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Mindful Eating in a Diet-Obsessed Culture

By Michelle May, M.D.

I signed up for yoga classes on the four days we were at sea during a recent cruise to celebrate our 30th anniversary. During the first class, I discovered that the yoga room had an open doorway from the ship’s gym so we heard the whirr of treadmills and clanging of weights in the background. After noting my distraction, I settled into my practice and took no further notice.

During the second class, I was in a downward facing dog looking at the ocean through the floor-to-ceiling windows when a guy strolled in, headphones on, and began a solo boxing workout at the back of the room, smack in the middle of my view. He watched our yoga class while hopping from one foot to the other, grunting and jabbing the air like Rocky. The teacher seemed puzzled too but continued the class.

During his 30-minute (!) workout, I experienced thoughts and emotions ranging from curious and amused to incredulous and irritated. Mindfulness has taught me to be just as curious about my own responses as I was about his apparent mindlessness. Eventually, I made this distraction part of my yoga practice and kept bringing my attention back to my breath and postures.
Have you felt a little distracted?

During all the recent New Year’s diet-hype, it occurred to me that mindful eating in a diet-obsessed culture is very much like practicing yoga while someone boxes in the back of the room. Whether we are simply aware of the constant murmur of diet-talk all around us, or frequently distracted by it, we can choose to ignore it and settle back into our practice. However, since restrictive eating messages are particularly heightened this time of year, it becomes increasingly difficult to cultivate your attention and maintain your intention to make healing your relationship with food the priority over temporarily losing a few pounds.

Whether it’s your girlfriend’s latest fad diet, your doctor’s admonishment to lose weight, or even our beloved Oprah touting Weight Watchers (as though it’s not really a diet since you can eat whatever you want as long as you don’t exceed your allotted points), the pull toward the familiar, though ineffective, old approach is alluring.

Tips for staying focused on mindful eating:

Take a few deep breaths. This simple grounding strategy will help calm your nervous system and bring you back to the present moment so you can decide where to focus your attention.

Use self-compassion. It is understandable that you would initially feel drawn toward something that sounds easy, fast, new, ground-breaking, or miraculous; these are the types of words that marketers use to attract customers.

Be compassionate toward others. Oprah’s enthusiasm about Weight Watchers reminds me of my own each time I experienced initial “success” (though it never lasted). I truly wish her well and I hope this is the answer for her. However, I know that weighing, measuring, counting, and logging is not the answer for me.

Do a reality check. There are two questions to ask yourself:

1. Does this sound too good to be true? If so, then it probably is!*

2. Can I do this every day for the rest of my life? If not, then don’t bother doing it for a day.

Choose your focus. Imagine what would happen if you took a fraction of the time, energy, attention, and money that you would have spent on that new diet (whether they call themselves a diet or not!), and instead invested it in becoming the expert in yourself?

Take supportive action. What is one small step you could take toward mindful self-care when you feel tempted (or frustrated) by all the diet-hype ? A Body-Mind-Heart Scan? Use your Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Virtual Coach App? Take a mindful bite?

Shift your focus

Mindful eating, like yoga, is teaching me to be present and nonjudgmental. I am repeatedly amazed at what shows up when I simply pause to notice. Our final yoga class was held on the grassy upper deck of the ship as we pulled away from the French Riviera. I was in a downward facing dog looking at the ocean through the railing when I saw this beautiful rainbow…

* At first, mindful eating might sound too good to be true! Eat what you love? How can that possibly work? Admittedly, it sounds simple, but it isn’t always easy. Like most worthwhile changes, it’s a process! (Read How Long Does It Take to Learn to Eat Mindfully?

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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