Develop Personal Nutritional Awareness

Food and nutrition are enormously popular subjects today. Food companies are climbing on the bandwagon, offering products that are vitamin enriched, low in salt, high in fiber, or caffeine or cholesterol free. People are preoccupied with cutting down on fat and cholesterol. They are also inclined, because of their high-speed lifestyles, to eat more fast foods, which are notoriously high in both fat and cholesterol. The numerous popular diets and the growing body of nutritional information confuse many people. Since even the experts often disagree among themselves, it’s no wonder that nutrition has become almost as controversial as religion or politics.

In the 1960s, the pioneering work of Roger J. Williams, Ph.D, introduced the concept of biochemical individuality, which said that each person has unique biochemical needs that can only be met by a personalized balance of nutrients. His work ushered in the era of individual nutritional analyses, metabolic profiles, personalized health plans, and specially designed diets (such as eating for your blood type or your ayurvedic type). While such workups may be valuable, unless they rest on a foundation of self-understanding, they become one more way of relinquishing your wellbeing to the control of others. You need to develop an awareness of your own nutritional needs and to understand your own relationship to foods. You can become a partner with the experts, using the information they supply to supplement what you know about yourself. Then you can decide what makes nutritional sense for you.

In Column 2: Inhabit Your Body and Love It (12/3/02) we spoke generally of tuning in to your body’s feedback system, of listening to and inhabiting your body. What follows builds on these concepts, applying this awareness specifically to food and eating habits. We suggest that you review Column 2 before proceeding.

Developing awareness of your body and its nutritional needs means that you observe—with honesty, sensitivity, and thoroughness—what types and quantities of food and what eating environments support your overall wellbeing, and which don’t. When you eat so quickly that you don’t have time to savor your food, when you use food to soothe emotional pain, or when you get in the habit of overeating, you soon lose awareness of what food is doing for you. As you sharpen your ability to understand what your body is telling you about its relationship to food, you reinforce the conscious lifestyle that you have chosen. This type of awareness is an effective way of breaking the dieting habit forever. Instead of waging war with your body, you form an alliance with it, feeding it what it really wants and needs in order to support you.

A Nutrition Journal

A nutrition journal can be used as a:

  • personal record of your body’s responses to the foods you eat
  • balance sheet to observe the kinds of raw materials and fuels with which you supply your body
  • place to keep special recipes
  • diet notebook for weight gain and/or loss
  • record of your feelings and resolutions

Taking Stock
These exercises that follow will help you sharpen your self-awareness, and may point out some areas that need more attention to support your overall health.

1. Find out what you are eating, when, and how the food makes you feel by keeping a Nutritional Journal for a week or more. Record anything that you learn about your relationship to food and use this knowledge, when you’re ready, to design a simpler and healthier diet for yourself.

2. Pause for a moment and become aware of how hungry your body feels. Ask yourself, on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 = fainting from hunger and 10 = overstuffed, just how hungry you are now. Do this several times during the day to heighten your self-awareness and to get in the habit of eating only when your hunger score is 5 or less. Learn to distinguish between stomach hunger and mouth hunger. Mouth hunger is usually experienced in the jaws, tongue, teeth, and gums—which want to chew on or be stimulated by something—or in a salivary reaction prompted by the sight of food or food cues, such as a restaurant sign or images of eating on TV. Mouth hunger often indicates a need for attention, affection, pain relief, or security of some sort.

3. Observe bodily signs that indicate imbalances in your diet. Look at your tongue, for instance. If it is frequently discolored or coated, or if you consistently have bad breath or a sour taste in your mouth, you need a change of diet. The health of your gums and teeth are indicators both of good dental care and of a healthy diet. Teeth can become discolored from caffeine and nicotine, and eating foods with lots of sugar can cause cavities. Fingernails that split may mean that your body is not assimilating protein properly. Read your bowel movements for signs of a poor diet. If stools are hard to pass and dark, and sink rather than float, dietary change is indicated. Many processed foods, like white flour products, are slow to move through the intestines. Eating foods with a high fiber content, adding a moderate amount of oil (such as flax [always uncooked], olive, or canola) to your diet, and drinking lots of water will speed intestinal transit time, lowering your risk of colon or intestinal cancer and improving your health in general.

4. Consider headaches as loud and clear messages that something is amiss. Frequently they are indicative of stress, but they are also associated with a host of dietary problems, such as excessive alcohol consumption, reactions to caffeine, undereating or overeating in general, and blood sugar imbalances.

A Nutrition Journal
For example:
Subject under Consideration

Monday, 3/22, 9:00 a.m.

Breakfast Foods
2 eggs
bacon—2 strips
toast—2 pieces
butter and jam
coffee—2 cups

Immediate Effects/Later Effects
Left the table feeling stuffed. Too much food. Generally good day. Not hungry until 3:00 p.m.



5. Do you experience frequent indigestion? Listening to your body means carefully noting how you feel after eating certain foods. Indigestion is not normal. If you get up from the table or wake up in the morning feeling nauseated, bloated, heavy, or achy, it’s time for a change of menu or an adjustment to the quantity of food you consume.

6. Do you have difficulty sleeping? Try to recall what food or drink you consumed in the hours before
retiring. Many people find that heavy foods (like pizza), caffeine drinks, or chocolate and other sweets interfere with their ability to fall asleep quickly and stay asleep.

Then What?
Experiment with different foods and different ways of eating. Stay with each experiment long enough to really experience its effects. Add a new food to your diet or stop eating a particular food for a while. Try eating your heaviest meal in the middle of the day instead of evening, or abstain from food for three to four hours before going to bed. Within a few days (or up to a week or two), small dietary changes may result in
positive health benefits like greater energy, mental clarity, or better digestion. Be aware that even if the change is a positive one it may feel difficult or uncomfortable, like when we challenge an addiction (caffeine or sugar) or an old habit (overeating). If you aren’t sure whether a dietary change is working for you, consult with your doctor or health-care professional.

Educate yourself about nutrition. Read. Talk to your health professionals or those who exemplify healthiness for you, and go on to the next chapter.

Reprinted with permission, from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD, & Regina Sara Ryan. Copyright 2001. Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA.

The online version of Dr. Travis’ Wellness Inventory may be accessed at ( The Wellness Inventory may also be licensed by coaches, health and wellness professionals, and organizations.

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Written by John W Travis MD MPH

Explore Wellness in 2021