How to Love Your Body by Feeding It

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

When you hear the word “self-care,” what comes to mind?

I picture a bowl full of ripe cherries, dark red and bursting with tart-sweet flavour. Or a plate of pillowy handmade pasta coated in cream, garlic, and lemon. Or sometimes a scoop of salted caramel ice cream, a buttery, flaky croissant, fresh watermelon and basil, warm oatmeal with maple and cinnamon…

Our relationship with food is undeniably one of the most important relationships in our lives. Just like our relationships with people, it can be complex and emotionally charged, a source of happiness and comfort as well as guilt and misery. How and what you eat plays a big role in the way that you feel about yourself — not just physically, but mentally and emotionally, too.

How many times have you eaten something that made you feel happy, healthy, and strong? How many times have you finished off a meal and immediately felt lethargic, frustrated, or guilty?

These reactions have a lot to do with our obsession with food and the never-ending hunt for the “right” way to eat. Think about the language we use to talk about food: raw versus processed, natural versus artificial, organic versus modified. We’ve taken a whole rainbow of culinary offerings and slapped them all with one of two labels — “good” or “bad.” In doing so, we’ve turned the simple act of eating into an emotional and ethical minefield.

Yes, a head of raw broccoli is unquestionably healthier than a deep-fried Mars bar. Does that mean that you should never, ever eat anything with saturated fat or refined sugar in it? Are you weak for “giving in” and eating that deep-fried treat anyway?

One of the core components of self-love is cutting yourself some slack, and I think that’s something we need to practice more in relation to what we eat. You are not a bad person if you like to have dessert every now and then. You are not worth any less if you occasionally reach for the bread basket while dining out or if you enjoy some full-fat ice cream with your Netflix.

Too often, we treat ourselves in a way we’d never treat our friends or loved ones — with anger, frustration, disgust, criticism. Would you spit venom at your best friend for indulging in delivery pizza after a rough day at work? Probably not. So why do we do it to ourselves?

The answer is complicated, but at its core is the idea of unworthiness — a horrible, sneaking suspicion that we don’t deserve to feel content with ourselves, so we must continually try to hack perfection by leaping at every new diet and wellness trend that pops up online. And if we happen to fall off the wagon once-twice-three times, well, then this awful, soul-crushing guilt should ensure that we won’t do it again!

Here is something I know to be true: shaming yourself into a healthier relationship with food doesn’t work, plain and simple. Trying to implement lasting change from a place of self-loathing is a recipe for failure. That kind of thinking reinforces the good/bad food dichotomy we need to move away from.

Something else I know to be true: self-care doesn’t need to feel like a battle. Food is not the enemy. Your body is not the enemy.

Reframing a damaging outlook that’s been ingrained in you for the majority of your life may seem like a monumental task, but remember, eating is inherently an act of self-care. Listening to your body and giving it what it needs — food, water, rest — is instinctual. What we need to work on is shutting out the deafening hum of diet-talk and self-doubt, and allowing those biological whispers to filter through.

If you pay careful attention to your mood and your body, it becomes easier and easier to make healthy choices about food. You’ll learn to recognize the difference between eating because you feel sad or bored and eating because you’re truly hungry. You’ll learn which foods energize you and which foods have you dragging your feet for the rest of the day. You’ll discover new depths in old flavours, and find joy in experimenting with new flavours altogether.

Most importantly, you’ll learn how to savour those necessary indulgences without the spiral of guilt afterwards.

Like any act of self-love, this will take some time. To start, work on getting comfortable with the idea that you deserve to feel good in your body, and that being kind to your body means nourishing it with good food in all its shapes and forms. The goal is to eat for both health and happiness.

Unsure of what that looks like? Here are a few tips:

Practice mindful eating

Less woo-woo than it sounds, I promise! Mindful eating has to do with slowing down, being present, and allowing yourself to really enjoy every bite of what you’re eating.

A lot of the time, we find ourselves eating mechanically while we watch TV, read, work, or drive. This distances us from our food and can lead to overeating and a sense of vague dissatisfaction when we finish our meal (ever stuffed yourself while distracted and had the strange urge to eat something else immediately after?). By eating mindfully as often as you can, you give your body the opportunity to signal to you when it’s full and give your taste buds a chance to fully appreciate the food.

Learn how to cook (or try out some new recipes!)

Not knowing how to cook can be a major barrier to a healthier way of eating. Restaurant food is delicious (and can certainly be healthy, depending on the restaurant), but the cost of eating out or ordering delivery means that more often than not, the food we’re getting isn’t the kind of food that will make us feel good if we eat it all the time.

Cooking not only adds a new dimension to your relationship with food — there’s something magical about working with the raw ingredients yourself to create something delicious — but also makes it easier (and cheaper) to eat healthier. If the idea of whipping something up from scratch is intimidating, browse YouTube first for some helpful how-to videos or sign up for a cooking class. When you’re ready to tackle a meal on your own, head to Pinterest for a goldmine of delicious, healthy recipes.

Eat intuitively

Intuitive eating is all about listening to your body. Give yourself permission to eat when you feel hungry, respect your body when it tells you it’s full, and feed your body what it’s craving without falling into old habits of moral waffling or self-judgement.

When you find yourself craving unhealthy foods more often than you’d like, take a minute to identify what it is about that food that you really want. Is it the sweetness? The saltiness? The crunch? The creaminess? The coldness or warmth? If you can pinpoint the specific quality that’s driving your craving, you can often satisfy it with a healthier option without feeling like you’re depriving yourself.

Be forgiving

I talked about being kinder to yourself above, but it’s a point that bears repeating.

Practicing self-love is an ongoing journey, not a finite destination or a skill that you suddenly acquire. You’re going to have days where you fumble a bit, where your mood or timing isn’t quite right, where circumstances beyond your control interfere.

It’s okay. The imperfections are part of it.

Treat yourself with compassion and understanding, the way you would treat a friend. Eat things that are good for you and make you feel good in equal measure. Appreciate the pleasure of eating. Finish when you’re full. Indulge when you need to.

Nurture your relationship with food the way you would any other relationship and allow yourself to flourish.