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7 Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Strategies that Help You “Eat Better”

By Michelle May, M.D.

(This is the third article in a three part series about making dietary changes without feeding the Restrictive Eating Cycle. The first article, A Diet by Any Other Name is Still a Diet, explored the idea that when people make a voluntary change in their eating in the name of “health” without mindfulness, they may find themselves hyper-focused on food with less energy left to focus on living the healthy life they set out to achieve. The second article, Mindful Eating with Health Issues: What If I Can’t Eat What I Love?, is addresses the concerns people have about mindful eating when they have medical or health concerns. This article will apply specific strategies from the Am I Hungry? mindful eating programs that help you eat better.)

If you’ve tried a restrictive diet for any reason, you’ve probably experienced the resulting feelings of deprivation and cravings that lead to the rebound effect of overeating the foods you were trying to limit. However, “eat what you love” may sound like a scary idea at first!

In fact, scary or not, all Am I Hungry? mindful eating programs use a “non-diet” approach. But until you’ve tried it, you may be afraid that without rules, you “won’t eat healthy.” You might not. At first. But as you learn this new way of making decisions about eating, just the opposite is true!

I know that may seem hard to believe—and maybe too good to be true. But if one of your goals is to “eat better,” here are seven strategies you learn about in Am I Hungry? mindful eating programs that will help (along with reminders about where to find out how to do it in Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat).

Set your intention.

Mindful eating is eating with intention and attention. Assuming that your intention is to feel great, think of dietary changes as choices you make in order to feel your best both short and long term (rather than some externally applied diet). (Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat chapter 6)

Consider what your body needs.

When deciding what to eat, ask three questions: What do I want? What do I need? and What do I have? The question “What do I need?” is all about acknowledging your personal health needs, including medical issues, allergies and reactions, family history, and health goals. (Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat chapter 5)

Use nutrition information as a tool, not a weapon.

Nutrition knowledge is helpful for making decisions, but it is not the only criteria for deciding what to eat. (Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat chapter 10)
Balance eating for nourishment with eating for enjoyment.

There is room in your diet for foods eaten for pleasure! In fact, regularly including foods you love makes it less likely that you will overeat those foods because you ran out of willpower. While it may seem counter-intuitive, when you are free to eat whatever you want, food loses the power it had over you. As a result, your choices are likely to be more balanced instead of “all of nothing.” (Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat chapter 5)

Don’t miss the lesson.

One of the many benefits of mindful eating is that your awareness helps you make connections between what and how much you eat and how you feel—as well as how you feel and what or how much you eat! This direct feedback is very helpful for making changes in order to feel good – not to be good. (Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat chapter 7)

Recognize and address your non-hunger triggers for eating.

When a craving doesn’t come from hunger, eating will never satisfy it. By learning to meet your other needs in more effective ways, you won’t use food for that purpose nearly as often. (Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat chapter 4 and Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating)

Eating is for fueling living.

In our food-abundant, diet- and weight-obsessed culture, eating occupies too much of our time, attention, and energy. Your were born with the instinctive ability to eat enough food to fuel your life. Learning how to get back to that place where you can trust your ability to manage your eating without a bunch of rules gives you a pattern of eating that you can sustain almost effortlessly. (Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat chapter 8)

If you want to “eat better” for the long run, learn to eat what you love fearlessly and love what you eat mindfully!

Mindful Eating with Health Issues: What If I Can’t Eat What I Love?

By Michelle May, M.D.

(This is the second of three articles about making dietary changes without feeding the Restrictive Eating Cycle. The first article, A Diet by Any Other Name is Still a Diet, explored the idea that when people make a voluntary change in their eating in the name of “health” without mindfulness, they may find themselves hyper-focused on food with less energy left to focus on living the healthy life they set out to achieve. This article is about mindful eating with health issues, such as diabetes, without feeling restricted.)

