Reframing Nutrition as Self-Care

For so many of my clients, an essential mindset shift takes place over time – they stop seeing nutrition as a means to manipulate their bodies through deprivation, but instead to nourish and care for their bodies and minds. Reframing nutrition as self-care is incredibly empowering, because it frees you from seeing food as the enemy to progress.

You know you’re in a bad place with food when you…

  • Perceive your enjoyment of food as an “obstacle” to achieving your goals
  • Divide foods into “good” and “bad” groups
  • Keep digging yourself deeper into the hole, promising to yourself that you’ll start over soon

When we only see nutrition as something that must be overcome or perfected in order to “fix” ourselves, we automatically create a negative relationship with food. This usually doesn’t help with weight management. The healing happens when you shift the focus to self-care – not just what “feels good” in the moment, but a whole lifestyle and attitude around food that ultimately creates a happier, healthier you.

Let’s dive into the top three strategies that I recommend in reframing nutrition as self-care:

Strategy 1: Approach your nutrition one meal at a time

Just a quick disclaimer that I do recommend planning ahead. This strategy is not at all meant to imply “winging it.”

But my approach here is more about short-circuiting binge-restrict cycles, so that you don’t overcompensate after you feel you’ve “gotten off track.”

For example…

Let’s say it’s a Saturday, and you meet friends for lunch at your favorite restaurant bar. You have intentions of eating healthfully, but you end up feeling stuffed from nachos and a few beers.

Traditional dieting enforces a strict “total day” approach – now that you’ve overeaten at one meal, you’ve blown it unless you restrict the rest of your day to balance everything out. This often backfires, since you might actually be hungry later, and you can’t totally ignore your physical needs. What usually happens is a binge-restrict cycle – overeating followed by restricting followed by overeating followed by promising to start over on Monday.

I use a slightly different approach, which can help to stop this cycle in its tracks. Let’s play through the same scenario again – you overeat at lunch, and feel uncomfortably full from too many cheesy nachos and beers.

You do not have to restrict, or wait until Monday to start over. You get to hit reset literally right away, by allowing your body to digest the food, and by taking good care of yourself (including emotionally) until it is time to eat again. Maybe you’re so full that you skip your regular afternoon snack, but you start to feel hungry again by dinnertime. Eating a normal-sized, satisfying, balanced meal is the best thing you can do to hit reset – not to overcompensate, not to restrict, not to try to “even things out.” Of course, what often happens is that when people give themselves permission to eat a filling, nutritious meal at a normal time, they can tune in accurately to fullness cues and perhaps eat a lighter dinner after all – but not one that leaves them feeling restless and deprived.

Instead of trying to game the system, you can reframe nutrition as self-care by taking things just one meal at a time. If you do this, you never need to wait more than 3-5 hours to hit “reset” after not feeling good from a meal.

Strategy 2: Eat to feel good during and after meals

Behaviors like…

  • binge eating
  • overeating to the point of feeling sick or stuffed
  • eating certain foods that don’t agree with you and make you feel sick or bloated

… are not forms of self-care.

Self-indulgence is not the same thing as self-care. Throwing caution to the wind, acting out, or eating to numb out is not self-care.

To develop a healthier, stronger, more empowered relationship with food, focus on eating to feel physically and emotionally good during and after meals. Please note that it’s not just during the meal – it’s after the meal, too.

Unfortunately, this strategy can be co-opted by extremely rigid dieting attitudes, re-translated to mean: “Think about your future self, and how good you will feel about not eating certain foods, or how good you will when you see your weight over the next few days.”

I mean it differently: “Think about how good you will feel physically and emotionally if you allow yourself to eat freely, be present to your body, and enjoy the rest of the day without feeling dragged down by a meal.”

Just like exercise, food is energy-giving. Meals that make you feel bogged down often leave clues about eating behaviors that could be improved.

On a regular basis, this means eating regular meals, not under-eating, and composing plates that are blood-sugar-friendly by focusing on high-protein and high-fiber choices that help us to feel satisfied and energized. When dining out, this means being flexible with your choices and enjoying yourself, but staying attuned to fullness cues (and probably stopping sooner than you think you need to).

Reframing nutrition as self-care means that you can still enjoy delicious foods, but that you also develop stronger skills for keeping yourself satisfied without overeating.

Strategy 3: Develop awareness of how sleep and stress affect eating

Finally, a discussion of self-care would not be complete without talking about sleep and stress, even though this post is about nutrition!

This is because sleep and stress powerfully impact our eating behaviors. If we don’t see the connection, we tend to get stuck in repetitive patterns, and beat ourselves up for “weak willpower.” But the reality is that if sleep or stress become disregulated, the chemical balance of our hormones changes. Short sleep causes hunger hormones to rise and fullness hormones to drop, and stress can cause you to prefer hyperpalatable, calorie-dense comfort foods.

It’s so worthwhile to self-audit with sleep hygiene questions like:

  • Are you getting 7-9 hours of sleep every night?
  • Are you going to bed at roughly the same time every night?
  • Are you discontinuing screen use before bed?

And about stress:

  • Do you get enough time to yourself to recharge?
  • Do you get enough restorative social interaction (i.e., not draining obligations)?
  • Where do you feel out of control in life?
  • Where do you need more support?
  • Are there particular times of day when you are most stressed?
  • Can you create three alternative behaviors other than eating to help yourself deal with common moments of stress?

Eating comfort food because you’re stressed isn’t self-care. Addressing the actual source or pattern of stress is self-care. If you are sleeping insufficiently and unevenly, you might be amazed at how much focusing on that habit will change your eating habits. If you are feeling extremely overwhelmed with work or with parenting or with a family situation, facing that stress head-on can yield surprising benefits for your eating and your weight.

The reason that reframing nutrition as self-care so important is that these habits (and mindsets) are durable and resilient for difficult times. They are a REAL lifestyle, unlike behaviors like tracking everything in an app or rigidly following a rules-based diet. These strategies add to your life, making it better and bigger – and this is a secret for developing a long-term healthy relationship with food.

Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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