200 decisions a day
Physical and social environments play a crucial role in what and how we eat, especially from the perspective of emotional eating. Holistic nutritionist Cecilia Portnoj talks about holistic approach to food and how our environments provide food-related cues and impact our food decisions.
What we eat is essential for our health and well-being. The nutrients we get from our food are imperative not only to our physical well-being, but also to our mood, cognitive well-being and to the health of our brain. In the past years, the gut is understood to play a major role in our brain function, and what we eat directly impacts on the well-being of our gut.
However, what we eat isn’t the only question. How, where and with whom we eat play a crucial role in our health. Nutrition is also one of the concepts in WELL Building Standard, a standardisation for building design and construction that supports human health and well-being. The strategies in the WELL Building Standard on nourishment include, among others, guidelines on healthy food availability and display at workplaces, food advertising, meal and tableware sizes, responsible food production, eating spaces and break area furniture.
For Cecilia Portnoj, a Helsinki-based holistic nutritionist and the founder of Lagom Health, food is both a preventative measure for illness and a source of well-being. Observing eating behaviour is also a route to underlying problems, many of them emotional. Tracking down the root causes of a certain eating behaviour and then making changes to the nutrition and to the eating environments enable making a stable and lasting positive change in a person’s life.
In a talk, Cecilia Portnoj sheds light to holistic nutrition, to the current food and well-being phenomena, and to social and environmental aspects of nutrition.
In the wellness sector, food and nutrition have been a major trend for some years already. How would you describe the phenomenon at the moment?
There is an aspect in the phenomenon that I often think of: everything related to wellness, food and nutrition is presented as we all should be living according to a set of strict rules. These trends have become challenging to reach and manage, because people already know that they don’t have the resources to keep up with them. People often know how they should live, but implementation of that to their own lives is challenging. They need tools to change the everyday routines and habits, and to create new ones.
Especially in the social media, well-being appears to be an all-or-nothing choice. Either you are healthy or you are not. But if you think of a person who is working from 9 to 5 and have kids, they quite likely don’t have time to bake bread from scratch, make smoothies, run a 10K daily and do yoga. For many, the phenomenon is scary and off-putting, because what we see is an image of well-being that is very difficult to achieve.
In reality, any of these don’t have to occupy your whole life. You can still make choices without changing your entire life. We can achieve well-being even if we eat an occasional burger or go out to party with friends. On the contrary, these can be important parts of a person’s well-being.
I would also emphasise the meaning of sleep and exercise — not necessarily hard exercise, but walking, dancing, whatever suits you. The basics might be missing, because what we see is super performance from the morning until the evening. People necessarily have neither the money nor the chance to do that, perhaps not physical or mental resources either. We have to think what is realistically achievable, what supports well-being and what can be improved in my body. Consistency is key here.
You work as a holistic nutritionist. What does ‘holistic’ mean in nutrition?
For me, it means that instead of focusing on one particular issue in a person’s nutrition, the functioning of the whole body is taken into consideration. If you have constant headaches, for instance, we think of what could cause it and how it could be treated instead of just asking you to pop another painkiller. Are you dehydrated? Are you having hormonal issues? Is everything well at work or are there elements that consume you and cause tensions in your body? What is your health history — did you have acne as a teenager or have you consumed a lot of antibiotics at some point of your life? How are you sleeping? What are your hobbies?
We approach the body as a whole, and include the mind, spirituality and the environment as well. It’s extremely important to take the lifestyle decisions into consideration. Another crucially important aspect to me is eating behaviour. Nutrition is so much more than just nutrients.
Lifestyle choices also depend on where you live and what is available. For instance, often in low-income neighbourhoods, cheap and low-quality processed food is all that is available or what the inhabitants can afford. What is your approach to the environmental aspects of eating?
We are surrounded by cues from our surroundings. How many food-related shows there are on TV right now? How many food-related posts do we see in the social media? Or when we walk on the street? I’ve been thinking that on a morning, I should count how many food cues I receive from my environment only when going to work: when walking to the tram, being on the tram and again when walking to my office.
