For so many women struggling with issues related to food and their bodies, the natural foods store is a kind of mecca where they come to search for the answer. These customers come in hope that the whole foods industry's expertise can help them unravel all the conflicting dietary advice with which they've been bombarded by the popular media. Should they eat mainly protein, combine carbohydrates with cheese, stock up on oat bran, supplement their diet with omega-3 oil—or just chuck the whole complicated effort and go on a fruit-juice cleanse?
For women, who make up a substantial portion of a natural foods store's customer base, the problem of how to achieve optimal health is complex. On one hand, as nurturers of the household, they are looking for the best means to help their loved ones stay healthy. On the other hand, as dieters par excellence, many women are also desperately seeking the one answer that will render them perpetually young, slim and beautiful. But even as much as you might like to be able to offer your customers some kind of "magic bullet" that will satisfy their quest, the fact is that there is no single answer that can solve all health ills, let alone give women the "perfect" body.
Though many women have been led to believe that happiness and health can be theirs if only they can create an attractive and healthy-looking outer appearance, this is obviously an illusion. A woman's (or anyone's) true search for health must start on the inside by first recognizing that balance in diet and nutrition is a highly individual matter.
That means that each individual must find the best foods, and the right amount of them, to nurture her own unique system. This is a matter of learning how to listen to what your body needs not only to survive, but to thrive.
Get To Know Your Feedback
For women who are searching for balance, the closest thing that retailers can recommend that approximates a magic bullet is each woman's own feedback system. The feedback system is like a built-in tool that can help women detect and decipher the internal messages that their body is continuously sending to them. These messages can help women determine for themselves when they are in or out of balance.
A simple example of a feedback message is hunger that prompts one to eat, or thirst that reminds one to drink. But the feedback system also passes along many other more subtle and detailed messages that can alert women to what they must do to achieve well-being.
Each and every one of us get messages through this feedback system that dictate exactly the right kind of food, amount of rest, necessary exertion, etc., needed in order to achieve balance. Though most people may be unconscious of the feedback, it is nonetheless talking to them all the time. And even if they're not listening closely, on some level they are processing the feedback, and making choices, good or bad, based upon it.
The trick for women is to actively and accurately hear and respond to the feedback, so they can make conscious decisions that will positively impact their health and dietary balance.
Women who are interested in natural foods and natural health alternatives are often primed to act on feedback from their body. Many already know that to ward off a cold, they must take their favorite homeopathic or herbal remedy the instant they feel the first sign from their body that a cold is threatening.
But it's one thing for a woman to trust her body to tell her when a cold is on the way and quite another to take the major leap of trusting her own feedback system to tell her what and how much to eat.
The Whole Truth
Listening to pangs of hunger can terrify some women. So many have gotten into the habit of listening to "experts" tell them how to eat, rather than trust their natural instincts. The crux is learning that they can trust their bodies to give them the correct information.
Of course, many women may receive inaccurate or confused messages. This is because the natural feedback system can be thrown off balance when one eats foods that are highly processed, or those that contain artificial or chemical ingredients and additives.
According to Annemarie Colbin, author of Food and Healing (Ballantine Books, 1996), eating highly processed foods creates a kind of "vicious cycle" internally.
"Nature—our nature—abhors an imbalance," Colbin says. "If we consume small amounts of partial foods ... we can counterbalance them with small amounts of other partial foods. But the higher the amount of these foods in our daily diet, the wider the swing of the pendulum."
Colbin says that the more unbalanced substances a person has eaten that they have to compensate for, the stronger the feeling of "uncenteredness." So one of the most immediate recommendations to make for any woman seeking her way back to balance is to eat a diet consisting mostly of whole, unprocessed foods.
Learning To Listen
The first step in learning to listen to the body's feedback is simply to be aware that it exists. By consciously intending to listen to it, women will start noticing how active the feedback system actually is.
The next step is paying attention to how they feel after they respond to, or ignore, their feedback. For example, if they are aware of a strong message telling them to eat a slice of pizza, they can then become conscious of the difference in how they feel (both physically and emotionally) when they: A) eat just the right amount of pizza to feel satisfied but not overly full; B) deny themselves and eat no pizza at all; or C) eat the pizza, but eat way too much.
By simply paying attention to feedback about eating, without making judgments, women can learn how good it feels to respond appropriately to their feedback. That means hearing loud and clear when they've had enough so that they stop before they overeat—just because it feels good to stop, not because they're "supposed" to. Another gain is making the connection that they only perpetuate their hunger when they consistently refuse to eat what their bodies are truly hungry for.
With practice, women can tune in to even more subtle levels of feedback that can show them precisely what food/nutrition their body needs. For example, when it comes to that piece of pizza, while their feedback may actually be calling for some protein and fat to balance out a week of eating nothing but salads, their habitual response has been wanting "pizza." When women really learn how to listen to their body's various hunger signals, they discover that they can often feed this same need (in this case, for protein and fat) with other foods that in fact will feel more nurturing and satisfying to their system than their habitual choices.
For so many women who have felt unable to trust themselves in the past, to believe that they have the wisdom to solve their own food and body issues, the results of learning to listen to and trust their feedback, can truly bring them to a place of balanced optimal health. And for retailers, understanding and responding appropriately to the challenges faced by so many of their consumers will only help build the kind of long-lasting customer relationships that sustain a business.
Mary Taylor and Lynn Ginsburg are the co-authors of What Are You Hungry For? (St. Martin's Press, 2002) (www.whatareyouhungryfor.net).
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 2/p. 22, 27