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Transforming Stress Eating Into Empowered Eating: An Interview with Amy

1. Nutrition is a broad topic, how/why did you get into educating people on mindful eating?

It truly is, but for all the science and knowledge we have, I still notice that people struggle so much in their relationship with food and with their bodies. Instead of gifts of life to enjoy, they turn into burdens that weigh us down.

I’ve been a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist for 15 years, and yeah, I can tell you what the research says is the ideal way to achieve this or that, but the truth I’ve come to discover is that none of that matters if you don’t first find peace with eating and with your body. It absolutely has to start there.

If you just follow a diet because you think you “should” but it’s making some part of you feel unsatisfied, your psyche is going to rebel, and bottom-line: you are not going to feel happy and aligned within yourself. You’re going to feel at war with yourself.

2. How does stress impact our eating habits and food choices? What are the major contributing factors?

It goes back to our amazing bodies and minds. We just have to understand and appreciate them more so they can work for us and not against us.

We are wired to deal with stress very effectively. Imagine yourself as your ice age ancestor, who had the exact same genes and physical body and brain as you. Imagine you are suddenly being chased by a tiger. In a flash you would go from gathering plants to fight or flight mode, right? You wouldn’t be able to think about anything other than survival at that moment. In fact, it would really be more automatic than conscious thinking. Your hormones and neurotransmitters would take over.

So in modern life, we have a lot of stress, right? But it’s not the kind we can run away from. It’s the kind that’s kind of always there in our minds - stress upon stress upon stress…whew, just saying the word “stress” over and over like that gets my muscles around my jaw and shoulders starting to tighten up and my breathing to get more shallow.

Can you feel that? What you feel is your biology gearing up to protect you from imminent danger, but there is no tiger, is there? Unfortunately, evolution has not been able to keep pace with technology, not by a long shot. We are not meant to live this way. I call it “La Vie da Loca” - the crazy life

On top of that, we live in a world of plenty - easy food everywhere - the sheer number of choices when you walk into a grocery store is astounding! - but with a fear-based scarcity belief system that our culture has taught us: “I don’t have enough, I am not enough, I need something more to get me through this…”

3. What physiological and psychological factors contribute to stress related eating?

Great question. So let’s go into a little more detail of what’s really happening when you are having a craving for “comfort” food, which is usually something full of sugar and devoid of actual nutrients:

First, your mind perceives there is stress - this can be conscious or unconscious - often we are not even aware of these “background” thoughts. Immediately, your body is flooded with things like adrenaline and cortisol - neurotransmitters and hormones from your adrenal gland - which is both part of your nervous system and your endocrine system. I just think this is amazing, because it’s one of the places in the body, as well as the hypothalamus and pituitary glands in the brain, where “mind” and “body” really are one. These three work together to react to stress - it’s called the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis.

So what happens when the HPA and the rest of your sympathetic nervous system fire into action is that your cell walls actually become less permeable to nutrients, including glucose. This seems counter-intuitive, but essentially, these chemical and electrical messages instruct your body to shut down every process that is not imminently necessary for escaping being eaten by a tiger.

That includes digestion - so you can get heartburn, constipation, diarrhea - the bowel can stop moving or just want to evacuate its contents so you can run. So yeah, when you’re stressed you don’t exactly feel like sitting down to eat a nice healthy meal of salad and protein that you’ve got to digest, do you? Your sex drive can also get turned off, BTW.

No! You want quick, easy energy - you want sugar! And you may feel extra hungry because glucose can’t get into your cells. Now there is a lot of insulin and sugar that are hanging out in your bloodstream, and I don’t have to tell you that that combo isn’t good - for diabetes, hypertension, etc.

We see the entire inflammatory cascade getting set off here, orchestrated by the hormone, cortisol. Inflammation is another helpful process involving our immune system that helps us heal and fight off infection (like if the tiger bites!), but in the setting of chronic stress, it runs amok and sets us up for chronic diseases like obesity, cancer, Alzheimer's, cardiovascular disease, and auto-immune conditions.

These negative effects happen because our bodies are not designed to be subjected to prolonged stress. The system is supposed to work quickly and then things are supposed to go back to normal, but in modern life, they never do.

It’s very complex how the body works, and it all happens outside of our conscious control. All we feel is the craving - all we know is - “this brownie is going to make it all go away.” And the sugar does temporarily comfort the brain - we get some good mood hormones going - but then we crash, we feel worse, we feel tired, guilty, shaky, hangry…so we want more, and the additive cycle continues…

4. How can people begin to take a more mindful approach to eating? Are there any questions/activities, etc you typically use with your clients?

So yeah, I believe that it doesn’t even start with food but with just becoming more aware of how stressed you really are, what’s setting you off, and how do you end up dealing with it, and then what is the effect?

I really challenge my clients to start becoming observational scientists and study themselves without judgment. Some people like to journal.

And then in our coaching sessions, we explore what they learned. We get curious and dig in and learn even more.

Then we start to try to figure out together - well, what parts of this stress process CAN they actually get some control over? And that feels so good. That’s empowerment.

It’s never about a diet that is imposed on you and controls you. It’s you learning to press “slow-mo” on your automatic behaviors (the coping strategies you’ve adopted to deal with stress, which for many people = eating) so you can get more intentional about your choices.

Mindfulness also involves, once again, slowing down to taste and experience what you are putting into your mouth - the aroma, the color, the flavor, the texture…and processing this sensory information with the goal of seeking true satisfaction. This includes how you feel physically a little while after eating - like do you feel light and energized, or weighed down, or even still hungry? You might be surprised that you start to enjoy roasted vegetables more than you ever thought you would, and that those cookies don’t really live up to their hype.

