How Compassion Can Help You Make Healthier Food Choices
Last night I was watching Fat Sick and Nearly Dead 2, which is a follow on from Joe Cross’ first movie about losing weight and getting healthy via juicing. The second movie primarily focuses on how the first movie changed people’s lives, but a secondary theme throughout the movie is the importance of support when making changes in our lives to be healthier. They talked about how we can often find ourselves turning to food when we are stressed, sad or lonely and how, for a moment, food can give us some comfort.
Featured in the movie is Dr Dean Ornish, physician and president and founder of the non-profit Preventative Medicine Research Institute. Ornish is a heart specialist and has written several books on heart disease and wellness. I read his book, ‘Program for Reversing Heart Disease’ last year, with the aim of helping someone very dear to me. What I didn’t know was how much this book would impact my own life. I expected the book to be solely about food and exercise but Ornish also talks about how important it is to have a support system in your life, how important it is to take steps to manage stress and reduce loneliness. These things not only help prevent us reaching to food for comfort but they actually have a very positive impact on our overall health.
The book struck a nerve with me and I recognised I had been neglecting those areas in my own life. I took steps to learn more and make some changes, and I will be forever grateful to Dean Ornish for introducing me to these ideas.
One thing I learnt along the way is that mindfulness can be a great help when it comes to comfort eating. When we eat because we feel unhappy, we are searching for something to make us feel better, to make the bad feeling go away. But it only works temporarily and then we find ourselves eating again as the feeling is still there. And so the comfort eating goes on.
But if we can stop ourselves for a second, be mindful, and ask ourselves, ‘what is the real reason I’m reaching for this food?’ we can address the underlying feelings. Although it sounds intimidating at first, if we can allow ourselves to ‘feel’ and to give ourselves compassion for what we are feeling, we can begin to let go of that feeling. We can then take constructive steps towards a positive solution, instead of reaching for the comfort food.
The same concept of mindfulness can be helpful when we are trying to change our diets, such as moving towards a plant-based diet. We may feel overwhelmed and stressed with the changes we are trying to make. But if we can take a step back for a second, recognise those feelings and allow ourselves to feel them, we can more clearly see a solution.
For example, we may feel stressed when we are eating a meal with friends or family who don’t eat in the same way as us. We may tell ourselves it is just too hard and even give up on our healthy new way of eating. But if we can be mindful we might realise that underneath our stress we are actually worried that we might not be accepted if we appear to be different. We realise that we all have a basic need to be accepted and loved. Once we’ve made this recognition we can give ourselves compassion and acknowledge that it can be difficult making changes and not to be too hard on ourselves, or others. Then we can think of positive solutions, such as having a conversation with our friends and family and asking them if they would be willing to accept us whatever our choices and assure them that we will still accept and love them whatever their choices. We have allowed ourselves to feel the emotion, gained clarity on what it is we really need and then found a positive solution.
So many of us have a tendency to be hard on ourselves and beat ourselves up when we don’t stick with our healthy way of eating, and we end up adding to the emotions we were trying to numb in the first place. When we are able to mindfully recognise the underlying cause that motivated us to transgress, we realise that we just needed to take care of ourselves in some way, that we needed love, or rest, or companionship and we can forgive ourselves and give ourselves compassion, in the same way we would to a friend or loved one.
This can extend to other aspects of our lives as well. Instead of looking back and judging ourselves for our choices, we can recognise and reflect on the emotional need we at that time that caused us to act in the way we did. Perhaps we didn’t go about meeting our need in the best way, but we can forgive ourselves by being compassionate of our motivations.
There was another part of the movie that struck me how compassion can help us make healthier choices, but this time in an indirect way. At one part in the movie Joe was looking at a long display of pastries. A wellness expert was talking to him about how we do our best to avoid everything in the display until we get to the end, and then we are so happy with having ‘been good’ and managing to avoid everything that we end up buying something to reward ourselves!
As I was looking at the pastries I thought, ‘well that would be easy for me, because nothing is vegan anyway’. It got me thinking about how having compassion for animals actually helps us to eat more healthily. When we can be mindful of the suffering of animals in the food system, we no longer see meat, dairy, eggs as ‘food’, rather as the suffering they represent. It then becomes easy to walk past these foods or ignore them on a menu because all we see is animal suffering and we do not want to contribute to it.
Compassion and kindness are so important when it comes to our food choices. Behind each bite is a complex system which involves much suffering of animals and people. If we can be mindful before making our food choices we can have a significant, positive effect on animals, the environment, other people and ourselves. We can support a food system that is peaceful, just and healthy. We can contribute to a cleaner, kinder world and a healthier, happier future for ourselves and our families.
Next time you reach for that comfort food, pause for a moment. Ask yourself what it is you really need, listen to what’s in your heart and give yourself, and others, some love and kindness.
For further reading I recommend:
- Creating True Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh
- Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg
- Program for Reversing Heart Disease by Dean Ornish
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