My previous post posed the question ‘Are you paying attention to what your body is trying to communicate?’ Eating is such a significant part of our daily lives because it can impact how we feel and perform physically and mentally throughout each day. However, it is easy to become disconnected from eating, hardly tasting or consciously enjoying each bite. Few of us exclusively eat when we are actually physically hungry, when our body sends us hunger signals such as a grumbling stomach, slight dizziness or an empty stomach feeling, which let us know that we need to fuel our bodies.
Often we will eat at other times too – when it’s the “right” time on the clock, when we feel stressed out, upset, bored or when we have a craving for a particular food. If we are offered food we will often take it, no matter how hungry we feel, and we will eat just because we are in the company of other people who are eating. Sometimes we know that there won’t be any food available or that there’ll be no time to eat later on, and so we eat more than we need so we have enough food in our bellies until there is food again.
As a consequence of this, it is easy for your calorie intake to exceed the amount we actually need and so inevitably we gain weight. Our society’s prescription for having too much weight is an often extreme, short term diet in order too lose a few pounds and then eat less and more healthily for the rest of our lives.
Why Diets Don’t Work
Usually when you start a diet you are very disciplined. You have a dream target weight, a food plan, freshly stocked kitchens and so we enthusiastically commence our diet. As soon as the first few pounds are off the scale, something almost miraculous happens super-hero motivation fills you and you burst with willpower. At this stage, you might not even be able to understand anymore why you were eating too much, let alone ever touched chocolate cookies or crisps! You feel like a new person who has finally got your weight and eating habits under control.
Unfortunately, this first phase doesn’t last forever. I believe this may be because human beings are evolutionarily programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. In phase one, the pleasure of losing those first pounds is so exciting that it unquestionably exceeds the pain or discomfort of not eating that second portion or bar of chocolate in front of the television after an exhausting work day. You’ve got endless willpower!
After a while, however, something shifts and your willpower decreases. You realise that in order to keep those pounds off permanently you will have to always maintain that same level of discipline. In addition to that realisation, you might go through a stressful period at work or a difficult period with your family – or simply feel a bit low, as life can be. That’s usually when you discover that you can’t maintain your willpower anymore and you slip. “After all, what’s the problem with a little piece of chocolate here and there anyway?” But it never ends with that small piece of chocolate, which soon becomes a bar and you end up back in your familiar and comfortable eating habits. This is shown by the fact that about 95% of people who lose weight by dieting regaining it in 1-5 years. Not only that, dieting can promote an unhealthy relationship to food.
I believe this is because diets don’t help us change our eating patterns in a sustainable way. They change – for a certain time – the food you put on our plates and into your mouths, but they do not change your relationship with food. In order to change your eating patterns in a sustainable way, willpower is simply not enough.
Mindful Eating – Tapping Into Our Innate Abilities
Unlike diets, Mindful Eating teaches you to change your eating patterns step by step. It teaches you mindfulness skill-power! However you cannot develop this overnight. It takes time. Because just as eating patterns take years or decades to evolve, they take a lot of training to sustainably change.
Mindful-Based Eating Awareness Training doesn’t tell you what to eat or what not to eat. It doesn’t provide you with any rules or orders. Instead it trains your innate ability to tune into your bodies cues and learn to read these signals telling us when it’s time to eat, how much to eat and when to stop eating. It teaches you the skills to tap into our hunger and fullness awareness, to better develop your taste satiety and trains your ability to slow down while eating, thus tasting your food mindfully.
Hunger and Fullness Awareness
Training your hunger and fullness awareness lets you reconnect with your ability to check in with physical hunger and fullness symptoms. For example, instead of listening to your mind when it says it’s time to eat, you start listening more to your belly and whole body’s signals of when it’s time to eat. You also learn that hunger and fullness are intimately linked but don’t completely; it is possible for you to feel full and still physically hungry. For example, if you were hungry and were to drink a bottle of water, you may feel fuller in your stomach, yet still may have a feeling of physical hunger.
Food tastes a lot better when you start eating and this satisfaction starts to decrease when you go into the phase of overeating. This satisfaction decreases because your tongue sends feedback signals to your brain to tell you to stop eating. But many of us don’t tune into these taste satiety signals. The more you can train your taste satiety ability, the more you will be able to tell when food doesn’t taste as good and will then naturally to stop eating because you do not get as much satisfaction.
Mindful Eating also teaches you how to slow down. Through training, you can learn that by taking time to eat you get to savour every bite. If you gulp down our food or watch television while eating (or both), your tongues and brains hardly register that you’ve eaten a whole meal. No wonder your mind and body will then not be satisfied after a meal and will request more food. Often when you start to practice mindful eating, you don’t want to gulp down a whole chocolate bar anymore, but will now go for smaller sized deliciously prepared desserts that not only satisfies your tongues, but also your other senses.
Emotional Eating, Urge Surfing & Self-Compassion
Every time you eat when you are bored, anxious or even happy, you are eating for emotional reasons. You are not eating because you are physically hungry and therefore your body doesn’t need to be given food. In such moments, you not only need to tap into your hunger awareness, taste satiety and mindful eating skills, you also need something else to cope with our emotional discomfort or pain. This is where basic mindfulness skills come in.
One of the many things mindfulness teaches you is to learn to accept and sit with uncomfortable states of mind, heart and body; to accept this very moment as it is – pleasurable, neutral or uncomfortable, and observe it with curiosity and with a non-judgemental awareness. When we feel upset or bored, we often don’t stay with those feelings but immediately feel the urge to push them away. In those moments, a piece of chocolate comes in handy because it momentarily takes your mind off of an uncomfortable state.
A technique called Urge Surfing helps you with such emotional urges. Urge Surfing helps you to accept and observe emotional urges with kindness and curiosity so that we will become stronger and stronger in surfing them. This is important because no urge lasts forever (mostly only a few seconds or minutes). Thus, the more professional you become in surfing the urges, the less you will give in to them.
Self-compassion is a vital part of Mindful Eating. Often when you have overeaten you end up berating yourself, which usually makes you more upset, and in many cases makes you want to eat even more. With Mindful Eating you learn to treat yourself with kindness, so that you can interrupt the cycle of overeating, beating yourself up and then eating even more as a result.
Mindful Eating is not about willpower, restriction or following rules. It’s about reconnecting you with your bellies, taste buds, emotions, treating yourself with compassion and kindness.
Stay tuned for the final post next week on ‘How to set up a daily mindful eating practice’.