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When you know better, do better!

Have you ever looked back on something you did or said in the past that caused you to feel embarrassed, or even ashamed? Now imagine you had written it down in a book!

That’s where I found myself.

Six months ago, I began the process of updating my books and workbooks that were more than five years old. I thought the process would be relatively quick, simple, and painless. Instead, I was surprised to realize that they all required significant rewrites!

Don’t get me wrong… I am still 100% behind the awareness, new skills, and life-changing shifts that come from using the Mindful Eating Cycle to completely rethink one’s relationship with food. Those concepts continue to help others recognize and resolve even longstanding challenges with food, so I didn’t need to change them.

What I discovered though was how many subtle weight-related messages had slipped through and needed to be removed or modified! It’s not that I promoted weight loss, but the ubiquitous weight-focus in our society was present in my words, and at the time, I couldn’t see it. As I reread the material through my current lens, I experienced feelings of confusion, embarrassment, regret, guilt, and even shame.

Diet Culture is Just One Piece of the Puzzle
Eight years ago when I wrote Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat, and then when I updated it in 2013, I clearly understood the harm that diet culture was doing to our relationship with food. However, I didn’t yet understand how much our cultural obsession with weight was feeding that diet culture. That seems obvious now, which is why it was confusing to read my own words.

Here are two examples from my descriptions of instinctive eating, before and after the rewrite:

Before: Think of someone who stays within her natural weight range.

After: Think of someone who manages her eating effortlessly.

Before: She never stops to ask the question “Am I hungry?” yet somehow manages to eat enough to grow and maintain a healthy weight.

After: She never stops to ask the question “Am I hungry?” yet somehow manages to eat enough to play, learn, and grow.

Depending on where you are in your journey, these changes may or may not feel meaningful. But from where I sit now, my “before” versions reinforced our culture’s focus on weight—a focus I believe is feeding disordered eating, eating disorders, shame, guilt, and less health, not more. The recognition that I contributed to this paradigm, made me feel sad and ashamed.

It’s a Process
At times, I feel frustrated that there are still so many restrictive messages out there feeding the eat-repent-repeat cycle. However, updating my books has been a humbling reminder that we are all in process, and that change takes time.

Weight, or more specifically weight loss, is one of the most common concerns people have about giving up dieting in favor of mindful eating. As I explained in this article, Mindful Eating and Weight Loss, weight loss isn’t the reason to learn how to eat mindfully, and focusing on it gets in the way of healing your relationship with food.

Still, it is understandable that you might have trouble letting go of a weight-focus. After all, this is my work, and look how long it’s taking me to get it! So, I sincerely apologize if anything I’ve written may have reinforced your beliefs about weight.

Be Gentle With Yourself As You Are Learning to Change
Throughout the rewriting process, I had to gently remind myself that I am a product of this culture too. At the same time, it has been exciting to realize how much my thinking has evolved, and to recognize that there will always be more room for growth.

As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

It is safe to assume that I am still making mistakes and have a lot to learn. I am committed to continually doing better—and I fully support you in your journey to do better too!

Out with the Old, In with the New

After raising two kids and two puppies in our home, it was definitely time for new carpeting! Since we had decided to skip Christmas this year, December seemed the perfect time to do it.

However, I underestimated the size of the project! We had to completely empty six rooms—our living room, two bedrooms, two offices, and our master closet—into our hallways, dining room, and kitchen. It was overwhelming to see all our “stuff” piled up like that, but we decided that it was the perfect opportunity to decide what we really wanted to put back in.

I carefully considered whether each piece of clothing, furniture, knick-knack, and folder was really serving us. Many things had been in place for so long that we didn't notice they weren't working for us anymore. While it was a bit disconcerting to finally get rid of things that we'd lived with for a long time, it felt good to create space for what we really wanted.

New Year's Intentions
That’s what I like about the New Year too. While I refuse to participate in the whole resolve-to-diet-and-lose-weight thing, I love the opportunity to take stock of different areas of my life. At the beginning of the year, I consciously evaluate what’s working and what’s not, set a fresh intention to create the life I want, and decide on a few focus areas that will bring me closer to that intention.

A "New" Diet is the Same Old Thing
As you consider what’s working for you and what’s not, I hope you will think about your relationship with food…

For many of the people we work with, their old habit was to set a New Year’s resolution to start a new diet. But a “new” diet isn’t really new, is it? It is like rearranging old furniture and knick-knacks; it might feel new for a short period of time, but before long, you realize that nothing has really changed.

Clear the Clutter
Pause to notice whether any of these old habits are cluttering up your life.

You start a new diet in January (and many Mondays), full of enthusiasm and commitment, only to find yourself struggling to stick with it.
You love to eat but feel guilty for eating foods you’ve heard are “bad.”
You eat differently in private than you do in public.
You resist certain foods or ingredients, then overeat them when your willpower runs out.
You keep looking for the “right” diet, but end up feeling discouraged and bad about yourself.
You think about food and eating (or not eating) more than seems “normal.”
You spend too much time weighing, measuring, counting, and logging food, then quit all that and spend too much time feeling too full and guilty!
If you are ready to throw out the old and create space for a new relationship with food, mindful eating isn't based on record-keeping, deprivation, or willpower. Instead, you learn how to use your awareness of your physical sensations, thoughts, and feelings to guide your eating, physical activity, and self-care.

