By Jessica Allen
A healthy diet involves choosing a variety of foods, eating a balanced amount, and limiting highly processed, sugary, and preservative heavy foods. A healthy diet is associated with better overall health and can be protective against a number of chronic health conditions. Research is also providing more and more evidence that a healthy diet may help to treat mental health disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). On the surface a ‘healthy diet’ seems like an easy enough task, just eat whole nutritious foods. So why do so many people struggle to maintain a healthy diet? Let’s get this out of the way early, you are not a failure if you cannot stick to a healthy diet. There are a multitude of factors which influence our food choices, as well as a lot of societal pressure to get it right.
There is a lot of focus on what a healthy diet is but not on what motivates healthy choices. Why do we choose to eat unhealthy food when we know a healthy diet is better? The mechanisms behind our choices are extremely complex and influenced by factors such as our personality, values, cultural expectations, and the beliefs of those we grew up around. One common factor in our choices however is how we talk to ourselves. As a psychologist I can tell you with complete confidence that the way you talk to yourself matters. Your internal voice is talking to you constantly, whether you’re aware of it or not, about everything you do and every decision you make. When you’re too hard on yourself you’re more likely to buckle under the pressure and make poor choices. Popular culture would have us believe that food holds moral value (for example ‘good foods’ such as salads, and ‘bad foods’ such as chocolate). When we choose ‘bad foods’ we can internalise the belief that we are bad. This is associated with problematic eating behaviours and eating disorders. One science backed way to improve our relationship with ourselves and in turn our food choices is to be more self-compassionate. Research has found that those who are high in self-compassion are more likely to make positive eating choices, and less likely to suffer from body image and eating problems. Basically, when you are kind and accepting of yourself you are less likely to be guided by negative emotions such as guilt and shame which often lead to poor choices. You are also more likely to be forgiving of yourself when you make poor choices and accept that you don’t have to be perfect all the time.
When in doubt, be kind
The concept of self-compassion has been around for over 2500 years and is rooted in Eastern traditional Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist meditation. More contemporary models of self-compassion have been widely researched and applied in many settings such as mental health and coaching. Self-compassion is a way of relating to ourselves with kindness. Self-compassion is not arrogance, letting ourselves off the hook, or laziness. Having self-compassion means being able to recognise the difference between making a bad decision and being a bad person. Self-compassion is made up of three main components: Self-kindness (treating ourselves like we would a loved one or dear friend), Common humanity (recognising that you are not alone in your experiences) and Mindfulness (sitting with painful feelings and thoughts so that we can learn to let go of the grip they can have over us).
When it comes to healthy food choices those who have high self-compassion are less likely to suffer from body image and eating problems. A recent study from Canadalooked at the effect of self-compassion on mothers’ diets and found that higher levels of self-compassion were related to better diet quality, more intuitive eating, and less emotional eating. This was because those with more self-compassion had better feelings towards their bodies which improved their self-care behaviours, such as diet. Luckily self-compassion is a skill you can learn.
Self-compassion-based tips for healthy eating
- Life is not black and white, and neither are our food choices: A balanced diet involves eating foods from a variety of food groups. Sometimes this may include sugary ‘unhealthy’ foods. Moderation is key.
- Be aware of what your inner voice is saying: if you notice you are criticising yourself for your food choices, stop, take a deep breath, and reflect on what is going on for you in that moment.
- Practice new responses: a really important part of learning self- compassion is learning new ways to respond to your inner critic. It will be uncomfortable at first because you’re not used to it, but if you practice it enough eventually it will sink in. Write down some new statements you can try out. For example: “I trust myself to make the right choices for me”, “it’s ok to not be perfect all the time” “I’ll do better next time” etc
- Slow down: take time to reflect. What kind of food rules do you have? Where did they come from? How accurate are they? Can you be gentler on yourself?
- Remember: You are not alone. We all struggle with our decision making, with our body image, and with how we relate to ourselves. We are all trying our best.
About Jessica Allen
Jessica is a clinical psychologist located in Melbourne and she's one of our talented 8-Week Program experts. She specialises in young people and parents going through the perinatal stage, while also helping patients manage depression, anxiety, personality disorders, relationship difficulties, eating disorders and trauma. With experience across clinical and educational settings, Jessica is now working with Orygen Digital in digital mental health program planning and implementation.
Jessica believes in a holistic approach to mental health that takes diet and lifestyle into account. She understands the monumental impact sugar can have on us and is dedicated to helping people improve their quality of life – starting with what we put on our plates.