Thrive Nutrition Practice Interviews Mindfulness Expert Alexa Massingham from Mind-Body Matters on How to Manage Emotional Eating Habits & Get Your Kids to Try New Foods
I’m really excited about this post because I’m interviewing one of my favourite partners in the Hong Kong health & wellness space - Alexa Massingham, mindfulness expert, yoga instructor and boss lady of Mind-Body Matters here in Hong Kong.
Alexa and I teamed up earlier this year to do a workshop on the mind-body connection, where we talked about how to use mindfulness to improve digestion; and how to use nutrition to feel more grounded and emotionally stronger.
The reason I’m interviewing Alexa is because the results of my latest poll revealed that one of the biggest challenges you face with respect to eating healthily is emotional eating habits. I’ve gone into detail about the science behind why it’s physically so hard to eliminate cravings for sugary foods when under emotional stress (quick recap: yeast, nutrient deficiency and blood sugar issues).
But holistic nutrition is all about harnessing the power of the body AND the mind so that together, they can work with you and for your benefit. And to that end, mindfulness can be a really powerful tool in our battle against emotional eating. So, I’ve called in the expert - Alexa - to explain to us how exactly we can do that.
Cristina: Alexa, thanks so much for sharing your expertise with us today. Before we get into how we can use mindfulness to help us with emotional eating, can you tell us a little about how and why you got into mindfulness?
Alexa: Thank you for the interview Cristina! It is exciting to collaborate on these issues, as nutrition and a healthy mind go hand in hand! I started to explore with meditation and mindfulness a few years ago. I suppose, like most people who explore with these practices, I was looking for a bit of guidance with life. Despite living a very fortunate life, I still found myself constantly striving for ‘what was next’ and realised that due to this I was not appreciating my life as it was happening. Mindfulness gave me the time and space to be more present in my life, and through that, I gained a new level of understanding of myself and savoured life more fully. We are often so busy that we don’t truly listen to ourselves and miss exciting opportunities to learn and live to the fullest!
Cristina: Do you know, I feel like that about my journey to nutrition. I don’t think I would have found this path if I hadn’t left my banking career to be at home with the kids. And as hard as that transition was, I feel like it gave me the space to tap into other passions and interests, which in the end lead to Thrive. Perhaps that was an experience in mindfulness I wasn’t even aware about?
Alexa: Absolutely! By really allowing yourself to stop and take time to listen to yourself, you can gain new perspective and be more open to what life has to offer. It takes courage to step away from your normal routine but once you do opportunities and callings very often come your way.
Cristina: So back to mindfulness and how we can use it to help us with emotional eating. I think a lot of people - certainly me in any event - can relate to this problem of eating to satisfy an emotional need or urgency - instead of a hunger vacuum. But can you describe what emotional eating looks and feels like (as opposed to eating because you’re hungry).
Alexa: At the end of the day, eating is a purely physiological need and I believe our eating habits have been a bit affected by the consumer world we live in. Like many things in life we can’t get enough, whether it’s food, shoes or technological gadgets - and we often turn to these things to make us happy or to fill some sort of need. We are very easily led by our senses and often make unconscious decisions guided by our senses rather than our conscious logic e.g. when you notice your hand is suddenly in the fridge or back in that bags of crisps. When we are consumed with a strong emotion, especially a difficult emotion, we can turn to eating to fill a void or an emptiness we feel inside. An emotional experience can also be physically draining so turning to more unhealthy carb and sugar based foods is probably a result of lacking in energy to give us the instant boost.
Cristina: Yes definitely. I’ve talked a lot about why emotional eating that is rooted in stress results in cravings for sugary and starchy foods. And in my last post, I actually gave people a recipe for Fat Bombs, which I suggest as an alternative for your usual go-to sugary snack. The Fat Bombs taste a little bit like a chocolate peanut butter cup. And so, what I’d like to know is how do we stop ourselves from eating the whole batch?
Alexa: Mindfulness is all about switching out of autopilot and being present with what you are doing or thinking - and this is not easy! Mindfulness could be applied to an issue like emotional eating by becoming very present with your habits and noticing when you are reaching for that extra ‘fat bomb’ and making a ‘conscious’ decision to not have another portion, easier said than done, but you CAN develop the mental strength to avoid the the temptation. Mindfulness practices allow you to really connect with your own emotional state. By bringing awareness to your emotional state you are more in control of regulating it, and therefore the behaviours associated with that emotion such as eating. There is a large body of research to suggest that mindfulness practices are some of the most effective to prevent relapses of depression and other mood related disorders (see Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy).
Cristina: Can you give us a little step-by-step guide on how to practice mindful eating?
