Eating in the Now

Mindfulness can help break the link between emotions and food.

By Violet Snow

Ocotber 2009

To eat or not to eat? And what to eat? How do we decide?

These are not light questions to countless people who suffer from eating disorders—binge eating, anorexia or bulimia—as well as diabetes, colitis, Crohn’s disease, depression and other serious health issues. For such people, and for anyone else who eats, mindful eating can be a valuable approach to regulating intake and getting more enjoyment from food.

Robin Sobieski, 46, a registered nurse in upstate New York, has struggled with her weight for years, trying one diet after another and always regaining the lost pounds within a few weeks. Mindful eating has radically changed her experience of food.

“I can eat a brownie slowly and really taste it,” Sobieski marvels. “I’m enjoying leading up it, I enjoy the actual eating and I’m going to enjoy it when I’m no longer eating it. I can eat half and save half for later. It’s amazing to me that I can think this way!”

In seven months, Sobieski has lost 26 pounds. That’s certainly a much slower rate of weight loss than most diets aim for. For Sobieski, however, the shedding has been pleasurable, not agonizing. What’s more, the weight has not yo-yoed back on.

Deliberate Detachment
Mindfulness is a technique borrowed from the East. The practitioner is encouraged to attend to the ongoing inner flow of sensations without getting tangled up in thoughts and emotions—which are noted but not dwelt upon—as the mind simply goes on to the next sensation. This approach can be a powerful antidote to compulsive bingeing, when the eater often barely tastes food that is functioning primarily as a mechanism to repress uncomfortable emotions. As Sobieski observes, “You want this brownie. After you eat it, it’s all done.” This thought leaves the binge eater eternally craving more, unless he or she can learn to savor the pleasure inherent in the experience.

Megrette Fletcher is executive director of The Center for Mindful Eating (www.tcme.org), an organization devoted to helping dietitians, physicians, social workers, therapists and other professionals incorporate the principles of mindful eating into their work. Fletcher, a dietitian, uses
the method to help people with diabetes, who often face an uphill struggle as they modify their diets to control blood sugar.

“I found that if people with diabetes learned to pause and check in with themselves, they could access a huge wealth of knowledge that only they had,” Fletcher says. “They’re the only ones who know when they’re hungry and what foods work for them. Their information is as valid as the healthcare provider’s information.”

“I encourage clients to get in touch with the body’s signals of hunger and satiety rather than counting calories,” says Gretchen Newmark, a Portland, Oregon, dietitian and counselor who specializes in eating disorders. “It takes a while. People are so used to controlling their eating by external means. Forbidden foods become alluring and recommended foods become punitive, even if we like them. Mindful eating eliminates the categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ which take the pleasure out of eating.”

Self-Regulation the Key
Throwing away the rules can be very difficult for people who are accustomed to strict diets. “At first,” says Newmark, “they start overeating forbidden foods, which creates a lot of anxiety. But then those sweets become ‘just food,’ as they learn to make decisions based on how the body will feel and whether they’ve eaten enough.” Part of Newmark’s job is to help clients through this phase by, for instance, choosing to save trigger foods for times when an absorbing activity—a film, a class, a visit with a friend—is scheduled immediately afterward.

Sobieski, who learned mindful eating while attending a workshop called “Am I Hungry?” led by physician Michelle May, notes that her transition was easier. “I related so much to the stories she told about people who were obsessed with food, hungry all the time, disappointed in themselves if they ate something they shouldn’t have. It helped me see how most of these are emotional decisions,” Sobieski says. “I started paying attention to why I was deciding to eat. Was I hungry? Was I feeling stressed? Was it just time to eat? Now I don’t eat at dinnertime if I’m not hungry—I’ll end up having a snack later.”

Newmark, who often works with anorexics, says that people who restrict their food intake can also benefit from mindful eating. “At first they do need to rely on a food plan and prescribed calorie level,” she explains, “because they have a disruption in the normal signals of hunger, so they can’t rely on those signals to know when to eat. But as they recover I can gradually help them tune in to what they want and don’t want, and recognize how food affects the body.”

Industrial Food Production
Brooklyn mental health counselor Pablo Das, founder of the American Food Rebel Network (www.americanfoodrebel.com), puts a political spin on the problem.

“There’s an incredible amount of suffering around the way we feed ourselves in this society,” Das says. “Our industrial way of producing food causes suffering for consumers, people working in the system and the environment. My teacher, nutritionist Anne Marie Colbin, taught that we should eat foods ‘as nature provides them, with all the edible parts.’ Once people are not on engineered foods, they can appreciate subtler tastes. There are three layers of taste in a Brussels sprout that unfold as you eat.”

“Food imbalance is a symptom,” Das says. “The potential for transformation is there when we come home to ourselves through mindfulness.”
—Violet Snow

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