Sometimes when people hear that my books are called, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat, they say (or think) “But what if I can’t eat what I love?” Sometimes they are afraid to eat what they love because of past problems with overeating certain foods; I’ve written extensively about fearless eating in my books and other articles, so this article will focus on the concerns people have about mindful eating when they have medical or health concerns. For example, I’ve heard many variations on “I can’t eat what I love!” such as:

- I have diabetes so I’m not allowed to have sugar.
- I’ve had bariatric surgery so I have to follow a special diet.
- My doctor told me that I shouldn’t eat salt because I have high blood pressure.
- I am sensitive to gluten so I can’t eat bread, pasta, or some of my other favorite foods.

The real problem in each of these statements is the perspective: “not allowed, have to, shouldn’t, can’t…” Words like these can leave you feeling powerless, or even rebellious, and those feelings can feed the eat-repent-repeat cycle. As a result, despite your best intentions, you continue to yo-yo diet, but with increased risks and potentially worsening consequences—like a blood sugar that vacillates between too low and too high.

Is Mindful Eating with Health Issues Possible?

The following questions will help you eat mindfully, without restriction, even when you have health reasons for dietary limitations.

1. Is it really true that you “can’t” eat a particular food?

Many people say “I can’t” when what they mean is “I believe I shouldn’t.” It is important to acknowledge the difference because obviously, if you have a serious allergy or severe reaction to a particular ingredient, then you really can’t eat a particular food or ingredient. If that’s the case, remind yourself that you are choosing not to eat it because you want to feel good (or live!). In that way, you are still making a conscious choice rather than feeling like a victim to your allergy or reaction.

If you don’t have an immediately life-threatening reaction to certain foods, then just drop the word “can’t” altogether because it puts you in a deprivation mindset rather than a self-care mindset.

2. Is it really true that you “shouldn’t” eat a particular food?

Sometimes people have picked up rules about eating that aren’t based in fact. As a result, they keep “shoulding” themselves over myths, fads, half-truths, outdated information, or misunderstanding the facts.

A common example of where this applies is type 2 diabetes. Many people with diabetes believe that they “shouldn’t” eat sugar or “can’t” have carbs. While it is true that a person with type 2 diabetes doesn’t process carbohydrate as efficiently as they once did, they can experiment with different “doses” of carbohydrate with their snacks and meals to figure out how to keep their blood sugar in the target range. (From Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes.)

3. Is it really true that you must completely avoid this food?

Many people who struggle with food lean toward dichotomous thinking (“black and white,” “good or bad”). In other words, if a food isn’t particularly healthful (whatever that means and for whatever reason), it becomes labeled as a “bad” food that must be completely avoided. As a result of this same dichotomous thinking, if you eat any of that particular food, you feel like you are “bad.” The resulting guilt often leads to more overeating—not less—and that certainly doesn’t lead to the desired benefits!

If you struggle with all-or-nothing thinking and find yourself resisting or “cheating” when you are given restrictive advice, an important question to ask your health care professional is, “Would this food (or ingredient) be harmful if I ate it in moderation?”

4. But what if certain foods worsen certain medical conditions?

It obviously makes sense to limit or steer clear of certain foods if they have health or medical consequences. However, even when you don’t have a choice about what you eat, you do have a choice in how you think about what you eat! In other words, you may choose to limit certain foods in order to feel good, not to be good!

An example of this is when someone has had bariatric surgery (aka weight loss surgery or WLS). Often they are given a list of guidelines to follow about when, what, and how much to eat. These guidelines can feel like a lifelong diet—with uncomfortable or embarrassing consequences when they break the “rules.” When dietary limitations (even necessary or practical ones) feel like a diet, you are likely to struggle with the eat-repent-repeat cycle (and depending on the problems you have when you eat certain foods, the “repent” phase can be significant). Instead, remember that you are in charge of making choices that work for you. (From Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery Workbook and Awareness Journal.)