Alexa: Mindful eating is great way to become really present with the process of eating. Many of us look forward to eating something but don’t actually savour the experience, as we are often busy in thought or talking away to whoever we are eating with on the process has started. A mindful eating practice embraces all the senses to fully savour the experience as follows:
- LOOK at your food in detail with curiousity - colour, shape etc?
- FEEL your food - not always possible haha - but if you can, what does it feel like?
- SMELL your food - does it have a different scents?
- TASTE your food slowly - initial flavour and then notice how the flavours change once you start consciously chewing your food.
- And finally, SWALLOW your food and see if you can bring awareness to that process of swallowing, and perhaps if the flavours change in your mouth after the food has gone!
I recommend trying this with a piece of chocolate and fully savouring the experience - though I know I shouldn’t be recommending chocolate on here! Mindful eating is not a practice to be done at every meal, but you can always bring an element of awareness to your eating.
Cristina: Can this practice of mindfulness be useful with children in helping them get over resistance to trying new foods?
Alexa: This is a very useful thing to do with children as they often start to develop food habits based on their own perception of food rather than based on the sensory value and taste of the food, e.g. they don’t like it because they have not seen it before or because it’s their least favourite colour. By re-engaging them with the process of eating and savouring food through all the senses, not just their own perception and judgement of the food, it will hopefully make them more open minded to trying new things and eating things they might have avoided previously.
Cristina: Maybe this is the answer to getting my daughter to try a blueberry!
Alexa: Haha, yes give it go! Perhaps do it as whole game with different foods and really savouring them through the senses - like a little experiment.
Cristina: Maybe you can help me with a problem of my own. I find eating slowly really challenging. It’s one of the things I struggle with the most. I mean, as a nutritionist, I understand your 5-step process and I get the whole reasoning why chewing and savouring our food is really important. Even from a digestion point of view - it’s so crucial - particularly as we get older because our digestive fire decreases, so the more we can help our stomach by breaking down the food in our mouth, the better! But still, I find it hard because there’s always so much to get done and stopping for food is sometimes an inconvenience. Any tips for a basket case like me?
Alexa: I think we are all victims of that! I learnt the hard way as I struggled a lot with indigestion before, and had to change my habits as I was putting myself through so much suffering by eating fast and not allowing myself time to digest. However, I rarely struggle now and a large part of that is due to lower stress levels and through the practice of mindfulness and yoga. I always make sure I give myself time after large meals, if I can, to lie or sit down for awhile and do some deeper breathing - even if it’s just for a few moments. I also TRY to mindfully pace my eating and one good way of doing that is by drinking water with your meal - I do ‘a bite and a sip’ method to slow me down!
Cristina: Oh, that’s a good tip! I’ll try that. And as I’m hearing you speak, I’m getting this feeling that mindful eating can tap into our spirituality a bit. In a society where doing things like praying before meals is disappearing, mindfulness could be the modern way to make that link that the food on our plate can actually nourish our soul & our emotional well-being too. I like that. I think that connection could help us make healthier choices more regularly and in other situations too. Maybe our next workshop should be about the Mind-Soul-Body connection!
Alexa: I absolutely agree. Again, linking back to my consumer comment earlier, I feel as a society much is taken for granted and food is a big part of that. “Where has your food travelled from? How did it get from its source to your plate?” This is a useful practice of gratitude but also from a nutritional point of view - “What process has my food been through to get here?”. You are truly what you eat and you need to consider what you are putting in your body! I have recently turned to a vegetarian diet, for environmental reasons, but also an awareness of the sad state of affairs in the animal rearing across the world and what we are potentially ingesting with some mass produced meats.
If we really start to think more mindfully about what we are eating, and make conscious decisions about what we are putting in our bodies, we will be a much healthier society - and fortunately many people are heading that way with their diets!
Cristina: I hope so. Thanks so much Alexa. That was super useful.
Alexa: You are so welcome, I really enjoyed answering your nutrition questions through the lense of mindfulness, as there is so much crossover between the two practices. At the end of the day, living a healthy life comes down to a desire and awareness of how you are living your life and making conscious choices to make it as wholesome, fulfilling and meaningful as you can.
Alexa Massingham can be reached at Mind Body Matters. She has an upcoming workshop on how to use mindfulness practices to support parenting. So for those of you who want to stop yelling at your kids only to then feel guilty and stuff your face with twinkies -- this will be one not to miss. Join her facebook group “Mind Body Matters” to receive her updates or email her for more info.
Cristina Tahoces is a holistic nutritionist and owner of Thrive Nutrition Practice. Please join her Facebook group “Thrive Nutrition Practice” for daily articles, recipes, promotions on professional grade supplements and upcoming workshops.
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