“I just can’t seem to lose weight and keep it off. I’ve gone on many diets, sometimes I
even lose weight, but then I start feeling deprived or lonely, or the holidays come along
like now, and I go off my diet and gain everything back. I know this cycle of weight
loss/weight gain is not healthy, and I’d really like to have a different relationship to food
and my body. Do you have any suggestions about how I might do this?”
This is a problem that so many people in the United States struggle with today. Twothirds
(or 66%) of adults are overweight or obese (“obese” meaning over 30 lbs above a
healthy weight, and “overweight” meaning ten to thirty lbs above a healthy weight).
Most of us know that overeating is not healthy, yet we do it anyway. All too often,
traditional dieting does not work. People get bored eating the same sticks of carrots and
celery day after day, or people start to feel deprived by the limitations of their diet. I
think this is especially true around the holidays when they see others around them
indulging in foods that look, smell, and taste wonderful. So, if traditional dieting has not
worked for you, what can you do instead?
There was a book written a number of years ago called Diets Don’t Work by Bob
Schwartz that offered four rules for getting off the diet merry-go-round. Those rules are:
one, eat when you’re hungry; two, eat exactly what your body wants; three, eat each bite
consciously; and four, stop when your body has had enough.
The key word in these four rules is “conscious”. I mean, the rules sound simple enough,
don’t they? Eat only when hungry. But how do you know when you’re hungry? How
do you know that what you’re feeling is hunger, and not boredom, loneliness, sadness, or
any of the not-good-enough feelings like guilt, invisibility, or envy? Eat exactly what
you’re body wants, and how do you know what that is? Is it your body telling you, or is
it a deprived corner of your mind telling you that you’ve had a rough day and you’re
entitled to a supersized banana split with all the toppings? Stop when your body has had
enough, except most of us don’t know when that is. We have lost the ability to identify
and then follow our body’s own internal signals around hunger, satisfaction, and fullness.
This is where developing consciousness comes in. I am defining consciousness here as
being aware of what you are thinking and feeling before you eat, while you eat, and after
you eat. If you have this awareness or consciousness, then you will know when you’re
hungry, you will be able to discern what your body wants, and you will know when
you’ve had enough.
So how does one develop consciousness around food? One way, the way I know, is
through mindfulness. Mindfulness is a meditative skill that develops the ability to pay
attention on purpose to what is happening right now. Like any new skill, it takes time to
learn, and the more you practice, the better you get. In the beginning especially, a teacher
or counselor can offer guidance and support.
Learning to meditate often begins with focusing on the movement of breath, but once that
skill is acquired, the focus of attention can be shifted to whatever you choose—in this
case, a piece of food, thoughts you’re having about the food or feelings you’re having
while eating. As a brief experiment, you might choose a favorite food—like a carrot, an
almond, a chocolate kiss, or a single potato chip—and notice what it’s like for you to eat
this food very slowly. Take your time noticing how the food looks, how it smells, how it
feels between your fingers, the sound it makes as you bite into it, and finally how it tastes
as you slowly savor it. It helps to do this in a quiet place without the distractions of
television, radio, music, or conversation with others.
Of course, this is just the beginning. The reasons we overeat, binge eat, and
compulsively eat are complex and almost always include our emotions and our beliefs
about ourselves. If you’re interested in learning more about mindful eating, you might go
to the website of The Center for Mindful Eating (www.tcme.org) and look especially at
The Principles for Mindful Eating. If you’re interested in exploring your relationship
with food more deeply, you could contact a local therapist who specializes in food and
body image issues..
Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News on December 23, 2008.