Eating well isn’t just about what you’re eating – it’s about how you’re eating. For so many of us, just the idea of a healthier diet conjures up emotions that are far from “self-caring:” stress, anxiety, guilt, resistance. Nutritionist Shira Lenchewski, MS, RD knows this well. The tips she’s sharing with us below show just what a mindful counselor she is to her clients, who range from entertainment figures to new moms – all looking for ways to truly live well in their lives. Shira knows what it means to motivate her nutrition clients with simple ideas of self-care that can make nutrition feel like an act of self-indulgence and not self-deprivation. Here’s how to bring self-care back onto your plate…

You’re on a plane and the oxygen mask drops in front of you. What do you do? The cardinal rule is to adjust your own mask before you assist your best friend sitting next to you. It makes sense. If you can’t breathe, how can you possibly help anyone else? The same is true, in my opinion, for self-care. Meaning only when we nurture ourselves can we really capably deal with life and care for others.

There are tons of definitions for self-care. I read many of them when I decided to write this article, and ended up with my own interpretation.

Self-care is prioritizing and engaging in things that help us function well in our lives; things that make us feel balanced and allow us meet the inevitable stressors of daily life with energy and (ideally) perspective.

I wanted to write about self-care because I spend a great deal of time talking about it in my practice. I’ve found over the years that most of my clients who want to lose weight already know what to do, they just aren’t doing it. It’s not because they’re lazy or needy. It’s because life gets in the way and they wind up taking care of everyone and everything at the expense of their self-care.

That’s unfortunately where the term self-care can get a bad reputation, being deemed selfish and overly indulgent. Yet it’s anything but. Unapologetically taking time to invest in yourself is one of the most altruistic things you can do. Everyone and everything in your life benefits when you prioritize self-care, especially the people closest to you. And yet it’s often one of the first things to go when life gets stressful.

Self-care is not just the occasional pedicure or afterwork cocktail. It’s about identifying your own needs and building a repertoire of habits that make you feel grounded and like your best self.

Below are some examples of self-care routines I practice and preach to my clients and loved ones.

Reward yourself without food:

We are taught at a young age that food is a reward for good behavior, or a way to sooth emotional or physical pain (a shot at the doctor’s office; a breakup). The problem with this is that many adults lean on food when life gets stressful. Ultimately, they wind up gaining weight and feeling more stressed. A great way to break the cycle is to adopt non-food rewards as a way to treat yourself. Bodywork is a great option here. My personal favorites are acupuncture, cupping, infrared saunas and Epsom salt baths. But this could also mean a long, leisurely hike with a friend. I’m a firm believer that the best balance is achieved through both solo and non-solo activities.

Plating food thoughtfully:

Many of us go out of our way on presentation when serving food to guests, but wind up eating from paper Whole Foods containers when it’s just us. But when food is plated beautifully and thoughtfully (yes, on a real plate), it makes the meal or snack more appetizing and enjoyable. And, research suggests it may actually prevent overeating. Studies show that overeating is largely a subconscious choice we make, and since plating food allows us to visualize how much we’re actually eating, it helps us be more mindful. So, do yourself a favor and put your food on a plate, even if you’re eating solo.

Sleep hygiene:

Simply put, sleep is when our body repairs itself. Without enough sleep, our cortisol levels soar, wreaking havoc on just about every bodily process, and encouraging weight gain. I’ll be completely honest: I was a horrible sleeper for many years. It was a combination of anxiety and terrible sleep hygiene, which sounds like nonsense, but I assure you it’s not. In my opinion, the most important step to take is limiting screens in the bedroom. TV, computer, and cellphone screens disrupt our natural circadian rhythm. Bright screens activate neurons in the brain, telling the body it’s time to get up and start the day. So, if you wake up in the middle of the night and check Instagram on the way back from the bathroom, even if you get back to sleep, it won’t be the restful, restorative REM sleep you need. In fact, if you have trouble sleeping, the bed should only really be used for sleep, sex, and reading or meditating.

Be kind to yourself:

An important and often overlooked aspect of self-care is treating yourself as kindly as you treat others. This includes learning to forgive yourself for taking the occasional step back, so that you can take another step forward. If you’re making consistent progress with your wellness goals and then have an off-day, the best possible thing you can do is forgive yourself and move on. Which is likely the advice you’d give to your best friend, along with that oxygen mask.

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