Your attitude towards food, affects you more than you realize. 

By Raymond Onyango.

That the vast majority of us understand the connection between good heath and nutrition, is not in doubt! Almost every one of my clients invariably asks for nutritional advice. What should I eat? What should I not eat? How much food should I eat?

Usually what they expect from me is a definitive formula, a few ancient words of wisdom perhaps, “Eat this, in this quantity, cut that out, drink that, and you will certainly loose 5 kilograms by the end of next month!” But unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. There is no secret formula. No one – size – fits – all, healthy eating prescription that will guarantee weight loss or magical relief from disease.

What there is instead, is a virtual avalanche of information. Millions of diet formulas – The Hollywood diet, The Atkins Diet, The Raw Food Diet, The Juice Diet…Diets that have you eating only before 6 pm in the evening and others that have you color coordinating your food!

So how do you sort the wheat from the chafe? How do you know what works and what doesn’t. How do you separate scientific fact from old wives myths? Where do you begin?

You begin by changing your attitude towards food. The vast majority of us have a very ‘transactional’ attitude towards food. We see food as something external to ourselves, a means to an end. Food is something we eat simply to obtain nourishment. Some foods are ‘good’ and others are ‘bad. In our minds, healthy eating involves cutting out the ‘bad’ foods and eating more of the ‘good’ foods. Against this backdrop, we easily begin to perceive food as the enemy and though we may make huge efforts to control our eating habits, resist temptation and walk the narrow path  – inevitably we fail spectacularly; diets fall by the wayside, weight loss targets go unmet and despite our best efforts, our waist lines remain unchanged.

 Self-Denial Does Not Work!

It is said, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Despite our best intentions diets inevitably fail, because nothing can stand up to the inherently rebellious nature of the human spirit. Tell a person that they are forbidden from eating chocolate and those very words will set off a latent craving, which slowly grows and grows and until they can take it no more, and they are compelled to succumb and surrender to an all out chocolate binge – and then the craving is gone!

The lesson to be learned here is that craving is as much about your attitude towards food as it is about your taste buds. We always want what we can’t have. The moment we set out to correct our eating habits, by denying ourselves certain kinds of food, is the moment; we go to civil war against ourselves. Mind against body. Body against mind. Body craving, mind resisting in a tumultuous tug-of-war, where one side is bound to loose!

This kind of transactional attitude towards food, seldom works because it tries to deny the fact that food is much more than just nutrition. Our most basic human needs are food and shelter, and so we have a very strong relationship with food that is set in motion, from the very moment we reach for our mother’s breasts as infants, to the day we breath our last. Throughout our lives, food takes us places; invokes memories, provides comfort and affects our emotions in ways that run much deeper than we may immediately comprehend. For instance I love chapatti and dengu, a local Kenyan delicacy, because it invokes fond memories of sitting around the Jiko (charcoal stove) with my siblings waiting for my mum to feed us hot chapattis straight from the frying pan. Even now, decades after I moved out of my parents house and became a parent myself. I still love chapatti just as much as I did in my childhood.It does not matter that my professional training, has since taught me that there are a few thousand calories worth of cooking oil in every chapatti! This is still the once place where my head always defers to my heart, where reason always yields to emotion – it’s a battle I cant win and I am sure each one of us has similar experiences, where food and emotion are so intangibly intertwined!

Learn To Love Your Food!

So, if self-denial does not work, then what does? What works is to establish a relationship with your food. A ‘relationship’ is different from a ‘transaction’ in the same way that shopping in a big supermarket chain is different from shopping at your neighborhood grocers’. In the big supermarket, the experience is highly impersonal; the teller does not know you. He will never extend a line of credit or honor your personal cheque. By contrast your neighborhood grocer knows you by name and maybe your children too. You can call in advance and get your order packed and ready because they know exactly what you like; and on those occasions when you happen to forget your wallet at home – no problem! You can always pay at your next visit! That is a relationship!

When you have a relationship with your food, it stops being your enemy. It stops being something you try to control. It starts being something you enjoy and engage with, something that picks you up when you are down, energizes you in the morning, calms you down in the evening and powers you up for those long weekend runs. Healthy eating becomes less about ‘”cutting this out and cutting that out” and more about achieving a broad balance in your eating habits in real time, from one meal to the next.

There is really no such thing as ‘good foods’ and ‘bad foods’, what really matters are your eating habits themselves. I believe in eating anything I like under the sun – provided that I exercise moderation. If I have a glass wine at lunch, I wont have another one at dinner. If I eat out one night I will eat at home for the next several days. When I go to party and indulge one evening, I go out for a run the next morning. That is how I have successfully kept myself together for well over a decade since I got into the fitness business. I have never in my life sat down to contemplate how many calories are in the ice cream cone I am about to have for desert, because I have always maintained balance in my lifestyle habits– the balance between eating and moving.

Healthy eating Rules To Live Your Life By!

Rule number one. What goes in must come out! Food is energy. If you eat and you don’t move, your body stores that excess energy as fat. One of the first things you want to do in your quest to eat better; is to move more.  For me, regular exercise does two important things – it frees me from the guilt of eating the foods I love, such as chapatti, and it provides me with an outlet for the calories I take in from those chapattis – and that is what keeps my waistline in check.

Now, I am not saying that you should go out there and gorge yourself silly on junk, just because you exercise everyday. What I am saying is that because you exercise everyday, you can afford yourself a glass or wine here or a plate of fries there, provided that on the whole, you don’t over indulge. I call this the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of the time I will eat healthy, wholesome nutritional food, and twenty percent of the time I will indulge in the foods I eat for comfort and taste rather than nutrition. It’s a win – win situation for both my body and my mind!

The second rule is to go easy on processed food. Obesity was never been widespread health challenge for the human race, until the advent of Urbanization and Food processing. For instance, Fresh tomatoes are just that – tomatoes.

Processed Tomato Sauce (ketchup) on the other hand, contains the following ingredients – Tomato Paste, Cane Sugar, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Vinegar, Salt, Spices, Citric Acid, Sodium Benzoate and Potassium Sorbate as preservatives! The difference between the two is clear for all to see. It is a prime example of how most food processing generally strips away nutritional value, and adds calorie value, not to mention chemical preservatives designed to prolong shelf life.

The more processed food you consume the more likely you are to be obese, malnourished and slowly poisoned by the chemical preservatives. The evidence is to be found in the astounding rates of both obesity and cancer in developed nations such as the United States of America, versus those in less developed countries like Gambia or Burkina Faso.  Here in Kenya, medical professionals have already raised the alarm with regards to the growing prevalence of lifestyle related diseases such as diabetes, especially amongst Kenyans newly affluent and growing middle class. It is clear sign that over consumption of processed food makes us both fat and sick!

Perhaps I should leave you by pointing out that, when it comes to healthy eating, the simplest solution is often the most effective. No need for complex calorie calculations. No need for fancy color coordinated or carbohydrate free diets. Humanity has thrived for eons without any of that!   You must remember that you are in a slow race here, one that will last a lifetime. Don’t make war with your food; instead seek to modify your lifestyle habits. Walk more when you can. Eat more fresh wholesome food and less stuff out of cans and bottles. Schedule the time to work out as a priority and exercise moderation in your alcohol intake. Good words of advice indeed but for heaven sake, remember also to live a little! Life is simply too short to do any less!

Have a brilliant week will you!