a large role in how we choose to consume. Either people stop eating completely when they’re stressed, or they’re so stressed that they don’t care about what they put in their bodies. “The stress can definitely affect the way that you eat, but the way that you eat can also affect your stress level,” Hillary says. When you take care of yourself and make good choices, like eating right, exercising, and overall taking care of yourself, you’re going to feel better in general. And when you feel better, your stress levels will naturally go down.
What Foods Decrease Stress?
We all have comfort foods that we turn to in times of stress. For Jessica, this is candy, cookies, pizza – all the typical stuff. But that’s not the type of food that will truly ease your stress.
When stressed, most people don’t go for an apple or whole grains, but these are some of the foods that will be most helpful to you. Having stable blood sugar can make a world of difference in your stress levels. With simple carbs, your blood sugar is going to up and straight back down. “That up and down of blood sugar just makes you feel more stressed and doesn’t make you feel good,” Hillary confirms. But on the other hand, if you’re choosing good whole-grain bread, fruits, veggies, and any other foods that will keep your blood sugar stable, your mood will also stabilize.
And this sucks, but sugar, alcohol, and caffeine – all the stuff we love – can be detrimental as they mimic feelings of anxiety and make you feel worse. “I know it’s not always the easy path, but if you take some time to really think about what’s going to make your body feel better, you will just feel better in general,” Hillary promises.
But What About Cheat Days?
So does this mean you can never splurge? Nope! It’s not always about just eating healthy and having no fun with your food. If you’re eating the cookie because you love that cookie and want to enjoy it, then go for it! But if you’re eating it because you’re sad, or mad, or annoyed, and don’t fully enjoy or care about what you’re eating, then don’t. That’s not the time to eat it. And that’s what Hillary means when she discusses mindful eating. It’s fine to have a treat now and then, but if that’s all you’re eating, you aren’t going to feel good and you’re not doing your stress and anxiety any favors.
Writing down what you’re eating can be a really helpful tool, but you don’t need to do this all the time. “The goal here isn’t to make you obsessed with what you’re eating and have that be a whole other stress that you’re adding to yourself,” Hillary explains. “But keeping a journal maybe for a week or so just to see what your actual habits are can be extremely helpful.” You might remember the main meals you had throughout the day, but we forget about the little things we grab and snack on without thinking. Hillary recommends just keeping a little list on your phone, as this is the easiest way to keep track since you’ve always got your phone on you.
It can also help to include what emotions you’re feeling as you eat. You’ll start to notice habits you have when stressed, and then use that information to figure out a different practice to put in its place. Hillary says that “whether you’re going through a divorce or any other stressful experience, food and self-care often fall by the wayside. Finding what your triggers are, and then putting something else in its place really helps to make a big difference.”
That sounds Like A Lot of Work … What Else Can I Do?
If journaling isn’t for you, don’t worry! There are other options out there.
The number one thing you can do to start your path to mindful eating is by drinking more water. Super simple! Most of us don’t drink enough water, and water does a lot of great things for the body. Drinking a glass of water before eating any meal or snack gives you a moment to slow down and think about what you’re about to eat. You have a moment to pause and think about your next step.
You can also remove triggers from your environment. If you know that if you buy a bag of chips and will immediately eat the entire bag, then maybe you don’t have that in the house. Or if you have kids in the house and want snacks for them, maybe find a snack that they love but doesn’t excite you. Or buy snacks that come in smaller packages, so you’re not tempted to eat a family-size portion of a snack. “It’s really learning what your triggers are with food and then making sure that’s not in the forefront” Hillary recommends. It’s easier to make a healthy choice if it’s out for you to grab as a quick snack, like a fruit bowl or cut-up vegetables in the fridge ready for grabs.
Mindful Eating for Kids
Your kids can take part in mindful eating too. Getting your kids in the kitchen in whatever capacity can be a great motivator to teach them about what they’re eating.
One activity Hillary says she tried with her kids during quarantine was a mini cook-off. She went to Whole Foods, bought all healthy substitutes for fun junk foods, and put them to work. And now, even her son, who usually never spends time in the kitchen, gets excited to cook.
Getting kids involved in the conversation about mindful eating can be great for setting up good habits. When sitting down at a meal, Hillary reminds them to take their time, enjoy their meal, and think about every bite.
And mindful eating takes a team effort. If you’re trying to eat more mindfully, it’s helpful to have support from those around you. It helps when they’re on the same page so that you stay on track as well.
“It’s not a diet,” T.H. confirms. “It’s a lifestyle choice.”