I know it sounds like a big job, but we've been helping people do exactly that for 18 years! I know what a huge difference it will make in your life, and trust me, new carpet doesn't even come close!

Three Ways to Handle Triggers for Holiday Overeating

The holidays are a time of celebration, reminiscing, and of course, stress – all potential triggers for overeating. In our Mindful Eating Support Community and our Facebook page, I asked about your top three triggers for holiday overeating. I grouped your most common challenges into these patterns:

The sheer presence, abundance, and variety of food everywhere
Special holiday foods, compounded by feelings of scarcity
Nostalgia, memories, and associations (both positive and negative)
Food “pushers” (your word, not mine; more on that below.)
Stress, fatigue, self-imposed expectations, and perfectionism
Stressful family dynamics
What makes these triggers even more challenging is that they interact with one another, magnifying their effect. I imagine that it might look something like these gears (though the impact of each of your particular triggers may be different).

Reprogram Your Mind

In Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating (chapter 4), we shared three helpful options for dealing with your triggers: reduce them, rethink them, and recreate them. Here’s a quick overview of these three strategies.

Reduce Them

One way to handle certain triggers is to reduce your exposure to that person, place, event, or other trigger. In this way, you prevent the thoughts from coming up in the first place. For example, if people bring a lot of holiday foods to the office, you could decide, I’ll wait until I’m hungry to go to the break room.

However, it is impossible—and undesirable—to permanently eliminate every conceivable trigger, especially during the holidays. If you tried, your life would become very small! That brings us to our next option.

Rethink Them

Fortunately, it is possible to reprogram your mind so you don’t have to live in fear of encountering a trigger. When you recognize one of your triggers and watch the automatic thoughts that follow, you’ll discover that you have many options. Replacing automatic thoughts with new, more effective thoughts disrupts the old pattern. (Read more about how mindfulness helps rewire your brain.)

For example, if you notice scarcity thoughts like, I love Grandma’s cookies! I’ll get my fill now since I won’t have them again until next year! Cultivate abundance thinking instead: These holiday cookies will be back before I know it! or I can make turkey and mashed potatoes anytime I want.

Recreate Them

In this strategy, you turn a trigger for overeating into a trigger for self-care. This creates an entirely new pattern for yourself. For example, if you notice yourself thinking, I’ll have a little bit more; it’s a special occasion! you could think, If this occasion is so special, why would I want to ruin it by eating until I feel uncomfortable?

Reprogram Your Holiday Triggers

Now let’s apply these strategies to create examples for how you can reprogram your most common holiday eating challenges.

Presence, Abundance, Variety of Food

Food is often at the center of our holiday celebrations: family gatherings, parties, and plates of homemade holiday treats everywhere. Tobi posted that “Awesome goodies are available in abundance, so if I’m stressed or bored, it’s there!” Most of us are food-suggestible so just seeing or smelling holiday foods can trigger the urge to eat. This is even more of a problem if you tend to think in “all or nothing terms,” such as, if I eat any, I might as well keep eating.

Reduce: I’ll make 2 or 3 of my favorite holiday cookie recipes instead of 6 or 7 batches this year.

Rethink: When food is everywhere, there’s no urgency to eat every time I see it. I can be selective about when, what, and how much I eat.

Recreate: There are so many wonderful things to eat and do during the holidays. While food adds to the enjoyment of our celebrations, I will focus on connecting with people I care about and doing things that are meaningful.

Special Foods, Compounded by Scarcity

Linda posted that “being around family members who make traditional family dishes that I don’t eat any other time of year” is a trigger for her. She added, “I get a little crazy just thinking about it.” People also posted about holiday cookies, eggnog, fudge, and Christmas dinner.

There’s a reason advertisers use “available for a limited time only” to urge shoppers to take action! When you believe that the opportunity to eat certain special foods will go away soon, you may be more likely to overeat those foods. Likewise, if you only give yourself permission to eat enjoyable foods on special occasions, it perpetuates scarcity thinking—the belief that you won’t be able to have this food again, so you have to get as much as you can, while you can.

Reduce: I’ll put the cookies the neighbors dropped off into the freezer so I have something to serve on Christmas Eve.

Rethink: Even though I don’t typically eat these cookies at other times of the year, I could. I can freeze a few, or make them again in February or March if I really want them.

Recreate: I eat what I love—and do what I love—year around, so there are no feelings of deprivation or fear of missing out to drive overeating during the holidays.

Nostalgia, Memories

Eating is a wonderful way to reminisce, nurture, and bond. Traditions can bring us back to memories of a simpler, or even happier time in our lives. Linda shared that she feels “sadness for those who have passed on.” Susan posted, “There are so many foods loaded with memories that I eat only at the holidays and I feel like I have to have them, or the holiday wouldn’t be complete.” The emotional tie to traditional foods, compounded by their limited availability, can be a powerful but sometimes unconscious driver for overeating.

