I remember the day I brought my daughter home from the hospital. I was ecstatic to be a mom but also scared out of my mind about the enormous responsibility. She was a little bit of a finicky baby and a terrible sleeper, so caring for her needs was at times rather tricky.
As the months passed by, we got in a good groove. I started to learn what her various cries were communicating. A certain cry meant she was hungry, a different cry seemed to communicate she was tired and she had another cry that clearly meant she was hurt or in some kind of pain. I soon figured out the ideal schedule of naps, feedings, diaper changes and play time that worked best for her to be happy and healthy, but it sure was a process to get there!
This sweet little baby taught me an important lesson about caring for another person: It's all about being curious rather than judgmental. And she taught me that discouragement and self-deprecation don't lead to a greater ability to care for another person; feeling like a failure only makes you want to throw in the towel. You can learn a lot about what a baby needs by staying curious and not beating yourself up when it gets tough.
Learning how to best care for ourselves can feel very similar to learning how to care for a baby. Since babies can't communicate their needs with words, as parents we have to pay attention to be able to recognize their subtle cues. Since our bodies don't communicate their needs with words either, the skills we learn as parents or caregivers can be transferred to our own self-care.
Our bodies have basic needs to stay alive and function at their best. Sleep, food, water, oxygen, stress management and warmth are some of the body's most basic needs. We get cues to sleep when our bodies need rest, we feel thirsty when we're dehydrated and we feel hungry when our bodies need energy.
With food, we as a culture have gotten off track. We often think we need to look to the latest diet plan or guru to teach us how to care for our own bodies. The truth is, though, that you already possess the things you need to learn how to care for your body in regards to food. Your job is to learn to pay attention. Pay attention to hunger, fullness, satisfaction, enjoyment and how you feel physically after eating certain foods to start honing in on what foods and eating patterns are functioning well in your life.
Pay attention to your thoughts, too. Ask yourself what type of self-talk is working for you and what thoughts are working against you by paying attention to your thoughts and what types of eating behaviors those thoughts lead to.
Of course the key to successful self-care doesn't rely wholly on intuition and feelings. There's a time and a place for exploring nutrition principles to get a feel for general ideas of balance, variety and moderation — three very important tenets of nutrition. But we can take nutrition knowledge too far and wind up ignoring all the beautiful messages our body sends to us to help teach us how to treat it. Ideally, each individual would strike a balance between nutrition knowledge and their own intuition for optimal nutritional self-care.
Just like a baby teaches their parents how to care for them, our bodies teach us how to treat them as well. It's our job to pay attention to the cues our bodies send and then pay attention to how our actions affect our body's ability to function. Being curious about figuring out how to best take care of your body and persistently paying attention to cues combined with learning some gentle nutrition principles will help you tap into the ideal way to care for yourself with food.