**Adapted from an article that I originally wrote for Bustle. You can read the original here.**

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Body image may be a concept that lies within the mind, but it has influences in the physical world, too. And every time you eat a meal, you have the opportunity to either help or hinder your self-perception & body image.

Here are 4 ways you might be sabotaging your body image at the dinner table:

#1. You tell yourself that foods are either “good” or “bad”.

I’ve done this. You’ve done this. We’ve all done this.

“I can’t eat that, I’m being good!”
“Oh God, I’m so bad for eating this!”
“[Insert food] is so bad, my thighs are gonna pay for this tomorrow!”

By adding emotional connotations to food in an attempt to lose weight, you’ll also be losing a huge chunk of your self-esteem. Here’s the thing – no foods are inherently “good” or “bad” – they only become that way when we add an emotional value to them.

This isn’t about lying to yourself and telling yourself that all foods are wonderful for your body, it’s just about being realistic and reasonable in the way that we view what’s on our plate. We must stop telling ourselves that any (yes, you heard me) foods are bad, and we must also stop telling ourselves that any foods are good.

Why? Because when you limit your mental access to a food, it’s like placing a giant “DO NOT PUSH THIS BUTTON” sign over a big red button. When you see that sign, you immediately just want to push that button/eat the cake. The more you tell yourself that you can’t/shouldn’t/must never ever ever push that button or eat the cake, the more you want to. And the more you set yourself up for negative cycles involving fear, guilt and shame around food, the harder it becomes to view food without a dark and overwhelming “Should I eat this?” cloud over your head.

Instead, frame your internal dialogue in a way that’s emotionally neutral, rather than emotionally charged.

Some foods are more nutrient dense than others. Some foods are less nutrient dense, but pleasurable. Both of those things are okay.

Chips are not the devil and kale is not your saviour – they’re just different foods with different purposes, and both of them are just different types of fuel for your body.Your body is your vehicle. And, like fuel for your car, different foods have different fuel purposes for your body. You choose your fuel according to what your vehicle needs in that moment.

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#2. You don’t listen to your hunger cues.

Your body is pretty damn smart. And you know that rumble in your stomach that always (inconveniently) occurs at 10am just as you’re getting into the swing of things at work after your 3rd coffee of the morning? It’s trying to tell you something.

And those hunger pangs and headaches that you’re getting at 4pm after eating only salad for lunch? They’re speaking to you, too.

Are you listening to what your body is telling you?

Societally, many of us eat 3 meals per day at very specific times. But for those of us who have work/life schedules that don’t sync up with the typical 9-to-5, our body’s hunger needs may vary. Think about it – if you’re working 5am – 3pm, trying to force your body to wait hours for breakfast and hours for dinner is like trying to force a square peg into a round hole. And when our bodies aren’t getting the nutrition they need at the times that they need it, there are all sorts of negative flow on effects.

Like those 4pm headaches because lunch wasn’t fulfilling enough. Or those mid-morning stomach rumbles because you were too busy to eat breakfast. When you’re ignoring your hunger cues, you’re not functioning at your best – physically, or mentally. And again, by ignoring those hunger cues, you’re subconsciously telling yourself that your body’s needs aren’t important or that it’s good to avoid eating.

Start to tune in to what your body is trying to tell you – are you skipping meals and noticing that your hunger cues don’t sync up with the times that you want to feel hungry? Do you feel fuller when you eat fewer large meals, or more smaller meals? Pay attention to what your body is trying to tell you, and act accordingly – see how much better you feel mentally when you’re honouring your body’s needs!

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#3. You aren’t mindful of your eating.

Have you ever noticed that when you’re not listening to your hunger cues and you delay a meal far past the point that your body needed it, that you tend to overeat? Or have you ever noticed that when you multi-task (like eating your breakfast at the office while answering emails), you tend to feel hungry again sooner?

That’s no coincidence.

