How to Nourish your Brain

One of the most fascinating parts of nutrition and the body is the brain. 

If you've ever struggled with disordered eating - or just have gone too long without eating - you've felt the side effects in your body. You start to think about food, food cravings pop up, and you probably feel hunger in your body in some way. If this becomes consistent, the food thoughts become constant and obsessive. The food cravings may turn into binges or just eating a lot of food, especially easy to digest food like snack food or desserts.

In any type of disordered eating, the brain is going to be affected. It's also going to react in a protective manner because it wants to survive. 

How to Nourish your Brain

All these obsessive thoughts about food are a protective mechanism for the brain and body! When you're not getting enough nourishment, your blood sugar starts to drop. Since your brain's preferred fuel is glucose (delicious, nutritious carbs!), it starts to signal hunger through hunger hormones. You'll start to think about food or you'll be craving your next meal or snack, and you may feel sensations in your stomach. With increased hunger, you'll feel ravenous, tired, and perhaps lightheaded as your blood sugar really drops. 

If you have a meal or snack and refuel your body, you'll fill satisfied and satiety cues will be triggered. Food just won't be as appealing for the next few hours, and your brain will be able to think, focus, and concentrate on other parts of your life like work, relationships, or fun until your next meal or snack. 

It's pretty cool how your body can manage this so well on its own. 

The brain is such a small organ compared to the rest of your body, but it requires a tremendous amount of energy. It uses more energy than any other organ in the body and 20% of the energy you eat goes up to your brain! 

This means that disordered eating patterns directly impact the brain. If you are restricting your diet - or following a diet, which is restrictive by nature - your brain isn't the energy it needs. You may find yourself obsessing about food, not able to focus or concentrate, irritable, lightheaded, or anxious because of lack of nutrients. You'll likely feel more emotional or have mood swings.

Your metabolism is going to slow down as your food thoughts amp up because your brain wants you to seek out food to refuel. You might have intense food cravings for carbs and fats (think ice cream or chips) because it's energy-dense food. You could struggle with "emotional eating" or binges, which are often a sign that your body needs consistent nourishment.

Luckily, recovery from disordered eating or an eating disorder leads to a well-nourished brain. I've heard many clients feel the difference pretty immediately. As you give your body consistent fuel and tune back into your hunger cues, your thinking may clear and food thoughts decrease. You'll have sustainable energy again and won't have to rely on coffee to stay awake during the day. Your moods may stabilize, so you can do the mental and emotional work of healing your relationship with food and your body.

Eating regular meals and snacks and honoring your hunger is one of the best ways to build back trust with your body and brain. It helps your body's cues to normalize over time because your brain starts to trust that there is consistent fuel coming in and that it's not in a "famine" state. It will also allow you to live a life beyond diets. When your body is satisfied, you'll have so much more mental space to be creative, explore other hobbies, and live life outside of food. 

Now, I'm signing off for a night-time brain-fuel snack (chocolate, of course!). 

Thoughts on returning to running: Joy + Rest

A few months or so ago, I got this crazy urge to go on a run after work. It was a beautiful day, and I saw so many runners out in the sunshine. When I got home, I grabbed my shoes and my pup, and we headed out. 

It felt amazing and reminded me why I love running, even after 13ish years. Getting outside in nature and moving with joy is why I run and always why I return to it.

I used to run a lot in college and my early 20s. After my first marathon and some definite overtraining, I felt burnt out and needed a break. So, I took time off of all movement for a while, then had a period of really gentle movement (lots of walking + gentle, restorative yoga). That's what my body needed at that time.

In the last 5 years, I've continued to run but not consistently. I'd head out for a run pretty intuitively - when I felt like running and for however long my body wanted to. It's been joyful and a form of self-care rather than exercise.

In the past, I was obsessed with the numbers around running like pace and mileage and kept pushing myself to run faster and further. Now, my runs are generally slower, shorter, and have lots of breaks to let my dog sniff pretty much everything or search for squirrels. If I feel like taking a break to walk, I let myself. If I feel like running for a long time, I go for it.

Lately, I have been running more consistently because it feels really good. There are also so many amazing trails around me that I've been exploring through runs/hikes. Surrounding myself with giant redwoods, muddy trails, and grassy stretches during a run nourishes my heart just as much as my body. When my life feels stressful or overwhelming, nature is always my go-to.

Through this process, I've noticed how incredible the body is when I listen to it. When I truly tune into my body, I let my breath and body lead the way. Instead of comparing myself to how fast or far others can run, I allow myself to run by feel. Some days, it feels really good to run slow while other days, I feel inspired to speed it up. 

Running for me is all about joy. While out for a run, my dog always looks back at me with a happy face and her ears and tongue flapping around. She exudes joy. When I let her off-leash, she will happily take off sprinting laps around, then comes back so happy. 

