We are featuring Brenna O’Malley, Founder of The Wellful LLC, for this Self-Care Sunday. The Wellful is a mindful health brand dedicated to inspiring women to develop healthy relationships with their food, body and mind. Read below forBrenna’s insights on nutrition and healthy living, and for how you can learn to eat intuitively. 

What are some micro-steps we can take to adopt a healthier mindset towards nutrition and diet?

Remember that there is no such thing as ‘perfect eating’! No one food, meal or day really has that big of an effect in the big picture. That’s not to say that what we eat doesn’t matter, but to help take some of the pressure off of feeling like you always need to eat the ‘right’ things. Food is nourishing and is meant to be enjoyed, too!

Be critical of food marketing! How we make decisions around what foods to buy and to eat is greatly impacted by the messaging around food – labels like ‘guilt-free’ ‘clean’ ‘low-calorie’ ‘healthy.’ All of these claims tell you more about the food’s marketing plan than they do about the actual nutritional value of the food. ‘Guilt’ is not an ingredient – so all foods are 100% guilt-free and you never need to feel badly for eating or not eating a certain food. Let’s take morality out of the food equation. When we buy or choose foods based on this packaging, it disconnects us from our own ability to make choices around foods. Instead, think about these questions when deciding what to eat: What am I in the mood for? What is available to me right now? How am I feeling and what do I want to feel after this meal? What does the rest of my day look like (ie. will I be eating again soon or heading into meetings and not able to eat until dinner?) How has this food/combination of foods made me feel in the past? All of these questions help take the pressure off of feeling like you ‘should’ eat one thing or another and help you make your decisions based on how you’re feeling and your own knowledge of what foods feel good and fuel you.

Opt out of body and diet talk! It’s really easy to say mean things to ourselves that we’d never say out loud or to someone else. When you notice yourself starting to bash your body or yourself for eating a certain way (or in general) notice and then ask “would I say this to a friend?” What would you say to a friend who was struggling or feeling this way? Try to offer yourself some of that same compassion.

When you’re in a conversation where you feel uncomfortable or there’s a chain reaction of people starting to make negative comments about their own bodies – opt out! You do not need to contribute and you can even walk away from the conversation all together. When we make comments about bodies – even when it feels like we’re just saying it about ourselves – you’re actually speaking about all bodies and it sends the message that others should feel negatively about their body when you bash the same features on your own. This is why being kind to yourself and asking yourself ‘would I want my younger sister to say this or feel this way about her body?”. We can all work on being more kind – especially to ourselves.

Switch up who you follow on social media! If you follow a lot of diet, fitness, health and nutrition accounts or influencers, notice how you feel when you scroll by their posts. If you feel like you’re seeing a lot of the same type of body or notice yourself comparing what you eat or look like to them, unfollow! Who you follow on social media has a big impact on what you think about food, nutrition and health so make sure that the information you’re getting is backed by credentialed and evidence-based providers (like registered dietitians). Add in some people in different bodies sizes, abilities and whose messages feel positive to you. You’d be surprised the difference it makes to your mindset and how you view yourself.

“I feel most powerful and confident when I am doing things aligned with my values and because they’re important to me or are steps towards my goals vs when I’m trying to impress someone else or compete with others.”

What are the biggest misconceptions related to following a healthy and balanced diet?

Myth #1: That eating should be black & white, meaning you either eat ‘really well’ or ‘really poorly’. I’m all about that grey area! When we loosen the restrictions and rules around eating, we not only have more variety in our diets (which means more vitamins, minerals, fiber and flavor!) but it also means more enjoyment and less stress around food choices. Win-win-win.

Myth #2:  is that to be ‘healthy’ we need to be restricting or following a flashy and exciting diet, like we see with different diet marketing or news headlines about the newest fad. Eating is individual so what works and feels good for one person, might not for another, or might not be sustainable. 

Myth #3: is that if you feel out of control around a certain food or food in general that it means you need more willpower or to not let yourself have that food. Restriction actually makes us feel more out of control both physically if we’re not getting enough food or mentally if we’re telling ourselves we can’t have a certain food – even the idea of an upcoming restriction like ‘diet starts tomorrow’ can make us more likely to binge on a food. The answer to this is kind of counter-intuitive but by letting go of those restrictions and eating enough throughout the day and having access to all foods helps reduce that out-of-control feeling.

How can a beginner learn to ‘eat intuitively’? 