The longer we let hunger go on, the worse we feel – after a while, mentally a mindset of desperation starts to kick in and the second we get our hands on our meal, we tend to inhale it. And, when we don’t even notice what we’re eating, our brains don’t fully process that we’ve actually had a meal.

 

Digestion begins in the mind. There’s a process known as the cephalic phase digestive response, and this involves the mental components of a meal involving your sense – taste, smell, satisfaction, pleasure and aesthetics. If you’ve ever looked at your favourite food and had your mouth start to water, this is your cephalic phase digestive response at work – you’re producing more saliva based on a visual cue, and setting your digestive system up to receive the food. If you’re inhaling your food or not even looking at it, noticing it or tasting it as you consume it, you’re not fully engaging those cephalic phase digestive responses and you’re not fully noticing your meal.

Similarly, the chances are that if you eat and drink on the run, you’re likely to not notice what you’re consuming, therefore not fully processing that you’ve had food and that you’re full, and thereby consuming more later that day that you perhaps didn’t need.

Mindful eating takes training, but it’s easy to start with small steps. At your next meal, eat undistracted. Try to notice something about every bite. What does it taste/look/smell like? What does it sound like when you chew it? Notice the sensation as you swallow your food, and let your food go all the way down before you take another bite. If you can do this with at least one bite of every meal, you’ll be on your way to eating more mindfully.

#4. You confuse “willpower” with moderation.

So many of us confuse the concept of moderation with willpower, a.k.a. mind over matter, or “controlling” the way that we feel about food. Again, this ties back to emotional traps – willpower implies that certain foods are obstacles that we need to overcome, and brings them back to emotionally charged objects of happiness/joy or fear/guilt/shame.

Let’s say that I buy you a block of chocolate and put it in your pantry. If I tell you that you can have some whenever you want, you might have some then or you might have some later. You’ll probably react fairly neutrally. But, if I tell you that you MUST exercise willpower and you MUST NOT eat the chocolate under any circumstances… chances are you’ll want it, and you’ll want it bad. You might be able to avoid that bar of chocolate for days, weeks or even months, but inevitably, your willpower will start to crack under cravings, which are reinforced by a sense of rebellion and breaking your own rules – suddenly, the chocolate isn’t just a bar of a chocolate, but an object of desire and excitement and mischief. We’re telling ourselves that the chocolate is bad and awful and that we mustn’t eat it, but also that it’s amazing and rebellious and oh so naughty!

Talk about setting yourself up to fail!

When you give in to your cravings, you’ll start creating willpower “loopholes” for yourself to justify what you see as your bad behaviour – creating things like cheat days and meals that don’t matter.  And, on those cheat days, because you’ve told yourself that that day doesn’t matter so you don’t need to have “willpower”, you’re much more likely to go absolutely nuts with the chocolate and more likely to feel guilty after eating it. Instead of having 1 row of chocolate, you’ll have the whole block. And then you might even eat another of your “naughty” foods, because the day is already “ruined” anyway. Cue the next day, a tiny violin plays as you stand on the scales and lament the slightly elevated number.

Kind of defeats the point of moderation, doesn’t it?

Sorry to bring it back to guilt but if you’ve ever had a cheat day, how have you felt the next day? Guilty? Remorseful? Wanting to undo your food sins? Just like that, you’re back to Point #1 about not viewing food with emotionally charged connotations.

This is why it’s so important to view food, hunger and appetite not as a rogue soldier that needs to be controlled or brought into line, but as an essential element to you being alive, healthy and happy.

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The key takeaway here?

When you don’t bring permission slips into what’s on your plate, when you view food as fuel for your awesome body and when you remind yourself that you don’t need to feel guilty for eating, you’re better at moderating your intake.

Not only that, but you’re better at making smarter food choices about the sort of fuel that your body needs and you’re able to think about yourself more positively because you’re not associating guilt with food’s effect on your physical form.

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Gain a better relationship with your body and ditch the shame, guilt and fear simply by reframing how you see your dinner plate?

Now that’s something to work towards.

 

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