Mindful eating offers a non-dieting approach to good health

Posted: Thursday, April 08, 2010

This is the second of a two-part series on mindful eating. Part 1 was published in the Juneau Empire on March 25.

In the first part of this series, readers were introduced to the basics of mindful eating, which encourages healthy eating by slowing down to enjoy food and paying closer attention to internal signals of hunger and fullness.

Anyone who has ever been on a restrictive diet can remember the unpleasantries of feeling deprived. Ending deprivation and creating abundance is an important step to the mindful eating process. According to Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel, authors of "The Diet Survivor's Handbook," say the "deprivation of dieting actually causes overeating."

Kim Meadows, instructor for SEARHC's Wise at Every Size (WAES) and the Wise Woman program agrees.

"When people are told that they can't have something, it becomes the object of their desire," she said.

It is natural for human beings to become anxious in the face of scarcity. Lifting restrictions on "forbidden foods" reduces anxiety associated with deprivation and encourages more calmness for listening to internal cues rather than responding to external demands.

Sarah Paddock, WAES participant and coach for SEARHC's Lifestyle Balance program, asks the question, "Why does food become our enemy, even though we eat it every day?" Part of the reason is that guilt is a common emotion associated with dieting. Guilt drives the cycle of bingeing that follows deprivation, and guilt also gives food emotional and psychological power when it is used as a reward or as punishment.

While the human body biologically craves high calorie foods not easily accessible in nature, modern technology has allowed processed foods high in fats, sugars, and salt to become increasingly and cheaply available. Food companies employ widespread advertising to convince us to want these products. Diets further confuse the picture by restricting these foods and making them more desirable. These mixed external signals ultimately distract us from our bodies' response to these foods. Paying attention to internal signals and experiencing the effects of food on our bodies is a much more tangible guide about what and how much to eat.

Mindful eating removes labeling foods as bad/good. In their book, Matz and Frankel emphasize that "letting go of judgments helps you to stay in touch with internal cues about what to eat." This does not mean that we should eat whatever we want whenever we want. Instead, we are empowered to choose from a wide variety of foods by asking the question, "Am I hungry? What am I hungry for?" Intuitive eating ends the cycle of deprivation and bingeing, and it allows our natural hunger to guide us in meeting our nutritional needs without emotional interference and self-imposed psychological controls.

By listening to internal cues about hunger, mindful eaters are also able to identify emotional eating and be more aware of how to address stress in their lives. Marci Getz, who developed the Wise at Every Size program, includes mindful eating as an important non-dieting approach to wellness.

"One of the gifts of intuitive eating is that you really have to look at your life," Getz said. "When you think that you're hungry, you may really need something else."

For instance, someone who is bored or procrastinating could take a walk, listen to music, or find a craft activity to keep their hands busy rather than reaching for food. Instead of using food as a temporary distraction from a stressful situation, a person could allow themselves a moment to close their eyes, breathe deeply, and relax in order to more calmly address the problem.

Checking on hunger levels and taking a closer look at deeper issues allows us to identify triggers to unhealthy eating habits which begins the process of undoing them. Food no longer serves as a distraction and substitute for long-term solutions.

In the end, incorporating greater mindfulness in our lives requires patience and the confidence that we understand the needs of our bodies much better than food product manufacturers, advertisers and promoters of the latest diet plan.

"Unlike dieting - where you are either on it or off - mindful eating is a journey where you begin to collect eating experiences that honor your physical hunger whenever possible," Matz said.

In addition to making peace with food, participants in the WAES class have benefited from increased self-esteem, and they have improved their blood pressure, cholesterol, and fitness levels.

From her experience with intuitive eating, WAES participant Teddy Johnnie recommends starting slow.

"It takes awhile," she said. "Don't punish yourself if you fall back into old habits. I picked one meal a day to slow down and pay attention to what I was eating. Then I practiced with two meals a day and eventually three." As with all good things, the best and most permanent changes are the gradual ones.

• Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer living in Juneau, Alaska. She also teaches the Wise at Every Size class in Juneau.

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