Diet. The very word is enough to cast fear. Its one of those words that has gradually developed and links now to both nutrition and how we fuel our body and less positive associations with weight loss, body image and feelings of dissatisfaction about how we and others see ourselves. However you perceive the word diet, its rarely far from our thoughts and has become a multi million dollar industry.
In my previous post, The Four Pillars of Wellbeing, I discussed how diet stands alone and interacts as one of the pillars upon which our wellbeing stands. Many excesses or deficiencies in our diet can lead to chronic health problems which will affect both our physical and mental function. In fact, some studies have found a direct link between the food we eat and conditions such as depression.
Good wellbeing has to incorporate a discussion on food but I would like to start mine by saying very clearly that I am not a nutritionist. Furthermore, I have to confess that of my four pillars of wellbeing, it is the area I struggle with the most personally. My approach to diet in the context of wellbeing is not nutritional based. The world is awash with different nutritional models or diets which you may already be following for a specific outcome be it performance, weight loss, health management, ethical or religious principles etc. Motivation behind what we do or don’t eat is personal and I am not here to judge or opine on the benefits or otherwise of calories counting, carbs vs protein, vegan, vegetarian or any other permutation. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is rooted in an energetic model of health and food can influence the manner in which the bodies energy moves and balances. These energetic properties differ within specific food groups so it is usually possible to tailor an existing diet by swapping one food for another or adding in something to counteract another. This is where I confine my guidance.
What follows therefore is not a lecture or secret formula for killer abs. There are plenty of places that offer these promises if that’s what you are looking for. These are simply some guidelines that will help you build your wellbeing from the foundations you already have.
1. The manner in which food is eaten is as important as the food itself
This is probably the most common dietary transgression I see. Increasingly people have become more aware of what they eat but the habit of “grab it and go” seems more deeply ingrained. A sandwich in front of the computer, breakfast in the car, dinner by the TV all common 21st Century habits. Not only does eating in a hurried fashion like this affect the pleasure we derive from food but also the way we digest it.
In order to tackle this I recommend mindful eating. Mindfulness is another area of health I find commonly that we don’t find time for and combining these enhances both our digestion and our senses. Eat quietly, at a table taking time to focus on the taste and other senses associated with eating. I realise it is more time consuming but its important and if you really don’t feel you have time to do this you may benefit from taking a more holistic view of what is driving your life. My post on work-life balance may help.
2. Eat breakfast like an emperor
This is from an old proverb, Eat breakfast like an Emperor, lunch like a King and dinner like a pauper. Its in stark contrast to how the majority of us eat with the main meal coming later in the day. If any meal is going to hit the cutting room floor, it’s normally breakfast. But think about it for a minute, it doesn’t make sense. Firstly, we need the energy from our food during the day and secondly, we digest better when we are awake, not asleep. Why then would we load up just before bedtime? Some studies have shown that addressing when calories are consumed as oppose to how many can help to combat obesity.
Western lifestyle does not help us to follow this advice and most of us would baulking at the thought of getting up even earlier to prepare a proper meal in the morning. If however we can make even small progressions towards this it’s a step in the right direction. Firing your metabolism up in the morning should be an essential start to the day and skipping breakfast, a non option.
Building on tip 2, another issue for me personally (and one Ive heard echoed from my patients) is that the traditional mainstays of a (weekday) British breakfast is frankly unappealing. Some people love their toast and cereal but for others, like me, it just doesn’t do it. Now a fry up is something I can get excited about but lets face it, eating that every morning would get tedious eventually not to mention what it would do for the waistline.
My approach to breakfast is to eat what I fancy. I recently travelled to Myanmar where the traditional dish is Mohinger, a noodle soup. I have no problem digesting this first thing so frequently eat this type of dish or similar. The picture is a miso soup I knocked up in a matter of minutes with veg and poached egg. The key for me is to eat something that appeals and remains basically healthy. Don’t be afraid to bend the rules. Stuck for inspiration? Why not take a look at what people eat around the world.
4. Food energetics can be altered within existing nutritional models
One of the challenges of using a traditional model of health in a modern world is that our goals may be in conflict with one another. Wellbeing in the 21st century is often closely aligned with personal goals like fitness which also place a nutritional demand on the body. We could argue about the virtues of different nutritional models or approaches to wellbeing but I find its far easier to seek the middle ground and find an approach in which our various lifestyle demands can coexist.
Within an energetic model of health, such as TCM, part of the “balancing” that forms the foundation of treatment is looking at the energetic properties of what we put in our bodies. The good news is that all foods have individual energetic properties that are independent of which nutritional group they belong to. Likewise, the manner in which food is prepared can also add to the energetic qualities. Refining your diet to achieve better balance should therefore usually be possible without compromising existing health models. For example, grapefruit and lemon are both citrus fruits but one is Yin and the other is Yang. These subtle differences can be found right across the supermarket so finding a compromise for all but the strictest or fussiest of eaters should be possible.
5. Be wary of the experts
I say this with the very best of intentions but the increased use of social media over the last few years has seen the emergence of a new generation of unregulated “expert”, the influencer. Sometimes they are subject matter experts who are well studied and informed. Sometimes they are people who have done something that worked for them and feel compelled to share this with the world. They may look great and speak with conviction but it doesn’t make them right.
Developing good eating habits will undoubtedly benefit our wellbeing but if you have specific needs relating to your food you should seek the advice of someone who has the time to understand your individual needs and is properly qualified to offer an opinion.
Tony is a qualified acupuncturist with clinics across east Anglia. He is also the founder and a director of Talking FreEly, an organisation campaigning to break down the stigma of mental illness through honest and open conversations.
If you are interested in learning more about how tony could help you to achieve your well being goals please get in touch or book an appointment at one of his clinics.