Sure, there are runs that feel harder, and I don't return with a runner's high every time. Yet, each run is a chance to tune into my body, as well as my mind. It's like a moving meditation for me that allows me to be present of each breath, each step, and find space in my mind to just be. 

Running is part of joyful intuitive movement for me right now. At times, I do catch myself brainstorming how many miles I could run or races I could train for, but I just come back to why I run now. I know I'll naturally go through cycles of my favorite ways to move my body - running, yoga, snowboarding - or cycles of more rest and gentle movement throughout the year and my life. 

If you're struggling with movement, explore intuitive movement.

If you feel burnt out or like you're forcing yourself to exercise, take a break. It's okay to rest - or do more gentle movement like walking or gentle/restorative yoga - for a week or months or however long you need. Rest is so important for your body and mind!*

When you feel ready, explore a variety of different movement types and notice what brings you joy, body connection, and feels nourishing to your mind, body, and heart.

Notice how movement makes you feel on all levels and challenge your rules around it. There's no need to have rules around what "counts" or not - your movement does not have to be for "x" amount of minutes, a certain intensity level, or everyday. It will always vary based on your life, stress, and schedule too.

Some weeks, my work and life is pretty busy, and I may only get in 10-15 minutes of yoga a day or not much movement at all. Other weeks, I can get in a few runs and classes. It's all okay. If I'm stressed or not sleeping well, I'm going to prioritize sleep and restorative movement.

Moving your body can feel amazing and support your health, but always remember it's only one part of your life (rather than your whole life). Find the joy in it, then allow yourself to fill the rest of your day with joy, connection, and much much more. 

*If you are recovering from an eating disorder (or other medical concerns), use your treatment team (therapist, dietitian, physician) to provide recommendations around activity.

Ditch the Food Labels: Be Curious & Neutral

I was in the grocery store recently when a mom told her young child to put back a box of granola bars he wanted to get because "they have way too much toxic sugar in them." 

I've heard plenty of times people say no to dessert at restaurants because they don't want to be "bad" or eat the dessert but then feel guilty.

Food labels - labeling food as good, bad, "clean," healthy or unhealthy, or even labeling your dinner as gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, whatever-free on Instagram - are so common these days. It's so normal to talk about food in this way that we don't stop to question why we do it. Even food companies label or market food this way - I've seen brownies in the store labeled as "guilt-free brownies." 

The problem with food labels is it adds morality to food. Instead of simply enjoying a cookie, we label it as "bad" or "unhealthy." This leads to guilt and feeling ashamed or bad about ourselves for eating it. 

We shouldn't have to feel guilt or shame around eating. Food is only food, and it shouldn't have the power to determine how we feel about ourselves. Food labels often lead to feeling powerless or out of control around food, and how we feel about ourselves depends on how or what we eat (or don't eat).

Instead, start to get curious about these food labels and beliefs. 

When you notice these thoughts pop up, ask yourself "Why do I think this food is good or bad?" Explore your beliefs about that food to see if it is true or not. 

Often, these beliefs are taken from what you have heard or read about food and nutrition. Unfortunately, media and the messages we hear are negative, fear-mongering, and shaming. If you watch the news about nutrition, you may notice that what is deemed healthy or not is changing on a monthly basis. There is a lot of focus on extremes, such as cutting out all sugar or eating a 100% plant-based diet, rather than taking a balanced approach to eating. 

Many of the messages we hear are inaccurate or taken out of context. A lot of the nutrition studies you may hear about may be done on rats (not humans) or are small studies that can't be applied to the general population.

Find space to explore new beliefs, such as:

  • Food is not good or bad.
  • All food has a purpose. Food can provide energy, nutrients (vitamins and minerals), pleasure and enjoyment, social bonding and connection, and more. For example, enjoying a piece of cake for your birthday can be a pleasurable experience, chance to connect with family, as well as provide your body and brain energy (calories and carbohydrates).
  • All foods can fit.
  • You can trust yourself around food.
  • Your body is wise and can tell you when it's hungry, full, and what it needs.
  • No one food has the power to change your health. Eating a salad will not make you automatically healthy. Eating a cookie will not make you unhealthy.

Get curious about your current food beliefs, and explore trying out new ways to think about food.

A good way to start is with food neutrality. Instead of labeling food, just notice what it is and observe. If you're eating a salad, notice the crunch or flavor of the veggies. If you're eating a cookie, observe the sweetness or how the chocolate melts. 

Let go of whether or not society feels the food is good or bad, and notice what foods you like or not. This process can be a chance to explore the foods you taste-buds really enjoy (or not), the combinations of foods that are pleasurable, or the foods that are energizing to your body.

Instead of choking down kale because it's a "superfood," don't eat it or find a way to eat it that you enjoy. If you enjoy cookies, bake your favorite recipe as it is rather than trying to "healthify" it by cutting back on the sugar or butter.

Curiosity opens up possibilities in your relationship with food. It helps you tune into your body's wisdom rather than judging how you eat based on messages from our diet culture.

Make it a practice to explore with time.