By Jessica Wegener RD, CSSD, LMNT
Registered Sports Dietitian, Founder Positive Nutrition of Omaha LLC
Healthy eating is not only about what you eat, it also includes our relationship with food, why and how we eat, and the emotions we feel in relationship to what we eat. I hear people use the term “healthy eating,” and I am not sure they even consider their thoughts about food, rather just what they are putting in their mouths. We are surrounded by messages of “good” and “bad” foods that trigger our brain to attach emotions to food. We then create a positive and negative thought process when eating. When we are eating “healthy” this feels fine, but the moment we desire to eat something that provides less nutrition, the guilt, shame, and self-hate tends to set in. How many times have you said to yourself or hear someone else say “I was so bad today because I ate….” You can insert whatever food you have considered as a “bad” food. This creates a cycle of negative self-talk, which then leads to negative food behaviors of restricting, binge eating, dieting, and so on-and so forth. I would ask myself “did this person kill someone to eat that food today? Why do they feel so guilty for what they eat?” I believe this happens because of the fear-mongering media messages that are driven by misinformation. How many times do we see headlines to this effect: “7 Worst Foods to Eat,” “5 Foods Nutritionists Avoid,” etc.?
I have spent 14 years as a dietitian, and prior to this I was an elite level athlete. I have seen people shame themselves or others for eating everything including eggs, potatoes, red meat, carrots, peas, corn, bagels, and now even dairy products… I have seen our society go from the fat-free craze of the 1990s, to high-protein diets in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and now to a high-fat ketogenic diet in the 2010s. Because we are constantly being told what to eat and what not to eat, it is no wonder why so many people struggle with disordered eating patterns. Nutritional science is a new science and is ever-changing due to new research. We can only be as good as the research we currently have. What we do know is that repetitive restriction of specific foods leads to rebound eating, lower metabolic rates, inaccurate hunger and fullness signals and significant weight loss or consistent and progressive weight gain.
Through the years of working on my own nutrition as an athlete, I never even thought about or was taught the psychology behind eating. Thankfully only two years into my career as a registered dietitian, I was introduced to Intuitive Eating and learned that our brain has much to do with why, what and how we eat. Our thoughts about food, the chemical and physiological changes in the brain are all part of the food decision making process. The insula in the brain is the gateway for taste processing; it is here we recognize whether food is sweet, sour, salty, or umami flavor, and from here the information is then sent to the ventral striatum and amygdala, and subsequently to the hypothalamus, midbrain and frontal cortex. Whoa, that is a lot of the brain working when we are eating! The ventral striatum and midbrain contain dopamine and opioid receptors that drive motivation to approach food and to process the experience of pleasure from eating the food. The hypothalamus contains the centers that process hunger and fullness cues, and prefrontal cortex contributes to the decision-making process to eat more or less food. This is the area of the brain where the negative messages about food can affect our food choices, either by fear from messages of media or from people in our lives, parents, coaches, friends, teammates, etc. In disordered eating, the prefrontal cortex and the insula are the areas that are affected, which then interfere with food intake regulation process. You can see that this is a very complex brain-body interaction.
It has become a regular part of my practice to encourage people to think positive about what they are eating, as every food provides nutrients. I use this approach to help decrease the negative brain response when making food decisions. On average, we make approximately 200 food decisions each day. Every food we eat provides nutrition to the body; it is all in how we see this nutrition. If we think positive about what we eat, we feel less power from this food and it is easier to stop eating when feeling full. We feel more in charge of our eating versus feeling controlled by the food. One of the ways I encourage people to work on changing this relationship with food is to replace the “good” and “bad” food thoughts with positive thinking, “all food provides nutrition, some foods provide more nutrients and some foods may provide less nutrients.” This helps reduce the emotions we attach to our food choices. It helps us to focus more on our true food cravings and honor our body’s cues to start and stop eating.
Jessica Wegener is a certified specialist in sports dietetics and registered dietitian; she can be reached at 402.669.2705 or via email at email@example.com or website at www.pnomaha.com.