In this bi-monthly column for The Tonic, Sarah Edwards from Copper and Cloves walks us through small daily changes that we can all make that will add up to significant, long-term lifestyle shifts. In her second column Sarah introduces a new next micro-habit to work into your life, as well as a recipe and little assignments intended to help you redefine your health.
When I talk to people about food and nutrition, I am struck by how many of people have a really ‘difficult’ relationship with food. People tell me they ‘have no willpower’ to eat well, and the word ‘worried’ (perhaps in relation to an upcoming work event or celebration where there will be lots of food) comes up a lot. Despite many health-conscious people spending time and effort choosing to eat the healthiest foods, they might not actually have a healthy relationship with food itself.
That paradox has certainly been my experience at several points in my life. To continue our conversation about healthy habits, this month I am focusing on tuning in to your hunger and satiety cues and learning to trust your body’s innate wisdom around food. By this I mean listening to what your body wants to eat, and understanding and having greater awareness of and respect for the signals that tell you when you are hungry and when you are full. When you add this to slow, conscious eating (aka healthy habit #1), you begin really reconnecting with the pleasure of eating and nourishing yourself, and you’ve got the foundations of a lovely healthy relationship with food.
I would like to invite you to take a moment to consider what a really healthy relationship with food looks like to you. To me it looks like really enjoying the food that I eat. Eating food that I know makes me feel good. Eating the right amount for me, enough to leave me feeling satisfied and happy. It also means sometimes choosing to eat food that maybe doesn’t leave me feeling so great, but without feeling a sense of guilt, shame or panic. It kind of feels like being relaxed around food. I’ve learnt that the most important thing is how I feel about food, and not the food itself.
Of course, it matters what you eat as well, and eating a varied diet with lots of fresh produce, whole grains, healthy fats and enough protein is all part of having a healthy diet. But until your relationship with food is about nourishing yourself and based on what your body needs, it is very difficult to sustainably choose to eat healthily. Other thoughts and feelings will keep getting in the way.
So where to start? Here are three key steps to help you tune into your body and build up the habit of honouring your hunger and fullness cues.
1. Ditch the food guilt mentality
To really tune into what our body needs, we need to break the cycle of dieting and restrictive thoughts we have around different foods.
We cannot really be present when eating food if we have really strict rules or diets that tell us what we should be eating at what times and what is ‘good’ or what is ‘bad’ for us. To really understand what your body needs, you need to listen to what it tells you that it wants to eat. Listening to a diet book or an Instagram personality telling you exactly what or when to eat interferes with your innate cues. So, the key next step is to ditch those rules that we may have internalised over time.
This can be a little scary at first, because after years of following diets and having categories of what you ‘should’ eat and what is a ‘guilty treat’, you may experience cravings, feelings of shame and anxiety, possibly feelings of being ‘out of control’ around certain foods because you can’t ‘trust yourself’ around it. These feelings really get in the way of listening to the signals your body is trying to tell you about what type of food will best nourish you and how much food you really need at this particular moment.
By giving ourselves permission to eat whatever we want, we can begin to pay attention to the experience of eating, without interference from this internal, unhelpful chatter. Once you accept that you can eat what makes you feel good when it feels right, you can relax. That food which you might have restricted for a long time is available to eat whenever you want. As a result, there is no need to overeat it when you feel like eating it. You can eat just the right amount for you in that moment.
Try noticing the subconscious ways you police your eating that you may have developed, and how these pop up in your mind over the course of your day. Once you have noticed them, begin to challenge those thoughts and label them for what they are- diet rules that no longer serve you.
2. Use a hunger scale to assess hunger and satiety
Really tuning into your hunger levels and satiety cues is the next step to eating in this more intuitive way. This can take time and some practice, but using a scale can help to make the practice more concrete.
Sometimes we eat even when we are not hungry. This might be due to boredom, a strong urge that compels us to eat, or maybe as a form of procrastination. Sometimes we don’t eat even when we are hungry. This might be due to diet rules we have internalised, habits passed on by our family members, or by a lack of time or a hectic travel schedule. We might also eat past the point of satisfaction, or not eat enough during a meal, for a host of similar reasons.
