Last week, our focus was on being mindful during exercise, specifically focusing on effort. This week we are going to continue talking about focusing on mindfulness, this time in terms of nutrition. We need to be thinking about eating pace and focusing as much on HOW we eat as we do on WHAT we are eating. This blog post from back in March (and republished again a few months ago) was our most read ever both times, and we wanted to share it again. Thank you for sharing, Erin! -Abby
Matt asked me to write a blog this week about Mindful Eating. You see, he knows I have learned a lot about this topic in the last couple of years. Let me first take a step back and tell you why I’ve learned about it, and why it’s so important to me. I want to caveat that anything I write here comes from my personal experience, and not that of a professional. But hey, sometimes we “normal” people have a lot to say!
I believe that we all have a relationship with food. Some of those relationships are more positive than others. Mine is of the not-so-good kind. Food is my friend, my comforter, my secret rendezvous…my enabler. Food helps me escape from the stresses of adulting. Don’t get me wrong; I love my life, my husband, my kids and my job. But sometimes it all gets to be too much. And food is there to help me hide from my feelings. It helps me avoid confrontations with my emotions and with other people. But I don’t get this relief from just any old food, certainly not from veggies and lean proteins! I get it from food that is filled with carbs, sugar, sodium, all the yummy (and less nutritious) things, and I use food at night when I am alone with thoughts. Sometimes, it is the only thing that gives me a moment of pleasure in a stressful day.
I love food…
But I hate food.
The truth is, after using food in this way for so many years, I realized that I was abusing it, and I was its victim, all at the same time. I ate abnormally large amounts of food, even when I wasn’t physically hungry. I ate past the point of being full, to the point where I was uncomfortable. I ate quickly, without thinking, and it was out of control. The result was that I felt guilty, ashamed, weak, and physically bloated and tired. I would binge-eat nearly every night, and wake up with a “food hangover” nearly every morning. I would swear that this was the day I would eat healthy, yet every night I would drown my sorrows in a bowl of buttery popcorn and decide to “start” tomorrow. And I continued to gain weight. This made me feel worse about myself and encounter more negative feelings, which caused me to binge-eat even more. It was a nasty cycle.
About 3 years ago I decided to get some help. I felt sheepish as I called Melrose Center. Surely my “lack of willpower” couldn’t be in the same category as a “real” eating disorder, right? What I came to learn and accept is that binge-eating is disordered eating and stems from the same place as anorexia and bulimia. I spent about 9 months in the outpatient treatment program, working primarily with a therapist and dietician 2-4 times per month. I learned so much from those sessions that I could share, but right now I want to focus on Mindful Eating. Please note that my words do not represent Melrose Center, but are my interpretation of some of the things that stuck with me.
Melrose Center’s web-site says:
“When you practice mindful eating, you are listening to your body’s natural hunger cues of feeling full and feeling hungry. You learn to pay attention to your body’s eating signals. Mindful eating also helps you to be aware of how your emotions can affect your food choices.”
Some important words are listening, pay attention, be aware. This has nothing to do with what types of foods you eat, and everything to do with how you eat your foods. For example, I can still eat a doughnut or nachos (or my bowl of buttery popcorn), but when I do I am going to take my time and enjoy it. This help s me to eat more slowly, eat to the point of feeling comfortably full, and feel more satisfied when I am finished.
Matt tells me there is actually some science behind all this feelings stuff. By eating more slowly, your body’s “full” hormone (leptin) has time to monitor your food intake. It also increases the amount of satiation (fullness) you feel from your meals. It usually means you will chew your food better, which increases your body’s ability to digest and absorb nutrients.
Sounds simple enough, but it’s easy to forget. Here are a few ideas that help me to be more mindful when I’m eating (whether you’re eating alone or with others).
Check your hunger level: Before you eat, think about why you are eating. Are you truly hungry, or are you bored, tired, stressed? If hungry, now is the right time to eat.
Quiet your setting: Turn off electronics, stop working or reading, and sit at the table or open spot on your desk if you’re eating at work (literally turn away from your computer).
Pay attention to your food and what it is doing for you: Some foods will fuel you for your workout, some will give you energy for the day, some are purely for treats. All of these are reasons to eat a food. If you are having a treat, is it a treat you really want or are you just craving carbs? Is it something you could wait to have later when you know you’ll really want it? If you really want it, now is the time to have it. Whatever you eat, think about how it affects your body and mind.
Enjoy your food: Whether you are eating broccoli for the 5th day in a row or that doughnut, notice the aroma, the texture, the flavor. Appreciate where the food came from and the work that went into getting it on your plate. This will leave you feeling more satisfied when you finish.
Check your hunger level again: Now that you’re eating, feel the food filling up your stomach. When you’ve had a serving of something, you might take a break and give your body time to catch up with your fork. When you feel comfortable and no longer hungry, it is time to stop eating in order to avoid over-eating.
By using these tips (and a lot of other therapy and tools), I have made strides in changing my relationship with food. It can still be a challenge some days, but I am now more mindful when eating and I’m becoming healthier and stronger every day.
I am so grateful that Melrose Place exists and for the women who worked with me there. As I mentioned in the beginning of this note, I am not a professional. If you are struggling with these types of issues, please contact a place like Melrose Center (http://care.parknicollet.com/melroseheals) or The Emily Program (www.emilyprogram.com).