5. Is eliminating, or even limiting, this food the priority for you?

Many people think they have a problem with food when in actuality, it is a symptom! In other words, many people who are struggling with food need to first address why they are eating. Until they do, focusing on food is just a distraction from exploring the root cause of the problem, and therefore, won’t lead to lasting change and improved health. Once they have healed their relationship with food and built mindfulness skills to notice how certain situations, people, thoughts, emotions, and foods affect them, they are better able to modify their eating and their diet to feel their best.

An important example of this is Binge Eating Disorder (BED). When a person is suffering BED, the priority must be on healing the eating disorder. Making changes to their diet may come later—or may even become unnecessary once BED is resolved. (From Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating: A mindful eating program for healing your relationship with food and your body.)

6. Do you have to go from point A to point Z in one leap?

When certain dietary changes are recommended or necessary, a common error people make is attempting a huge overhaul that they are unable to sustain. A more effective approach is to ask yourself, “What is the smallest change I am confident I could make that will be (nearly) painless?” By practicing small changes consistently, you will build on your success little by little.

7. Instead of “following a diet,” could you just “eat a diet”?

Over the last hundred years or so, the word “diet” has come to imply restriction, so when you are “on” a diet, it is likely that you will eventually go “off” the diet. Since the word “diet” simply means “food and drink regularly consumed,” can you reframe the way you eat as simply a description of your pattern of eating instead of a program or plan you are on or you are following? (By the way, this applies to mindful eating too! It is not a temporary program you are following; it is a way of life!)

The last article in this three-part series 7 Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Strategies that Help You “Eat Better” will apply specific strategies from the Am I Hungry? mindful eating programs to help you make dietary changes for health reasons without developing a Restrictive Eating Cycle.

A Diet by Any Other Diet is Still a Diet!

By Michelle May, M.D.

I originally developed the Restrictive Eating Cycle to describe the diet phase of the eat-repent-repeat cycle. Restrictive eating, as most people who have struggled with chronic yo-yo dieting and weight cycling know from personal experience, fuels the Overeating Cycle and may become an emotional trigger for overeating.

Nowadays though, I recognize that there is a long list of eating patterns that have the potential to become part of a Restrictive Eating Cycle. This is a common, complex, and controversial issue so this will be just the first of three posts on this topic.

In this article, I will focus on your intention for making a voluntarily dietary change. The next article, What If I Can’t Eat What I Love, is about making dietary changes due to medical conditions or health concerns, such as diabetes or an allergy. The final article, 7 Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Strategies that Help You “Eat Better”, will apply specific strategies from the Am I Hungry? mindful eating programs that help you improve your diet even when you are eating what you love.

When “healthy eating” goes awry…

This article is about you and your relationship with food so I will not attempt to define what “healthy eating” is. There is no universal definition that everyone would agree on anyway so “healthy eating” is not a fixed target—another reason to focus on you, not the food.

Even when people make a voluntary change in their eating in the name of “health,” without mindfulness, the “plan” can mutate into rules. As a result, they may find themselves hyper-focused on food, with less energy left to focus on living the healthy life they set out to achieve!

The term orthorexia, which literally means righteous eating, is not an “official” eating disorder, but describes an increasingly common pattern of problematic eating resulting from an excessive focus on healthy eating. One feature of orthorexia is an exaggerated faith that inclusion or elimination of particular foods can prevent or cure disease or affect one’s daily well-being. As a result, food becomes more powerful and the need to control it can take on a life of its own.

The following questions will help you explore your motivation for making dietary changes so those changes do not become part of a Restrictive Eating Cycle.

1. What is your intention?

Take a few moments to think about why you are considering a particular dietary change. Many people choose a particular plan because they believe it will help them feel, perform, or look better, and/or live a longer, healthier life. However, if you’re not mindful, following “the plan” perfectly can become the primary objective so it becomes a distraction, an obsession, or worse.

If you notice that following the plan has become more important than your “why,” then it’s time to reassess your focus.