Eating when not hungry and not eating when hungry interferes with our innate cues from our body about how much food we need to be healthy. But this is not something we need to feel bad about- it is totally normal, over a lifetime of exposure to diet culture and family eating habits, to develop habits or mindsets that interfere with our intuition around food. It is never too late to change this and tune into our natural cues.
People tend to be quite good at the extreme levels of this - “I’m so hungry I could pass out!” - but might miss the gentler signs from their body that they are hungry, and become ravenous, eat very fast, and then as a result miss gentle satiety cues.
This is a well-researched practice that can help you to tune in. It’s called ‘the hunger scale’. It is very simple. Think of your hunger as a scale of 1-10. 1 is ravenous- really really hungry. 5 is neutral. 10 is stuffed- feeling like if you ate another bite you might feel sick. The key to using the hunger scale is to check in on your hunger level and assign a number before you eat and then check in on the scale throughout your eating experience. You could note the number down in a journal or on your phone, or you could simply make a mental note.
Use the scale as a tool to help you to get into the habit of noticing how physically hungry or full you are. You can begin to pay more attention to physical cues such as a growling stomach, gentle pangs or a feeling of emptiness. But also, mental cues such as the thought of food feeling very appealing.
Aim to eat when you are around a 3 - pleasantly hungry. Eat slowly and consciously and observe how you are feeling. Notice how good your food tastes at first when you are really hungry. Ask yourself what flavours you are experiencing. Pause half-way through and check in on the taste and your hunger levels. The intensity of the flavours will get less intense and pleasurable as you reach fullness. What number are you on the scale? Are you satisfied or are you still hungry? If you are still hungry, and the food still tastes fantastic, then keep eating slowly and consciously. Taking regular pauses to reassess can help you as you practice.
Aim to stop eating when you are around a 7, pleasantly satisfied, not uncomfortably stuffed. When you pay close attention, your body will send you clear signals when you have had enough food. If you really savour the food and eat slowly, you will get better at finding that point when it is right to stop eating. You will get a pleasant feeling of satiety in your stomach.
It can be hard to stop when you reach pleasant satiety. Many of us grow up being taught it is rude to leave anything on the plate. You will offend your host, your cook, your mum. When I was growing up we were always taught it was wasteful to leave anything, and that we should eat everything up, even if we were full. But remember, you are not a human garbage can and eating excess food, more than your body needs or wants, doesn’t solve any of the world’s problems. Furthermore, eating slowly and consciously will show any host how much you are enjoying and savouring the food. Once you are pleasantly full, stop eating.
The habits we learn as children can become deeply ingrained. This is a chance to intentionally change the way you eat as an adult, trusting your body’s intuition. Try practicing using the scale each time you eat over the next week. Notice how you feel while eating and once you stop- what sensations can you observe? The more you practice observing your physical hunger cues (and differentiating them from just wanting to eat), the stronger the signals will become. This practice creates a feedback loop that allows you to make more intuitive decisions around when to eat, what to eat and how much to eat.
Tip 3: Be kind to yourself
The most important part of this is that you don’t beat yourself up if you eat past the point of fullness. If you end up over-eating, recognise that this is not a big deal. Beating yourself up just turns this into a new rule and essentially becomes another diet.
The point is, eating in this way is supposed to be an enjoyable way of eating that is really satisfying. As you practice this habit, you can expect to take more pleasure out of eating and gradually reconnect with your body. Along the way, there will be times when you do not eat according to your hunger and satiety cues. And that is ok. It takes time to ingrain a habit. And even once you feel eating intuitively is an ingrained habit, there may be times where you eat when you are not hungry- perhaps your mom made your favourite kulfi dessert and you want to share that moment with her even though you are stuffed. That is a conscious and positive choice and can be a healthy choice.
This is not about creating a new notion of perfection. This is about getting back to truly enjoying food and letting your body’s hunger and fullness be your guide for how much to eat.