Intuitive Eating is all about tuning in and making decisions based on your own body, preferences and how you’re feeling instead of following external rules like a meal plan or calorie counting. Instead of those external rules, you’ll start to listen to what your body actually needs and wants right now.  This makes eating individual, flexible and sustainable.

Ask yourself: What has dieting done for you in the past? (mentally, physically, emotionally, socially) Has it lived up to your expectations? Were there any side effects? It’s okay if there are pieces of dieting that you really liked or miss. Some common examples of this are the community aspect that many diet programs offer and the structure or feeling of control. Finding a community around anti or non-dieting can be so helpful, changing up your social media and asking your non-diet dietitian or therapist for resources can be a great place to start. Let’s bust the myth that not dieting means chaos and eating whatever you want whenever you want! There can be and definitely is structure around intuitive eating and a non-diet approach, planning meals isn’t inherently disordered, it can be a great way to create structure and plan for the week ahead.

Stop labeling foods as ‘good’ ‘bad’ or ‘guilty’. A huge first step is neutralizing foods and allowing all of them to be available. In the beginning, this might mean eating more of certain foods than usual, especially if they’re foods you’ve restricted in the past. This is normal! As you continue to allow yourself access to those foods, the more intense cravings will reduce and you’ll be better able to make food choices without the guilt or ‘bad’ labels.

Remember that it’s a process! Think about how long you’ve dieted or restricted certain foods or tried to lose weight. For many, it’s years, so it makes sense and is completely normal for this process to not all come at once. It’s helpful to celebrate the small wins throughout your journey, like being able to go to a restaurant and order something off the menu that you really want, or saying ‘yes’ to spontaneous plans with friends, or keeping something like ice cream in your house, or buying a pair of jeans even if they’re a different size than usual. Those pieces are all the work and they add up to really big shifts and freedom in the short and long term.

What is your go-to breakfast, lunch, and dinner?

Breakfast: I love eggs anyway! If I’m working from home I’ll do scrambled or over easy with whatever veggies are in the fridge – spinach, broccoli, mushrooms and some cheddar or feta cheese with salsa is my go-to. If I have gluten-free crackers I might add those, too! (I’m gluten-free and Celiac runs in my family so that’s my only dietary restriction) Coffee with almond milk is a must. If I’m home I’ll have hot coffee, but I’m very excited that I just started making my own cold brew! If I’m meeting someone for coffee, I love a cappuccino with whole milk, too.

Lunch/Dinner: Lunch varies, so I might make leftovers from dinner like chicken/protein with veggies thrown into a salad and a sweet potato. Or, I’ll roast up some chickpeas or tofu & veggies and mix with some quinoa, olives, for a grain bowl.

Dinner: Sometimes I’m a big fan of one pan or one dish meals that don’t feel like you only used one pan. I’ll roast up veggies and a protein, but use different seasonings or sauces to keep it interesting. Recently I’ve been on a soup kick and love trying a new recipe (that I’ll have to follow and adjust) I just made a butternut squash lasagna with Banza pasta – it was a hit!

What are some of your favorite wellness products (related to diet/nutrition)?

Two great books to check out if you want something to add to your reading list are The F*ck It Diet by Caroline Dooner and Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison. Both are awesome books that help you set the groundwork for working on your relationship with food and your body.

I try to keep all kinds of foods in the house just like I work on with my clients, so I love keeping Simple Mills and Bob’s Red Mill flours and pizza dough mixes (they’re both gluten free and 2 of my favorite brands!). A few other favorites, Fage and Siggi’s yogurt and Purely Elizabeth granola! For snacks, Biena chickpeas are a crunchy and fun way to add fiber, protein and flavor to a salad or on their own. Brami Beans have always been one of my favorite snacks, especially when I was in college because they’re a non-crunchy library or class snack and have a nice serving of protein and fiber. Perfectly Peckish and Vital Farms both have on the go hard boiled eggs, if you’re in a pinch or want a snack you can keep in the office, these are a great option for having something you know will be filling and satisfying.

Less related to diet/nutrition but I recently splurged on a matching sweatshirt and sweatpants from Outdoor Voices and they are the most comfortable and cozy pair! I’ve been convincing all my friends to get them.

What makes you feel powerful and confident?

I feel most powerful and confident when I am doing things aligned with my values and because they’re important to me or are steps towards my goals vs when I’m trying to impress someone else or compete with others. I’ve definitely learned that along the way and it’s been really been how I’ve been able to grow my business and myself over the past few years. Remember that there are enough seats at the table and even if someone is in the same field as you or creating a similar project, they won’t deliver it or create it exactly like you will, and that we each have something unique and of value to contribute.