2. Do you feel restricted?

It’s only “restrictive eating” if you feel restricted. In other words, if you simply choose to limit or eliminate certain ingredients or foods (for whatever reason) and you don’t feel deprived, then it’s not an issue! In other words, just because you can eat anything doesn’t mean you will. Like every other decision point in the Mindful Eating Cycle, you are in charge of deciding for yourself.

Now sometimes feeling restricted may have become “normal” for an individual so let’s clarify what it might feel like:

I find myself thinking about the foods I don’t eat.
I feel deprived of the foods I love.
I crave the foods that I’m not supposed to eat.
I am on a perpetual quest to find replacement foods for the ones I miss.
I feel guilty when I deviate from the plan.
I give myself “free days” or “cheat days” so I can tolerate all the rest of the days.
I look forward to the day when I no longer have to eat this way.

3. Does your life feel bigger or smaller?

Even if you don’t feel restricted, are you able to enjoy the health you intended to cultivate? Or are you are investing so much of your attention, time, and energy in following your plan that you can’t fully enjoy your life? Here are some ways that your plan could be making your life smaller.

I’m preoccupied with nutrition information.
I’m overly focused on rules about when, what, and how much to eat.
I often worry about what I eat.
I am constantly thinking and talking about food.
I sometimes don’t eat even though I’m hungry.
I avoid or feel left out in certain social situations.
It is difficult to enjoy a meal with my family.
It is difficult to eat out with friends or coworkers.
I feel judgmental about what others eat.
I often feel tired or become ill, possibly as a result of my diet.

Mindful eating can help you improve your health while still having enough bandwidth left over to enjoy it!

4. Is it worth it?

Mindful decision making is about weighing the pros and the cons of your options. If the disadvantages (for example, inconvenience, limited options) of a dietary change or plan outweigh the advantages (for example, feeling better), you are unlikely to stick with it. If you really feel the change is important, do what you can to mitigate the disadvantages and optimize the advantages. This may mean making a less drastic change to start with…

5. Would moderation be more effective than “none”?

A huge trend these days is to eliminate certain ingredients completely (for example, gluten, sugar, red meat, and so on). Again, if you don’t feel restricted, then this isn’t an issue. However, if you’re concerned about a particular ingredient, unless you have an allergy or reaction to it, eating it less often and in moderation is a great place to start. Experiment with smaller changes that will allow you to adjust and notice how your body responds. Ultimately, small steps you are able to sustain are more effective than a temporary overhaul. Small steps lead to lasting changes over time.

6. What about pleasure?

Let’s not forget that while the primary purpose of eating is to provide fuel and nutrition for our bodies, enjoyment is an important and legitimate reason for eating. If eating has become joyless, something is seriously wrong. And unless food is your only source of pleasure, it is possible to balance eating for enjoyment with eating for nourishment, eliminating the Restrictive Eating Cycle.

7. Have you turned mindful eating into another diet?

Mindful eating boils down to nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. Period. As soon as you begin telling yourself (or others) that, “You should only eat when you are hungry,” “You should stop eating before you are full,” “You have to be mindful of what’s in the food you are eating,” or “You have to eat slowly, chew each bite x times, and never eat while distracted,” or myriad other rules, you have turned the Mindful Eating Cycle into a Restrictive Eating Cycle. And we already know how that will turn out!

The next article in this three-part series, What If I Can’t Eat What I Love, is about making dietary changes due to medical conditions or health concerns, such as diabetes or an allergy. The final article, 7 Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Strategies that Help You “Eat Better”, will apply specific strategies from the Am I Hungry? mindful eating programs that help you improve your diet even though you are eating what you love.

Michelle May M.D.

Michelle May is a physician and recovered yoyo dieter. She founded Am I Hungry?® to provide an alternative to restrictive and ineffective dieting.

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News Archive

7 Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Strategies that Help You “Eat Better”

Mindful Eating with Health Issues: What If I Can’t Eat What I Love?

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