It might seem cruel to now give you a recipe for my favourite dip that is so moreish that it will make stopping when you are full really difficult! Try putting these steps into action while you are devouring this dip!
Smoky aubergine dip with pomegranate
With this recipe I wanted to celebrate two of my favourite Indian ingredients - brinjal and pomegranates. Brinjals are my favourite vegetable in the world, and they are noticeably more delicious here in India than when I used to buy them in London. By burning the skin in this way, the flesh takes on this amazing smokiness which contrasts perfectly with the sweetness from the other star- the pomegranates.
India produces more than half of the world’s pomegranates and they are just such a wonderful fruit- the flavour is both sweet and tart at the same time. The jewels are so fresh and vibrant and can be scattered over almost anything to make it look beautiful and Instagram-worthy. In Middle Eastern cooking, pomegranates are juiced and reduced down into pomegranate molasses, a delicious, tangy syrup. This recipe calls for both.
The first step is to make your own pomegranate molasses. That might sound like a hassle but please don’t let this put you off. Once you have made it to you can drizzle it over everything from wholesome grain bowls, roasted vegetables and dips as well as cakes or curd with pistachios for dessert. You will wonder what you did before you had it (of course you could buy it ready-made from specialist stockists like Food Hall, but it will be imported- and very expensive- which seems mad when we have beautiful pomegranates available here in India!)
For the pomegranate molasses
Well, the good news is it’s not that hard to make it at home. You only need two ingredients. It is a bit messy to work with pomegranates, so please do not wear white when deseeding or squeezing them! Alternatively, you can buy freshly squeezed pomegranate juice- Raw Pressery do a good one. If you go with this, skip steps 1-4.
You will need
4 kg fresh pomegranates or 1 litre of pomegranate juice
½ tsp. sea salt
- Wash pomegranate and cut them all in half. Take one half, hold it upside down over a and beat it with a wooden spoon so that the seeds fall into the bowl. Remove any white pith that also falls into the bowl
- Repeat the same for all pomegranate halves.
- When all seeds are in the bowl, squeeze them with your hands.
- Strain the mulched seeds into a saucepan. Use the back of a spoon and extract as much juice as possible.
- Boil the strained juice over a high heat for 20 minutes
- Add in salt and bring it to medium to low heat and simmer for around 1 hour to 1.5 hours until thickened. You want it to be the consistency of honey. Keep an eye on it to ensure it doesn’t burn!
- Let it cool and pour into a sterilised jar or bottle. This can be stored for months in the fridge and poured over anything!
For the smokey brinjal dip
You will need
1 large brinjal
1/3 cup organic tahini paste
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp. of your homemade pomegranate molasses
The juice of half a lemon
2 garlic cloves, chopped really finely
Handful of mint leaves, chopped
Sea salt and cracked black pepper
Seeds from 1/2 pomegranate
- First you need to char the brinjal. You do this by burning the whole brinjal on a gas flame. Put the brinjal directly on a moderate flame for around 15 minutes, turning frequently with metal tongs, until the flesh is soft and collapsing, and the skin is totally burnt all over.
- When it's cool enough to touch, cut the brinjal open and scoop out the flesh and drain in a sieve over a bowl (the burnt brinjal will release a lot of water as it cools). Discard the burnt skin. Around 30 minutes should do the trick
- Chop the brinjal flesh roughly and put in a big bowl. Add the tahini, lemon juice, homemade pomegranate molasses, 2 garlic cloves, mint leaves, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Mix well with a wooden spoon. Take a blender and blend roughly half the mix- so half is really smooth and half still has texture. Then mix it all up again with the wooden spoon so it is evenly mixed.
- If it is too thick, add more olive oil and a splash of water before stirring again. You want to be able to dip some lavash or fresh sourdough into it to scoop it up. Taste and check the salt and pepper and add more garlic, lemon juice or molasses.
- Transfer the mixture into a nice serving bowl and smooth out the surface in a circular motion. Drizzle over a little extra virgin olive oil and some more of your homemade molasses, and top with pomegranate seeds.