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Health & Wellness

Want to Eat Healthier? Give Gratitude a Try

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Practicing gratitude, the simple act of taking a few moments out of your day to acknowledge and appreciate the good things in your life, may pack a powerful payoff for both emotional well-being and physical health.

As psychologist Robert Emmons, PhD, a leading gratitude researcher, told GetOld, “Gratitude is the ultimate performance-enhancing substance. It drives positive outcomes in every domain of life that has been examined.”

The benefits of gratitude are remarkably wide-ranging, Emmons wrote in the Greater Good Magazine, which is published by the Greater Good Science Center at University of California, Berkeley. His experience suggests that people who practice gratitude consistently may enjoy stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure. They seem to be less bothered by aches and pains. They tend to exercise more, sleep better, report more optimism and happiness, and also report feeling less lonely and isolated.

Now, new studies, conducted by researchers at the University of California, Riverside, point to a surprising potential new benefit of practicing gratitude: it may improve eating habits. In one study, high school students who spent a few moments writing a weekly letter of gratitude reported healthier eating choices over time than did their peers who listed their daily activities each week.

Katie Chapmon, a registered dietitian in Los Angeles, has seen the same link between a gratitude practice and healthy eating in her own clients, who range across all ages.

There are many ways, Chapmon says, that gratitude can lead to healthier eating. For starters, “gratitude may help reduce stress and negative emotions, like depression, anxiety, and guilt.” That means we’re less likely to try to relieve those feelings through emotional eating, which often leads to overeating, especially foods loaded with calories, sugar, and salt.

What’s more, Chapmon says, “Gratitude allows us to connect with our inner selves on a deeper level. With that connection, we’re often better able to tap into hunger and satiety cues. That leads us to eat more slowly and mindfully, taking time to savor each bite. With that awareness, we’re less likely to eat when not hungry, just because there’s food around, or to continue eating past the point of fullness.”

We may also start noticing how we feel after a meal, Chapmon says, and that can lead us to make smarter choices when we’re shopping for food or ordering in a restaurant. Over time, we’ll tap into the feeling of being nourished and well fed after a well-balanced meal of whole foods and how different that is from how we feel after too many greasy fries and fast-food burgers.

Starting a gratitude practice is easy. Chapmon suggests that novices begin by noting three things you’re grateful for at the beginning or end of each day. These can be small things, like being thankful that you can take a big inhale of air and stretch out your arms and legs after waking up, or appreciating a warm conversation you had with a neighbor or a grandchild.

You might also want to take a moment for gratitude before a meal. “I’d suggest acknowledging how you’re feeling,” Chapmon says, “looking at what’s on your plate and expressing appreciation for how it’s going to nourish you.”

For some people, saying grace is a way of practicing gratitude. Others enjoy the ritual of keeping a gratitude journal. “How you choose to practice gratitude is extremely personal,” Chapmon says. “It may feel awkward at first, but I encourage people to try to maintain a gratitude practice for at least a couple of months. Bringing that sense of thankfulness into our everyday life and recognizing the special moments in each day may well lead you to be more thoughtful in how you feed yourself on every level, from the food you eat to the kindness with which you treat yourself and others.”

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