Holistic EatingAug 11, 2021
Holistic Eating: Understanding The Holistic Approach to Nutrition
By Kristiana Vuong
A Holistic Approach to Nutrition
When we approach anything from a holistic standpoint, by definition, we are taking into account all variables that factor into the overall wellness of a person rather than merely accounting for the symptoms of a disease. So what does a holistic diet look like? There is an unfathomable number of restrictive diets that attempt to make things black and white: don’t eat fat, eat only fat, don’t eat anything just drink juice, eat a special kind of ice cream for every meal, eat only carbs, eat only protein, don’t eat sugar of any kind, eat only raw vegetables, there is even a diet that requires you to wear blue tinted glasses at every meal! And the list goes on! But all of these diets have hard and fast rules about what you should or shouldn’t eat, and though it is possible to visit with a nutritionist and learn that there are certain food groups that will better suit your body’s constitution, it is unlikely that picking one of these diets off of the internet will lead to sustainable results. On the other hand, a holistic diet considers the person as a whole. We still ask the question, what do you eat? But we also ask: what is your environment like when you eat? Do you drink while you eat? How thoroughly are you chewing your food? Are you doing any post-meal activities to promote digestion? What does your life look like outside of your eating habits? How do you manage your stress? And what is your relationship like with food?
How to Improve Your Relationship With Food
Learning about our relationship with food requires that we consider more than our diet. Because our relationship with food is shaped by habits we have picked up throughout our lives, what our cultures say about food, our personal preferences, and what is readily available for us. To improve our relationship with food, we might ask ourselves some important questions to help us understand all of the different factors that contribute to our overarching relationship with food.
What are you eating?
Ideally, a holistic approach to nutrition means that the majority of our meals are prepared without the use of preservatives or processed ingredients, include fresh fruits and vegetables, and are prepared at home with love. And the majority of our snacks are thoughtful and unprocessed, and even our drinks are free of preservatives and unnatural sugars. Here, I use the term “majority” rather than “all”, because a holistic approach to nutrition is meant to be accessible and realistic, rather than strict and rigid. So that even if it challenges us a bit to make a few changes, we do not get so discouraged or overwhelmed that we abandon the holistic approach to nutrition altogether. Rather than having to completely change all of our habits at once, it is possible to adapt some of these practices some of the time. For example, if you are picking up burgers for dinner, can you pass on the french fries and instead chop up some sweet potatoes to throw in the oven or air-fryer? If you are heating up a frozen lasagna, can you also toss together a salad with whatever fruits and vegetables you have? If you are a soda drinker, how does it feel to cut back by one soda per day, or per week and instead opt for fresh juice? On the other hand, if you are accustomed to cooking all of your meals at home, you could pick your veggies from the farmer’s market instead of the corner store. Making these little adjustments doesn’t have to be complicated and absolutely life-altering. But if you start with small steps, you may find that overtime it becomes easier and even more natural to incorporate fresh foods, which can overtime improve the overall quality of your life. With that said, it is important to allow ourselves some grace, within reason. If it’s your birthday, eat the cake! If it’s not your birthday, but you really want it, eat the cake! Depriving ourselves of every craving for the sake of a “healthy diet” will lead to stress and a poor relationship with food. But if we learn to give into our cravings with moderation, we can enjoy the foods we love while still filling our bellies and nourishing our bodies with mostly healthy foods, leading to a happier, healthier life.
How are you eating?
Are you eating your meals quickly between calls, or in the car between appointments? Are you snacking in front of the TV or computer? What is your environment like when you sit down to eat? How well are you chewing your food? Even if we are eating sauteed spinach with a side of broccoli and carrots, if we are eating while being emotionally charged or overstimulated, we may find GI issues that lead to discomfort and general tummy-upset. In our house, once a week we allow ourselves to eat dinner while watching a movie, but we do try to limit this practice, as even the excitement from a thrilling movie scene can disrupt digestion. For the most part, we do our best to sit at the table with as few distractions as possible. It seems like an obvious recommendation, but chewing your food thoroughly is less common for some than you might think. If we can take a step back to look at the bigger picture, we can remember that a great part of our body is an accumulation of what we use to fuel and nourish it. This means that digestion does not begin the moment food hits the stomach, but rather digestion begins in the mouth with the first bite we take. The process of mindfully taking a reasonably sized bite of food and chewing it thoroughly can lead to improved digestion in the stomach as well as nutrient absorption in the intestines. By doing these things, the energy required by the body to break down our food is decreased while the ability for the body to properly absorb nutrients greatly increases.
When are you eating?
Not only is it important to consider what we are eating and how we are eating, but also when we are eating. I am referring specifically to time of day, but I am also referring to what triggers our hunger. For a long time, doctors have recommended we eat three square meals per day, and though this may be the societal norm, the holistic approach to nutrition asks us to look at the individual as a whole, independently from those around them. This may mean that for some people it is appropriate to eat multiple meals per day, and for others intermittent fasting works best. To determine the most effective times for us to eat requires that we perform a self-assessment in order to regulate whether or not we should eat a meal, have a snack or neither. “It is important to allow food to digest and true hunger to return before taking another meal. Ayurveda teaches that taking food before true hunger returns leads to poor digestion. Using the analogy of a campfire, when wood is put onto the fire, at first it decreases the strength of the fire. Eventually, as the wood burns, the fire becomes stronger. At some time, it peaks. After that, it begins to die down, as there is not enough wood to sustain the fire. In the body, when there is not enough food to sustain the digestive fire, the fire calls out for more food. This is the appetite returning.” (Ayurveda College) It is fairly obvious when our hunger encourages us to eat, but unfortunately it is not only hunger that causes us to work up an appetite. Especially in the States, it is common to reach for ice cream when we are feeling down, or potato chips when we are feeling stressed. Emotional eating is not just something that those struggling with their weight or mental health face. Emotional eating can happen to just about anyone. As we learn to observe our triggers, we may be able to redirect our habits from reaching for a snack, to engaging in other activities that help to relieve stress or cope with other difficult emotions.
What else is going on in your life outside of your eating habits?
As I mentioned, a holistic approach to nutrition is not just about what we are eating, how we are eating, or when we are eating. The holistic approach to nutrition asks us to look at all variables that factor into the overall wellness of a person. This means that we must also ask ourselves what else is going on in our life outside of the body. We can do everything “right” as far as what, how, and when we are eating, but if the general overtone of our life is distrubed or unwell, this too will translate into our overall health. Though the frequency of stress in one’s life may vary, for everyone, it is inevitable. With this in mind, ensuring that we have practices in place to help us cope with stress and the difficulties of life will make it that much easier for us to lean into practices that serve us, rather than utilizing food or the activity of eating to distract us from our current reality.
The holistic approach to nutrition may seem counterintuitive for the diet-lovers, but this practice is less about losing weight quickly, and more about finding and cultivating sustainable practices around food that can support overall wellness for a lifetime.