Dr Libby Weaver: "Listen to Your Body"
Dr Libby advises tuning into your body's signals if you’re having health or diet issues
Where do you go to get your nutritional guidance from these days? Thanks to the internet we have an abundance of nutritional information at our finger-tips, and while this enables us to access information rapidly, it does have its drawbacks.
We might read an article that tells us eggs are bad for our cholesterol and then a week later read something that says eggs provide our body with vital nutrients. We may have multiple people telling us a particular way of eating is the best for our health — but hear the same thing about another way of eating from someone else.
It can be a minefield and can leave us feeling confused about what to trust. But is the greater problem that we tend to seek external advice instead of learning to trust ourselves?
I wouldn’t be doing what I do if I didn’t believe in my heart that having experts to turn to for advice wasn’t valuable. Education and knowledge are both part of any journey and change process.
Sometimes we need guidance because we simply don’t know what to do or have tried different things without results.
I meet many people, however, who are simply after a prescription — looking for a meal plan that will fix them once and for all. They are anxious to skip all the preamble and just get to the bit where they’re told what to eat.
BUT WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE GET THAT PRESCRIPTION?
Think about your own experiences with diet or fitness plans — how long has it taken you to go back to your old habits after following what you’ve been told by a doctor, naturopath or a trainer, or that you’ve read in a book?
For many people, there is an initial enthusiasm that tapers off before they end up continuing what they’ve always done.
Others may follow everything they’re told to do to the letter, adamant that not stepping a foot outside of, what can often be quite restrictive, guidelines will lead them to their health goals.
These people will tenaciously stick to what they’ve been told, sometimes suffering through uncomfortable symptoms because they’re following the advice of an expert. Some develop orthorexia when, what initially begins as the pursuit of health, becomes rigid as a result of a deep-seated fear.
Or, there are those who, when they do stray from their plan (because let’s be honest, pledging that you will never eat hot chips again for the rest of your life isn’t sustainable), instead of simply dipping a toe outside of their “healthy” plan, they dive right in.
Because if they’re not on the plan, they’re off it. In other words, they’ve developed an “all or nothing” mindset, one of the hallmarks of a dieting mentality.
SO HOW DO WE CHANGE THIS?
What I’ve observed in my 20 years of clinical practice is the following. We’re educated. We know what we need to be doing but for one reason or another, things aren’t adding up to feeling all that great.
We can receive as much education as we like, but until we take ownership of our own health we’re unlikely to get very far. We need to learn to trust ourselves again, to have faith that we know what’s best for ourselves.
When we continue to seek authority, jumping from one expert to another, without also looking inward for our own answers, we are doing ourselves a great disservice.
There is no one set way to approach health or life that works for all of us. Some of us may thrive on a vegan diet where others will feel regularly exhausted or hungry, no matter how much or how frequently they eat.
Grains can be incredibly nourishing for some and yet for others they can be the source of digestive complaints. Our body is communicating with us all the time. It’s up to us to listen and act accordingly.
SYMPTOMS OR MESSAGES?
We call our health challenges “symptoms” but another way of describing them could be “messages”. Unexplained weight gain might be a symptom of an unhappy liver or sex hormone imbalances — or stress. Bloating or reflux might be a symptom of poor digestion, a lack of good gut bacteria or a food intolerance. Each of these “symptoms” is just our body trying to communicate with us.
It can be incredibly frustrating when something is impacting on our health. It detracts from our energy, our joy and our capacity to cope with our daily tasks and responsibilities.
What if the parts of your body that sadden and frustrate you are simply messengers? Asking you to eat, drink, move, sleep, think, breathe, believe or perceive in a new way?
Instead of being frustrated by your challenges or tolerating them, bring curiosity and try to identify what your body might be trying to communicate to you. Here are some strategies to help you reconnect with your own wisdom.
1. Get honest with yourself
In our heart of hearts, we know if what we are doing is contributing to or detracting from our health. We might not know exactly what needs to change but without honesty, we’re unlikely to even be willing to get to the root of what we need to do differently.
2. Be willing to try a few things on for size
It can take time before we uncover what’s really going on. For example, it can take up to 48 hours after we’ve eaten the trigger food for symptoms of food intolerances to present themselves. So, it can be tricky to identify the culprit of our digestive upsets, and we may need to approach changes with a trial and error mentality until we find the solution that unravels our problem.
3. Drop the judgment and bring curiosity instead
When we judge our food choices, judge our bodies, we are essentially criticising ourselves. Often we talk more unkindly to ourselves than we ever would to anyone else. Take a moment to reflect on how you respond to harsh criticism. Most of us will feel it as an emotional blow. And what happens when we feel down? We tend to seek comfort.
This one thing can send us back into a spiral of continuing bad habits. So, rather than judging the messages you’re receiving from your body, rather than making a meaning out of them, ask yourself: what is my inner wisdom trying to communicate to me?
4. Keep a food diary
When we’re trying to determine if certain foods are not working for us, it can be helpful to keep a note of all the things we’re consuming. As already mentioned, it can take up to 48 hours for a reaction to present itself so a food diary can help us to identify patterns.
5. Slow down
If you’re rushing around all the time without taking a moment to pause, your mind is going to be racing at a million miles an hour and you’ll never hear the quiet voice of your guiding wisdom.
You also probably won’t become aware as quickly if you experience symptoms from foods and beverages you have consumed, particularly if you tend to multi-task while eating (think eating in front of the TV, while scrolling through social media on your phone, or working at your desk).
Help to slow your mind down with a breathing practice, meditation, yoga, tai chi, qi gong or simply by stopping to enjoying the sunset or taking some well-deserved time out.
6. Pay attention to how your body responds to what you’re consuming
If you feel jittery after that second coffee, tired after eating that sandwich for lunch, or experience IBS symptoms after consuming certain foods, pay attention.
To begin with, you might like to set a reminder in your phone to pause for a moment and reflect on how you feel after you eat a meal. It will get easier and come more naturally the more often you do it. Avoid things, for now, that you know affect your body in this way.
7. Be aware of any avoidance tendencies
Do you reach for a glass of wine to help you wind down after work? Or smash through a packet of chocolate biscuits when you only meant to have one? While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with either of these things in small amounts, we all have our ways of numbing out when we’re not feeling good.
We might know what we’re doing isn’t great for us, but we do it anyway. If we pause before rolling with a habit of avoidance, and stop to consider what might be going on for us when we feel the desire to reach for something, we can usually find a pearl of wisdom in that moment. We can then use that to make different, more nourishing choices for ourselves.
8. Disconnect from the “hype”
There’s always going to be new research and new nutritional information coming out. Some of it is real, some of it is marketing. It’s human nature to get excited about things that seem to be getting great results for people!
But trends and fads come and go. Try not to get swept up in the hype and come back to the basics. Your body truly is an incredible miracle. We don’t need to trick it into working optimally, we just need to support it by listening to its messages.
• Dr Libby Weaver’s new book, What Am I Supposed to Eat? (Little Green Frog Publishing, $40), is out now. She is bringing her live event to 17 centres around New Zealand from Sep 25-Oct 18, and will speak at Auckland’s Ellerslie Event Centre, 80 Ascot Ave, 7-9pm on Wednesday Sep 27. Tickets, $40, at Drlibby.com