Mindful Eating in Stressful Times

Take some time to savor something good.

Have you been stressed out lately? With a tumultuous U.S. election just behind us, and the holiday season now bearing down on us, you might find yourself a little…frazzled. How then, exactly, are we supposed to keep our cool around food in stressful times?

My HAES colleague Nicole Christina, LCSW is here to tell you how in this, my first guest post!

You may be saying to yourself “Please don’t speak to me about another self-improvement project and don’t tell me to do it in “three easy steps!”” Women are so busy trying to work, grocery shop, make meals, transport kids to activities, and run the household, that there’s nothing simple or easy about living in today’s time starved world. The thought of trying one more method of improving one’s life may feel impossible. As women, we’ve never had as many choices, but as a society we haven’t figured out how to have a career and a sane home life. And for those of us high achievers striving to do it all well, burnout is always lurking just behind the corner. Being burned out doesn’t lend itself to practicing a new skill. Burnout lends itself to eating stale cookies in the pantry when nobody’s looking. But allow me to state a case for trying a practice that pays high dividends, is free, and is profoundly satisfying. Some of my clients have even called it life changing.

Mindful eating is a practice that is simple, but not easy. The goal is to get us off of autopilot, and help us stay in the present as we eat. Because we eat multiple times a day, we get many opportunities to practice slowing down and savoring our food, as well as the present moment. We do this slowly, imperfectly, and playfully. Instead of another task, mealtimes become a way to bracket our hectic lives with a few moments of precious stillness. It’s a sweet pause that is proven to do wonders for our mental state, as well as our physiology.

Here are some of the reasons that I recommend Mindful Eating to my clients who have conflicted relationships with food (and show me a woman who doesn’t!):

  • Mindful eating actually helps us digest better. Our bodies do not assimilate nutrients when we are eating in stress mode, and that includes checking our Facebook feed.
  • Mindful eating brings a calmness that can work its magic into other parts of our lives–it feels so good, and so different from the norm that often people want to try mindfulness in other aspects of their lives.
  • Eating becomes more enjoyable so it’s possible you may be satisfied with less. We taste more, savor more, and appreciate more. Appreciation and gratitude are closely linked with happiness.
  • Our bodies have some regular time to power down throughout the day. Evidence suggests that mindfulness reduces inflammation and decreases pain.
  • We learn how to manage the stress in our lives, which helps us develop a sense of mastery and competence.
  • With practice, mindful eating helps us build a relationship with one’s self. We are the experts on our own bodies, and that realization feels powerful.

Here’s a promise. Try the following exercise, and tell me if you don’t feel more calm. The next bite of food, or sip of beverage, take some deep breaths. Notice the textures, the flavors, even the temperature. Put away the screens. Allow your body and brain to rest and be still. Bring your whole attention to what you are eating or drinking. When you become distracted, simply bring your attention back to your eating again. The is a practice that is imperfect, fluid, and will get easier with time. It’s one thing to read about, it’s quite another to experience.

In this demanding, overstimulating world, mindful eating allows us to restore ourselves, and respect our need to run on human time, rather than electronic time. It’s a practice that runs counter to the multi-tasking, fast food, grab-a-protein bar lifestyle. It’s radical in that it resists the impulse to try to go faster and be more efficient. It reminds us that we are human, and eating is supposed to be satisfying and pleasurable. That’s why we have taste buds.

Nicole Christina is a psychotherapist specializing in food and eating issues. She recently launched a new webcourse: Diets Don’t Work! But Mindful Eating Does. You can find her on NicoleChristina.com.

Dietitians Unplugged Podcast – BEDA conference live!

Aaron and I did a “live” update from the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA) Conference in San Francisco last month. We had so much fun there, we wanted to share a little bit of it with you.

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Mindful Eating Gone Horribly, Horribly Wrong

buddha question markA few weeks ago I had the opportunity to go to a continuing education course (gotta get those CEUs!) called “The Science and Practice of Mindful Eating.” I was initially disappointed by the description that focused heavily on mindful eating as a treatment for obesity and stated, “Research shows that mindfulness practices can lead to altered gene expression and neuroplasticity. These and other changes can positively influence resilience, self-regulation, and well-being, which in turn improve weight management efforts [emphasis mine].” You had me until the incredible logic leap to “improve weight management efforts,” but I wanted to hear what kind of evidence they were using to show that mindful eating would lead to long-lasting weight loss anyway, just to ensure that I continue to be as fully informed on the subject as I can be.

There were things I loved about the class. I loved what I learned about meditation and all the wonderful benefits it can provide. I loved the mindfulness exercises which instantly cleared my head and instilled in me a sense of calm, at least for a few minutes (not at all my natural state). I enjoyed the mindful eating exercises, which I have done before, because they are always instructive (yep, still don’t like raisins).

What I didn’t love: the scant evidence they were using to show that mindfulness could produce long-lasting weight loss. The studies were few, the results were minimal, the sample size small, and the duration of the studies were always less than three years – about the time people start to regain weight after any sort of intentional weight loss efforts. And the stigmatizing of obesity throughout the class was bad. I couldn’t help wonder how this stigmatizing affected some of my “obese” classmates who hadn’t ever heard of Health at Every Size®. Would they try mindful eating in the hopes of fixing their “wrong” fat bodies? And when it failed to make them thin, which seems at this point to be the most likely outcome, would they abandon mindful eating for the next diet to come along that promised weight loss?

And then recently I came across this article  about this study, which concluded, “Mindful people are less likely to be obese and are more likely to believe they can change many of the important things in their life.” While the article is careful to initially point out that mindful eating hasn’t been shown to be a “cure” for obesity or even necessarily help people lose weight, they then go on to talk about how mindful eating might help with willpower to make better food choices and stick to an exercise plan which might help one to not become obese. Even though that’s pretty much impossible to determine from this study (the study found that people who scored higher on a mindfulness scale had a lower prevalence of diabetes and obesity, and a higher sense of control over their lives. Period. They didn’t find that fat people were turned into thin ones by meditation).

Although I am no expert on mindfulness, from what I have learned, I think there are wonderful things there. I think mindful eating probably has the potential to help people reconnect with their bodies, improve their relationship to food, practice self-care and maybe even improve health. But I can’t help but think, if you come at mindful eating with the idea the particular outcome must be weight loss, you’ll never even come close to eating nirvana. Mindfulness involves non-judgment, and I can’t think of anything more judgmental than feeling the need to change your weight or shape. I’m imagining second guessing, frustration with the scale, a distraction from the true joy that can be found in eating. A focus on weight loss – an external thing – doesn’t seem mindful at all.

I think this mindful-eating-as-obesity-cure is the tip of the iceberg. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of progress; as the non-diet, Health at Every Size® message spreads, there will be those who want to co-opt the language and the ideas but subvert it into another weight-loss industry money maker. Don’t be fooled. Be a mindful consumer (see what I did there?). If someone is offering weight loss, ask to see their evidence, especially the long-term results.

Check out this great summary of what mindful eating is all about from AmIHungry.com. Stigmatizing messages of weight loss are wonderfully absent.

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Want to feel freedom with food?

Tired of feeling ruled by food? I can help you get free. Learn more here.

Subscribe and get my free guide, Why you overeat …and what to do about it.

Click here if you just want my newsletter!