Eating habits - basics to avoid overeating
Snacking between meals is a common habit that comes about for many reasons including boredom, emotional eating, cravings (possibly through some imbalance within our bodies) or just plain habit that is hard to kick. We all know the saying, “Old habits die hard”.
If you have taken the quiz on the Therapy page to determine your constitution and the foods to avoid and favour, eating according to this will always be helpful for staying in balance. Eating the freshest food you can afford too and according to the season is recommended.
If you really feel the need to nibble in between a meal, make a handful of raisins or a liquorice sweet the preferred option. Liquorice is a mild diuretic and helpful to water retention issues and reduces build-up in the body that creates the heaviness and sluggishness associated with weight gain. Bear in mind, people with hypertension issues should not consume too much liquorice root or liquorice based products as this can be harmful to the condition.
Similarly, light crackers, some cereal or millet or rye grains or a drink of fruit juice can ward off the temptation to overeat. Lighter food rather than heavy or oily foods will help stop the hunger but not add weight.
Adopting healthy eating habits where you eat the right things at the right times mitigate the need for snacking in between meals and generally support a healthy digestive process. This is a key concept in Ayurvedic nutrition. Some advice which is very simple and common sense follows below.
Eat only when you are hungry!
Firstly, a very simple rule: don’t eat unless you are hungry and don’t drink unless you are thirsty! When the last food you ate is properly digested, you will know this. If you aren’t genuinely experiencing pangs of hunger, the digestive process has not fully taken place. Eating in this state taxes the digestive process by overloading this process. If you throw more and more in while it is churning away, you are giving more and more to process, which is aggravating if you have already eaten too much. Think about an overloaded washing machine. Never eat too soon after a full meal or when you are constipated, for the reason given above.
If your overeating leads to indigestion, the juice of half a lemon squeezed into a cupful of water, with a pinch of baking soda added and stirred just before drinking the mixture quickly will be of some aid.
Another method to soothe indigestion is to roast a teaspoonful of coriander seeds and a teaspoonful of fennel seeds (fennel is good for anxiety too) in a dry pan (no added oil), without letting them burn. After roasting, add a pinch of salt, leave the mixture to cool and eat it as it is.
Chew without haste!
Always chew well and don’t rush. This will allow the digestive enzymes in the mouth to work as nature intended. A couple of handy rules to follow when serving a meal is never eat more in a portion than what you can hold in two cupped handfuls, but make your heaviest meal as early as possible (ideally lunch). If you leave your stomach one third filled with water, one third filled with food and one third empty, this allows digestion to complete more efficiently. If you have overeaten you will feel the urge to eat more as your stomach has expanded.
If you drink instead of eating, you water down the digestive enzymes which subsequently reduces the digestive capacity. If you have eaten something perhaps not suited to your constitution or that is difficult to digest, or even an incompatible food combination (there are a few), drinking at this time will not help. It can result in upset stomach problems. The same occurs when you drink too much during a meal, or drink absolutely no water at all. Drinking very cold drinks is unhelpful to the digestive system (see article for an explanation) and certainly do not have fruit juice or fruit with any meal.
If you think your eating could be emotional rather than due to genuine hunger, you can test this by having a cup of a warm soothing tea such as liquorice, camomile or mint. If you are genuinely hungry, the tea might be soothing but it won’t stop you feeling hungry. Cravings for food can also be offset with a brisk short walk in fresh air.
Don't forget to spice up your life!
Adding some spices can prevent the urge to overeat. A little garam masala, chili, cayenne pepper, turmeric, cumin or black pepper for instance, are ideal. Ghee, clarified butter, used in many, if not most, Indian dishes, is particularly healthy with numerous benefits for a great number of ailments. In the UK, it can be bought in most supermarkets and other shops with food aisles. Chopping up a ripe banana (it must be ripe) with a teaspoon of ghee and a pinch of cardamom can help with emotional eating habits.
The food of love?
At the time of writing, the world is in lockdown and it is easy for many reasons to get caught up in unhealthy eating habits. If we view our personal situation negatively, it will become and remain negative and promote negative habits of all manners. When we are separated from loved ones, unable to enjoy their company, even though we are still loved in this situation, it is easy to feel loneliness or other negative emotions. It is also easy to compensate for this by substituting food for the love and companionship we are accustomed to.
As Ayurveda takes into account the whole bodily system, the stimulation from these emotional factors and stress activates the stomach processes which is then translated as hunger by the body, hence increased food intake.
If emotions are at play in this overeating habit, expressing them is essential. If you cannot or do not want to express these to anyone else, remember expression can take place more than verbally. Writing, drawing, colouring, music making or dance (even using the last two terms loosely!) can help release the blocked energy trapping the emotional hunger inside.
Taking this time to reflect and look into ourselves can be beneficial at this time and turn the experience into a positive. Let’s face it, if we cannot come out of this lockdown period and isolation stronger and somehow “better” than we were before it, what have we, as individuals, learnt from it?
Everyone is busy, busy, busy. No time for anything. If making time to slow down or taking time to look after ourselves is suggested, it can provoke indignation and defensiveness! Why? No-one can perform to their maximum capacity when they are tired, malnourished, run down, stressed etc.
That is why the human body is designed for sleep. Not only does the body rest but this is when the brain processes our experiences and stores them as memories. Without proper rest, we cannot have proper sleep. Without proper sleep, our bodily systems, including our mental processes, explain - or translate things - in a distorted manner, or at least less clearly. And, of course, we also just feel tired1.
Taking this time now to recuperate and “upgrade” ourselves through some inward reflection, and importantly, taking some time, no matter how little every day, simply to sit quietly and breathe will help overcome negative emotions and with them, emotional hunger. You cannot stop your thoughts but you can let them pass and simply focus on your breath - the inward and outward movement of your breath into the top of your nose. Don’t make it a strictly “physical” into the lungs or belly exercise, even though it may take a few deeper steadying breaths initially to reach a calmer, steadier breathing pattern.
Taking 12 deep breaths followed by a cup of warm water can help abate the emotional hunger too and the subsequent overeating.
Some yoga positions can also help control these cravings. The “Cobra” is one such position and involves lying on your stomach on the floor. Raise your top half with your arms as if adopting a press-up position but keep your hips and legs on the floor so your top half is bent upward as if mimicking a raised cobra. Try to breathe steadily and feel the various muscle groups relax as you do this.
I hope these tips are helpful. For specific ailments and conditions as well as general dietary guidelines suited to your own personal constitution, see the Therapy page.
1 “What happens to your memories when you sleep?”, Catherine de Lange, New Scientist, 27 October 2018
Julie Anne is a mental health speaker offering CPD accredited workshops. Her interest in natural home remedies and healthy living and a holistic approach to physical, mental and emotional wellbeing led her to study Ayurveda and gain the Diploma in Ayurveda with distinction in January 2020. She is now a registered nutritional therapist.