Reduce: Reducing nostalgia may not be needed, unless memories are creating overwhelming sadness or other uncomfortable emotions. In that case, limiting exposure to triggering foods, décor, or activities may be helpful.

Rethink: Eating latkes brings back such happy memories! However, eating too many of them makes me unhappy.

Recreate: I will invite my grandchildren over and teach them how to make latkes to pass down this tradition.

Food “pushers”

I’m not a big fan of the label “food pusher.” Most of the time, even when someone seems to be “pushing” food on you, their motive is not malicious. They likely want to give you kindness and love, and in return receive your appreciation and affirmation.

Reduce: Mom, I appreciate your generosity and the way you show your love with your great meals! However, it is important that I decide for myself when, what, and how much I am going to eat.

Rethink: I realize that I have been blaming my family for “feeding me” too much food. I’m an adult now and I choose to take responsibility for my decisions about eating.

Recreate: I offer tons of food to my family and guests—maybe even push it on them. I will broaden the ways I show my love and hospitality instead of making it all about the food.

Stress, Fatigue, Perfectionism

Not only is food everywhere during the holidays, but you may feel more stressed, lonely, exhausted, overwhelmed, or even happier—all common triggers for overeating. Many people shared that they put a lot of pressure on themselves, like Sheila, who posted that her triggers include the “stress of having too much to do and trying to make the holiday perfect.”

Reduce: I will be selective about the number of things I try to do during the holidays and focus on those that are most enjoyable and meaningful.

Rethink: It is not necessary, or possible, to create the picture-perfect holiday for everyone—and I’ll wear myself out trying. I will focus on a few holiday traditions and invite my family members to take over ones that are important to them.

Recreate: I will practice good self-care in order to create a buffer between me and the inevitable stress. I will carve out enough time to rest and sleep, include physical activity in my plans, and say “no” more often.

Stressful Family Dynamics

All the “togetherness” we might experience during the holidays can be a bit much at times. Kelly and Emilie mentioned the stress of “having other people in my house.” Wendy posted about the stress of family arguing. She also mentioned the “anxiety of not being good enough,” which adds to stressful family situations if you feel like you are being judged by others and not measuring up—and may stir up old memories and conflict.

Reduce: I don’t need to be with everyone all the time. I will carve out a little solitude to relax with some hot tea in front of the fire.

Rethink: I have trained people how to behave… if continue to wait on them, decline their offers to help, and don’t say what we want or need to happen, they will just show up and relax, never realizing there is a problem! I am going to let people know that I look forward to relaxing with them and that I need their help so I have time to enjoy their company.

Recreate: Being around my parents during the holidays stirs up a lot of old hurt. It is time that I scheduled an appointment with a counselor to work through some of these issues.

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

When you know better, do better!

Out with the Old, In with the New

Three Ways to Handle Triggers for Holiday Overeating

Gratitude for the Struggle

I can't eat what I love without overeating!

Goals vs. Intentions

Hunger Doesn’t Follow a Clock

What is the difference between Am I Hungry? and intuitive eating or HAES?

Mindful Eating in a Diet-Obsessed Culture

Let There Be Peace With Food

Mindful Eating and Weight Loss: Setting the record straight

I Can't Tell if I'm Hungry

A Compassionate Response to Emotional Eating

Mindful Eating on Vacation

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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How Long Does It Take to Learn to Eat Mindfully? By Michelle May, M.D.

The Awareness Journal: A Fly on the Wall

Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Emotional and Binge Eating Retreat and Therapist Training

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How Mindful Eating Becomes Mindful Living

Different Shades of Grey

Four Critical Lessons for Mindful Eating

Bariatric Surgery: It's STILL Not About the Food!

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Thankful for Food...The Great Connector

Boot the Bully from Your Brain

The Italian Treadmill: Do What You Love, Love What You Do

Sensuous Eating: Eat with Beginner's Mind

Do You EatSpeak?

Emotional Eating: Reading the Clues to Your Feelings and Needs

Dr. May on Dr. Oz Exploring the Power of the Mind-Body Connection

Cure for Chocoholics: Eat Fearlessly!

Habits Recreate the Past again and again

Can Mindful Eating Really Lead to Weight Loss (and does it matter)?

Foodie's Guide to Mindful Holiday Eating

Playing a Game of Chance

Duck Your Cravings

Eat, Learn, Live

Going Bananas: Weird thoughts about food caused by dieting

Check Your Fuel Gauge Before You Fill Up

Regret and Her Horrible Twin, Guilt

How to Enjoy a Cruise - Without Going Overboard

Eating 2010: Rollercoaster or GPS?

Recipes: Overeating and Instinctive Eating

The Trick to Managing the Treats

Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat - Interview with Dr. May


Would You Allow Someone to Buy You Off with Food?

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7 Strategies for Holiday Eating Without Weight Gain

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