5. What are the biggest barriers to adopting more mindful eating habits?

When it comes down to it, the biggest barrier is not loving ourselves enough to slow down. We don’t give ourselves the time of day. We just go, go, go, survive the day, go to work, take care of everyone, even working out and trying to eat well can fall into this category if we aren’t doing them for the right reasons. So many of us don’t even take an actual lunch break. We don’t allow ourselves to taste and enjoy our meals at all.

For me, I was brought up thinking that what I DID, was what made me lovable (good grades, kind acts, putting others first) rather than who I AM. So all that zen “just be” stuff, man, it is NOT easy for me! I didn’t really love myself for a long time. So let me tell you, I GET it. But what happened for me, and what happens for the clients who come to me is that we reach a point (and maybe there is something in particular that triggers it), where what is left of our poor souls just cries out - “ENOUGH! This is MY ONE, PRECIOUS LIFE! I can’t do crazy anymore!” And then we begin the journey of learning to love ourselves.

The other critical piece is that we need support! We are social beings. I was fortunate enough, going through the Functional Medicine Coaching Academy, to benefit from getting coached by my peers, and I still seek it out for myself. Coaching is such a transformative process that has the amazing potential to help us harness the positive side of our being - what’s right with us, instead of what’s wrong or needs to be fixed with a pill or program. I truly believe in the power of coaching, especially to develop mindfulness.

6. Why is it important that people adopt more mindfulness when it comes to their eating habits? What are the consequences of not adopting a mindful approach?

Well, without mindfulness, are we really experiencing our own life? Aren’t we just surviving then, and life can feel like it’s passing us by and like we are never really doing the things we want to do.

Often because of the mindless (opposite of mindfulness) habits we’ve adopted, our health isn’t where we want it to be. But my message today is that it’s never too late to change directions. You can’t change the past, but you can choose to start living differently today. And that has to start with mindfulness, which is really just awareness.

Once we decide we want to live life more consciously and with more intention - when we decide we want to drive on our journey and not just coast or struggle through, God, that is so empowering, to feel like you are living your life in line with your values. And it’s been my personal experience that when you feel like you are on the path to your best self, you feel so much joy and so much peace. You are just a happy person. When you start loving yourself, you begin to radiate love.

7. Can you share a success story of a patient that you helped to go from stress eating to empowered eating?

Absolutely. The first person who comes to mind is my very first coaching client. We worked together for about three months, and I was so grateful to have the honor of walking beside her on her journey. That was what she needed, I believe, and I was just the right person at the right time. She learned so much about herself, and it’s awesome to see her thriving now, her confidence.

When we met, she had struggled with her weight all her life. She wanted to begin to take care of herself, so that she could maybe get pregnant and then start to model healthy behaviors for her child.

Some of the contributing factors for her were that she’d recently lost her mom, and the two of them had connected through food.

She also had a history of some disordered eating when she was in the military. As we talked and she looked back at photos of herself at the time when she was thin and getting all these compliments, she realized that she wasn’t happy in her body back then either. Being skinny didn’t make her happy. She wasn’t loving herself.

Finally, she was under a lot of stress with her job and was recognizing that she was doing a lot of mindless stress eating - in front of the TV at night, especially when her husband was working late and she missed her mom…

She recognized that this habit was getting in the way of what she wanted for herself and that she needed some help, so we started to envision what a more satisfying lifestyle could look like for her and that ended up being walks outside in the evening after dinner.

Sometimes it can be really simple things but really powerful things you can discover when you have the opportunity, in a safe, supportive, low-stress environment . You can hear yourself come to these epiphanies out loud, and then you get to appreciate how truly brilliant and resourceful and resilient you are - EMPOWERMENT! As a coach, well, this just fires me up like nothing else!

8. What is your #1 tip that someone could start to implement today to help them take a more mindful approach to eating?

Listen to that little voice that is telling you that you want to start doing something differently. Realize that it’s not a weakness in you that you haven’t been able to before. It’s your biology as you’ve been trying to live by the world’s terms. Well now it’s time to claim your life as your own and start taking care of you.

And to seek out help and support shows courage and dedication, and deserve that support - we all do…you may not even totally believe that now, but that little voice will get louder if you let it. Self-love takes practice, and just like everything else that grows, it has to be nourished.

9. Anything else you wish to share?

Well, just that what we’ve covered today is really the tip of the iceberg, a window into what empowered eating really looks like. And it doesn’t look exactly the same for everyone making intentional, mindful choices and …The next step after the observation step of becoming more aware of how different foods make you feel and getting more of a handle on stress is then using that information to make more intentional, mindful food choices.

You ask yourself - first - why do I want to eat? Is it true hunger? Is it stress? And answer honestly…give yourself grace…

Then, if you decide to eat, ask what is really going to make you feel nourished, satisfied, LOVED? (to answer this, you have to have the previous information above about how food makes you feel). It has to be informed by what sensory qualities does it possess…and how will you feel after you eat it? Every decision of what you put into your mouth becomes a matter of - is this self-love or self-abuse/self-sabotage?

And then you give yourself permission, which can be scary at first. You start to become aware of the different voices in your head telling you “do this, don’t do that” and who those voices belong to. You begin to build TRUST in yourself to take care of yourself and meet your needs, that you are not going to be deprived.

Yes, so I’m really looking forward to going into some more depth on all of this in my upcoming workshop on empowered eating and actually sharing some of the specific mindfulness skills and strategies that I teach my clients and use myself. Stay tuned!

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