Also where we eat, the ambience of the space, has an impact on us, as well as how we eat, with whom we eat or what is the size of our plates. What kind of music we are listening to impacts how much we eat, or what is the general feeling at work or at home.
Having a buffet lunch at the office restaurant with a wide variety of salads, soups, main dishes, breads and butters and desserts is a good example of a situation that immediately impacts the eating experience and how much you eat. This kind of eating is all based on cues that trigger wants and feeling hunger. Or, you only have to step into a movie theatre to want to eat popcorn.
Third thing that impacts us is habits and conventions of our environments. For instance, there is a strong fika culture with a daily 3pm coffee and a sweet pastry in Sweden. Or, once I had a client who bought a donut every day after work when waiting for a bus. Depending on the day, the donut was either a reward or a comfort. Or, you can have a habit of adding salt to your food. It takes time to unlearn these habits.
Fourth aspect is the social environment: how much does it impact our own eating when we see how much people around us are eating? Social environment has a big impact on how food is perceived, especially for those who are having issues with emotional eating.
Is it usual for nutritionists to work on social aspects of eating?
Social aspects are taken into consideration especially among nutritionists working on emotional eating and eating behaviour. I think that we are still in minority, but I think that that is changing.
These are important questions to me, because I see nutrition as a part of a wider context than just getting the nutrients we need. What can you eat when there is another person eating? What happens when people are alone? Where does a certain thinking process come from? What other aspects should be considered? These are questions that I work with. Especially eating behaviour has a direct correlation to one’s social contexts.
You mentioned in our earlier talk that we make around 200 food-related decisions in a day. What does that include?
To start with, first thing in the morning we decide if we should have breakfast or not. We open the fridge and think whether we should eat something from there or whether we should grab something from the supermarket on our way to work. Then we end up to the supermarket, thinking what we should eat. And so on. Majority of these decisions are non-conscious. Brian Wansink has written a good book about this, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.
How much do you work on the environmental cues of food with your clients? How do you work on these issues with them?
Usually we start by thinking of the root causes and what is the core problem. I often do an exercise based on acceptance and commitment therapy with my clients. For instance, a client comes to me and tells that they will be 40 next summer and would like to fit into a specific dress. Instead of making a 1.600-calorie diet for the client, I start by asking why does she want to fit into that dress. Then we will dig deeper and define the core problem. Through this process, we can find the core question and formulate the title for what we are actually doing. It’s also important to think which aspects we can have an impact on and to which not. Environmental cues are a part of this process.
You work on food concepts for corporate clients. How is the environment taken into consideration in these projects?
One of the organisations I have worked for has created an environment based on well-being, and they have breakfast together at the office. Companies are also working on sustainability issues of food and eating. For instance, I produce material for another corporate client on the meaning of breakfast, social eating and how that impacts us and how that brings joy to our lives. At least for these two organisations, the environment has been an important issue.
You also collaborate with doctors. What is your role in that context?
At the moment, I work with a pediatrician with clients, mainly children, with allergies, food sensitivities and problems with the gut. My role is to take care that both the child and the mother get enough nutrients, and how to build as rich everyday life to them as possible. I support the clients, try to make things systematic, make the process as simple as possible for the parents, and communicate with the doctor.
We are also collecting a microbiome bank. The doctor takes labs from children and parents. From the labs we can see possible food sensitivities, allergies, how the gut deals with the nutrients, what kinds of parasites and bacteria can be found in the gut. After this, a naturopath can tell with what remedies these can be evicted from the gut and I step in to find out what kinds of foods the client can use. We collect information from certain bacteria, how we have treated them and what has been the outcome.
Conventional and functional medicines don’t have to exclude each other and I’m not against so-called normal drugs. There will be situations in the lives of each and every one of us in which we need them. But in general, I focus on how to support the functions of the body through nutrition itself, but also through our behaviour and environments.
The interview is a part of ‘Spatial Health,’ one of the focus areas of Brussels-based design and research agency Raven & Wood Agency. ‘Spatial Health’ looks into crossovers of built environments, spatial design and health with a specific focus on emotional well-being.