As pressure mounts to detox or diet, redirect your efforts to mindful eating principles, which can reduce food guilt and help restore natural appetite cues.
Sometime during the past century, food became the enemy. Over the past 100 years, the dawn of TV dinners and convenience stores buried the pleasure of eating under a barrage of guilt – for taking time out to nourish your body, or indeed for daring to enjoy food. The word ‘appetite’ was coined to describe surreptitious ‘cravings’ by French women for chocolate. And anything indulgent – think Magnum Ego – is obnoxiously and confusingly marketed with drippings of salaciousness. No wonder most of us have a messed up relationship with food. We’ve forgotten what it is to eat intuitively.
US-based psychologist Dr Deb Burgard says attempts to tightly control intake – whether by following a specific diet ideology or restricting calories or certain macronutrients – drives us further from our bodies’ natural cues and undermines our trust in them.
“When we look at the research on disordered eating, we find that eating in the absence of hunger is almost always preceded by either restriction – trying to diet or ‘eat healthy’ – or food insecurity, where people are in a situation like poverty where they feel like they don’t have a reliable source of food when they need it,” says Dr Burgard, one of the founders of the Health At Every Size movement.
“Dieting is a tutorial in learning to not pay attention to your body, and to just eat what someone else chooses. It turns out this is a way of eating that many people’s bodies interpret as alarming, because it is not synchronised with the rhythms and requests of that person’s specific body.” Clinical health psychologist Ruth Wolever, co-author of The Mindful Diet, blames multi-tasking for the increase in mindless eating, which is often misconstrued as greed or lack of self-control.
“Consider the common habit of eating while doing other things – whether that’s driving, checking email, walking through the grocery store, or watching TV. Research shows that when people eat while they’re distracted or multitasking, they eat faster, eat a bigger portion, don’t remember what they consumed, feel significantly less full, and continue to eat more throughout the day,” she says.
Mindful eating is all about being ‘here and now’ with the food you’re eating.
“When you start paying attention, you realise that while you’re ‘here’ physically, your mind is often busy burrowing into the past or projecting into the future,” says Wolever. “What’s the problem with this? You end up reacting to the dramas that play out in your mind, which often have little or nothing to do with what’s happening in the present moment. What’s more, you miss a lot of what’s happening in the present.”
Most thoughts that drive unhelpful eating behaviours either emanate from the past (guilt, mistakes, longing for the old you), or focus on the future (going without, dread, or longing for the new you). The act of eating is almost entirely forgotten.
“In real life, ‘breakfast’ was coffee on the way to work, the staff meeting starts in five minutes, and the bag of Doritos on your desk is looking good,” says Wolever. “In real life, talking to your critical older sister triggers a Pavlovian response for dulce de leche ice-cream. In real life, you blew your diet last night at your best friend’s birthday bash, so all bets are off. In real life, you ordered a vegie sub for lunch and it’s a foot long, and while you didn’t ask for potato chips, here they are. In real life, every diet you’ve tried has left you feeling two things: hungry and unhappy.”
Not being present can lead to myriad unhealthy eating patterns, says Wolever. “Rather than contending with emotions like sadness and anger, some people overeat to ‘stuff’ their feelings down. Not being present in our bodies means that we miss our bodies’ hunger and fullness signals. These signals are the body’s innate way of alerting you when to start and when to stop eating. Ignoring them is like driving on a busy road with no stop signs or traffic lights.”
Knowing both your external and internal triggers (think feeling anxious or upset and walking past a bakery that reminds you of home) can also help to prevent mindless eating – particularly reactive comfort eating.
“We’ve all been there,” says Wolever, “you hang up from a difficult phone call with anger coursing through you or sadness weighing you down, and before you know it, you’ve downed not one but three brownies. Or you’re trying to meet a deadline at work and find yourself munching through an entire bag of Cheetos. On the flip side, when sadness or anxiety hits us really hard – from a heartbreaking loss, an awful argument with someone we love, or pre-presentation jitters, for instance – we often feel unable to eat.”
With the space created by a meditation practice, you can acknowledge the presence of triggers and the way they make you feel, then either deal with them now, if pressingly important, or let them drift away.
LICENCE TO LOVE FOOD
Of course, eating fulfils more personal and cultural functions than mere survival: food is steeped in nostalgia, sensory pleasure and social involvement and satisfaction.
Implementing a mindful approach to food may not only feel less punitive than you might imagine, but it’s likely that you’ll experience greater pleasure from eating and really identify what you love (and perhaps only thought you liked).
“Remaining in the present allows you to relax, mentally and physically, and stop the reactive cycle that leads to overeating (or choosing high-sugar or high-fat foods),” says Wolever.
“Being present also keeps you in touch with what’s happening in your body – notably, signals of hunger and fullness that are very easy to ignore when your mind is going a mile a minute.”
“And finally, when you’re present, you can consciously direct your attention to your sensory experience while you’re eating, noticing the textures, tastes and smells that you might usually miss because you’re distracted or eating quickly. Fully engaging your senses will help you better enjoy smaller amounts of food.”
However, even the most rewarding change requires commitment and time.
“Make it a priority to spend time nurturing the things that are most important in helping you reach your goals,” says nutritionist Rachel Bartholomew, who co-developed The Mindful Eating course. “I’ve seen people swap half an hour of watching television for half an hour of making a mindful bean soup instead. Some people have ditched their daily winddown with wine and chocolate and have replaced this with a family walk.”
Slowing down can actually create rather than diminish time.
“When you make time to be more mindful, this actually frees up more time,” says Bartholomew. “When you are mindful, your focus sharpens and you become more efficient at everything you do. You also start to filter out daily tasks and activities that are not helpful and don’t fit with your new lifestyle.”
To really connect with food in a mindful way, you need to find it interesting. Start by cultivating curiosity.
“Before you begin eating, sit and appreciate the food with your eyes,” suggests Bartholomew. “Look at the variety of colours, see the different shapes and textures. Inhale the aromas of the food as you begin to take some deep breaths into your belly, relaxing into a calm state that is perfect for digesting your food.”
“Eat a forkful of food and then put down your silverware. Close your eyes and totally focus on the flavours. Chew thoroughly, imagining how this wonderful food is nourishing your body and mind. Listen to your body and stop eating when you begin to feel pleasantly full. Research shows that people who are blindfolded eat much less than people who can see their food, because they are able to truly focus on their body’s signals.”
You may even want to bring some of your newfound awareness into the kitchen itself. Meditating while cooking may sound like a dangerous pursuit, but it’s one that can definitely enhance the experience.
“As you cook your favourite dish, remove any distractions and bring your awareness to the moment,” says Bartholomew. “First, become aware of your breathing and then gradually expand your awareness so that you are keenly aware of everything around you and within you. Slow down the process of assembling your ingredients, gathering each one at a time, and noticing their different qualities.”
“Pay attention to the aroma, texture, shape and colour of each vegetable as you add it to the mix. Heighten your senses to be aware of each movement you make and be present as you stir the dish. Reflect on the concept that what you are doing is a metaphor for your whole life.
“By shifting to a state of mindfulness, you put yourself in the driver’s seat and take full responsibility for where you are and where you want to be. You learn to listen to your body and enjoy the process of eating real food. When you are in this mindful state, it becomes very difficult to overeat.”