Why did I feel unqualified to advise on nutrition?
Veganism, superfoods and the latest fads felt a world away from what I worked with day-to-day in a hospital setting. A typical day was matching insulin to carbohydrate intake or preparing a nutritional prescription for intravenous nutrition after surgery. I was out-of-touch with real food. Most people’s diets were so far from ideal that eating 10 biscuits a day, instead of 15, seemed like a great measure of success.
Why is it that I felt so removed from real healthy eating?
Many of the clients I worked with, particularly those with type 2 diabetes were overweight to morbidly obese. For others, poor diet was a major contributing factor to their illness. Typically fast food is enjoyed regularly, huge portions are eaten and high fat and sugar snacks are common. The clients were mainly London based and rarely saw where their food came from. As I employed the recommended approach of supporting a patient to make a small change, I could’t help but feel like it was a drop in the ocean. For example, introducing just one vegetable a day. A radical new diet, for many, would lead to weight loss, reducing or even eliminating the need for medication. At times, the medical model to nutrition felt like too little, too late. Most patients felt under pressure to ‘eat better’ but this motivation regularly appeared to be external to them.
Science is black or white!
With my initial degree being in Physiology, I have held “black and white” beliefs about science and nutrition. Having completed my yoga teacher training I have begun to explore the grey area. I learned to feel the subtle difference in an appropriate stretch and going just a little too far. Similarly, meditation and mindfulness has led me to question why I am eating; If I’m hungry, if I need more energy because I’ve exercised, if I’m responding to a bad day at work or simply because I’m distracted and on auto-pilot. It has helped me understand how I can put my hand into the bag of chocolates only to be surprised when there are none left!
Since I learned to be more aware or mindful, I realised what I’m eating might not even taste very nice. But because I started to eat, I habitually finish it. I have started to think about food and why I am eating. I try to identify why I want something. If I walk past a bakery and smell the pain-au-chocolate, I can take time to register the smell, notice the craving and recognise it is only a thought in my mind and sometimes walk on by. Other times, I will go in and when I do get one, I will consciously enjoy every bit!! Nowadays, I don’t usually buy the multipack pain-au-chocolat from the supermarkets, as when I concentrate on the texture and flavour, I realise they actually taste a bit like sweet plastic. So I still eat the ‘unhealthy’ foods but nowadays it is less often and I actual enjoy them more, a bit like savouring a piece of chocolate because you were only given one square. Everyone gets cravings, we all over-indulge at times, the important thing is not to dwell on negative emotions linked to this, enjoy the ‘bad’ stuff but consciously move on from this.
Although I had some training on mindful eating as part of my nutrition training, I failed to grasp the concept until I completed my yoga teacher training. This is where I feel there is a mismatch between the medical model and the more hippie, yogic, holistic approach. I failed to grasp the concept of eating in response to how your body feels; I was unaware of how to really get in touch with this, how to stop the frantic rush of thoughts in my head and just be aware of what is happening there and then.
What is the best nutrition advice?
I still feel my body recoil at times when I hear people talk about superfoods and their health benefits. I’m holding on to my beliefs that a wide variety of food is best. I trust that various combinations of food will influence how effectively nutrients are absorbed. I believe inexpensive fruit and vegetables like bananas, apples, carrots and cabbage, hold as much promise as the trendy and break-the-bank goji berries, blueberries, sweet potatoes and wheatgrass!
I will always look for the best evidence for providing nutritional advice. However, I’m now more open to trialing alternative safe options that clients feel work well for them individually. So long as it will not compromise their nutritional intake, who cares if it’s a bit wacky! Maybe, I should try it and see how it feels!
Since I’ve been travelling over the last few months, I have been fortunate enough to meet and work with many people who have approached nutrition in different ways. I’ve enjoyed getting back to basics with food; making almond milk in Mexico, making chocolates on a cacao farm in Guatemala to making dehydrated crackers from vegetables in Canada. When I was backpacking and eating lots of fried and processed foods, I felt pretty rough. When, I had the chance to eat locally produced, unrefined foods, I felt physically and mentally better. My goal is to be more aware of what I’m eating and in tune with how it makes me feel. And to support anyone else who feels like joining me on the journey!