By Michelle May, M.D.
Mindful eating is rapidly increasing in popularity as a common-sense approach to resolving myriad eating-related issues. It is particularly effective for breaking the “eat-repent-repeat” cycle that so often results from restrictive eating. Ironically, many people who are jumping on the mindful eating bandwagon don’t understand the subtle yet meaningful differences between mindful eating and typical diets. They filter mindful eating concepts through the well-established diet paradigm and simply turn it into a mindful eating diet–with the same predictable results!
To highlight some of the most common mistakes, here’s how to turn mindful eating into a diet–and what to do instead.
1. Make new diet-y rules like “Only eat when you’re hungry” and “Always stop when you are full.”
Why: Feeling guilty if you eat when you’re not hungry or judging yourself for eating past a 5 or a 6 is no different from dieting. This form of restrictive eating will lead to the same eat-repent-repeat cycle.
Instead: When you feel like eating, pause to ask yourself, “Am I hungry?”–not to decide if you’re allowed to eat, but to recognize why you want to. With this awareness, you can freely choose whether to eat or not.
2. Think about mindful eating in terms of “Tips and Tricks” instead of a practice.
Why: Tips like “Chew each bite 20 times” do not lead to increased mindfulness, just boredom! And while we’re all used to headlines like “5 Tricks for Sticking to Your Diet,” that short term “magical” approach leads to short term behaviors.
Instead: Unlike dieting which typically becomes harder to sustain over time, eating mindfully becomes more natural with practice. As you learn how to attend to your physical sensations, thoughts, and feelings over time, you discover that you have an inner expert who guides you naturally toward balance, variety, and moderation.
3. Use mindful eating to resist the foods you crave.
Why: What you resist, persists!
Instead: Mindfulness teaches you to allow whatever you notice to just be. Perhaps you notice that you are craving a favorite food from your childhood. Rather than resisting it, you become curious about the craving. What does the craving feel like? What, specifically, do you desire about that food? What associations do you have with that food? Do those associations give you any hints about your underlying needs? How might it feel to eat that food? How might it feel if you don’t? And so on.
4. Allow yourself to indulge in your favorite treats by savoring just one or two bites.
Why: This seemingly permissive advice is still restrictive! When you have to have “permission” to eat a favorite food as long as you follow specific rules, these subtle messages feed unconscious feelings of judgment and deprivation that may lead to paradoxical overeating.
Instead: Don’t set arbitrary boundaries around eating that ultimately lead to “cheating” and guilt. Mindful eating helps you learn to trust your internal expert to eat what you love and love what you eat.
5. Focus on weight loss.
Why: One simple definition of mindfulness is nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. You cannot change your weight in the present moment so focusing on weight loss keeps you focused on something off in the future.
Instead: Become more mindful of your physical cues of hunger and satiety and how you feel when you eat different types and amounts of food. Tune in to the appearance, aromas, flavors, and textures of the foods you select. Notice how you feel when you move your body. Use your body’s cues to practice self-care, such as resting when your body is tired, taking a break when you feel stressed, connecting with others when you feel bored or lonely, and so on. Moment by moment, notice the effects of the choices you make and allow that awareness to affect the choices you make in the future.
Nik Wallenda makes walking a tightrope over Chicago look easy. It reminds me of a point I made during a recent mindful eating retreat that you may find very helpful too.
Dieting is like walking a tightrope. One misstep and it’s all over!
On the other hand, mindful eating is a wide path that’s nearly impossible to fall off of. You have the flexibility and options so you can make decisions based on what you want and need in any given situation. When you make a choice that doesn’t work out well, you simply observe the consequences, learn from your mistakes, and keep going.
It sounds simple—and it really is—once you’ve learned some new skills and had some practice. The hardest past for most people is letting go of the long pole—the rules—that they’ve been clinging to for so long. While they were walking the diet-tightrope, those rules were essential for maintaining their balance: “What can I eat? When should I eat? How much am I allowed to have? How long will I have to exercise to burn it off?”
Before they actually learn how to eat mindfully, people find it really hard to believe that it could “work” for them: “But you don’t understand. I am an emotional eater ” or “I am addicted to sugar” or “I’ll just lose control” or “How will I know when, what, or how much to eat?” I get it; it’s really difficult to let go of something that was so crucial before.
On the wide path of mindful eating, rules are simply unnecessary. In fact, they get in the way because those old rules keep you stuck in old patterns. Picture trying to walk along a path with that long pole getting lodged between trees or buildings!
The issue usually comes down to trust: “I can’t trust myself around food.” In other words, “If I don’t have rules, I’ll fall off the tightrope.” Exactly. So come down off that tightrope and we’ll teach you how to walk along this beautiful path instead. Visit us at www.AmIHungry.com for books, workshops, free articles, and other tools to help you on your journey!
For my readers who are health and wellness professionals: This analogy is really important for understanding the necessity of shifting away from a paradigm based on teaching people how to walk a tightrope. Sure there are a few who are able to learn that skill, while the rest keep falling to the ground. It is time to stop debating about whether umbrellas or poles work better, and start teaching people a more grounded, balanced approach!
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