Our columnist questions whether eating thoughtfully is the route to a merrier mid-life
I feel a need to start this piece with a very firm note: I do not, in any area of life, advocate total abstinence. Life can often be frustrating. Each of us has our guilty pleasures; those treats that we know aren’t healthy, but that do take the edge off the knocks we all experience. Provided we don’t slip into wanton indulgence at the expense of the rest of our lives, I see nothing wrong with it.
As regular readers of this column are already aware, I love a get together with friends over good food and lots of laughs. But, when I was forced into the menopause by an emergency hysterectomy, I found myself facing body image challenges I’d never had before. My weight was a challenge, caused by my crashing hormone levels and, despite my love of fitness, nothing seemed to help. At the time, I had to start a whole new regime, simply in order to feel like some semblance of myself again. I changed my diet completely. The difference in how I felt was remarkable. I was less anxious, my weight was easier to manage, and I had a lot more energy. After a while, I started to allow myself the occasional ‘treat’ and the weight was, once more, difficult to maintain.
I love food and don’t want to spend my life feeling as though I’m permanently hungry or deprived. So, what’s the answer? I started to research moderation, mindfulness and food. The choice of what to eat, and how much, is one that lends itself perfectly to a mindful approach. Choosing to make diet choices, knowing the true risks to your body and being aware of the effects, allows you to make sensible, informed decisions that balance health with hedonism.
An interesting fact that I discovered during my research was how often women use food as a form of comfort, to compensate for the huge amount of caring they did each day. Caring for children, parents, friends, colleagues – not to mention the huge number of us in caring jobs. The toll that putting ourselves last has is found on our waistlines, where we subsume our own needs with junk food and sugar.
It’s not surprising that we are seeking a way to relax and recover, but that is where problems form. Mindful eating means being very honest about what you’re eating and why. You might get an instant fix from that chocolate bar (or in my case, lots of lovely, stinky cheese). There are also a lot of myths and judgements around older women and weight – that we no longer care or need try [to maintain our weight], so we’ve given up; that it’s impossible to lose weight after the menopause and we must accept it.
My first step was to have my hormone levels checked. My wonderful doctor realised that imbalances were causing many of my cravings, which in turn made it difficult to keep the weight off. Once I was in a better place, I decided to monitor my eating habits and how I felt for a period. You can do this using a notebook, or an app like My Fitness Pal. The key is to be honest with yourself – very often we’re eating more than we realise, and it’s important to stick to healthy limits. Start to be aware of your triggers. Mindful eating means being aware of your body and how it feels in any given moment. Are you bored? Sad? Lonely? Plan to address those issues and have an alternative plan available to keep you from trying to feed your feelings. In the words of the brilliant Helen Golstein, the Self Compassion Coach, we need to stop seeing food as bad or good and instead learn to ask ourselves if our bodies need nurturing in another way that we’re not meeting; we need to nourish ourselves with kindness.
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