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Saturday, March 26, 2016

Mindfulness - Food

Tighten Up, Flickr

(Guy Fieri)

I don't know for you, but I have a long history of finding comfort through the mouth: I sucked my thumb longer than most kids, and when I stopped, it wasn't long before I replaced it with another bad habit: a tic that involved biting the inside of my cheeks. I also developed a sweet tooth early in life. And apart from early childhood (a period during which I am told I was not a big eater - perhaps the thumb blocked the way?), I never really knew when or why to stop eating: feeling full wasn't a notion I even considered. I never focused on the stomach. If it looked, smelled and tasted good, and I still felt like eating, I ate. It seems like my mouth enjoyed working overtime. I even talked too much. If I hadn't been so terrified of the side effects, I would have been a prime candidate for smoking.

Regular physical activity probably "saved" me from becoming overweight (apart from a short period after my second child was born), but I am scared to even think of the amount of sugar that has entered my body in those forty years of life.

A few years ago, with no more than ten pounds "to lose" (BMI was already fine), but tired of my relationship with food, I decided to take the bull by the horns, met with a nutritionist, hired a personal trainer, and started journaling the entirety of my food intake, every single day, for a full year. What did I learn? 

I learned that I need way less food than I thought I did: portions shrank and shrank to the point where my plate looked like a toddler's, but interestingly, it did not make me hungry. 

I learned to incorporate more of the good stuff (leafy greens, berries, seeds) and less of the not-so-good stuff (for me, dairy and sweets). 

But more importantly, I learned to listen to my body. In fact, I learned to listen to specific parts of my body. My mouth was always up for more food, especially the sweet type. Now I learned to listen to my abdomen and to my head instead. I realized that they had a lot to tell me if I paid attention. My stomach had a message I had been ignoring: "I'm full!" (It was surprising how fast my stomach became full, long before my mouth was even considering taking a break.) My head, too, had some unheard messages for me: "Please don't eat/drink this, it will hurt!"

As it turns out, some of my favorite foods were doing me the most harm: Sugar. Dairy. Red wine. It was a sad discovery. It was also a thrilling discovery: by avoiding sugar, dairy and red wine, I felt much, much better, both in the belly and in the head. In the process, I shed a few pounds, and lowered my body fat percentage. I was full of energy, mental and physical.

I do not want to make this journey sound easier than it was: there were a lot of challenges, frustrations, and discouragement. One of my realizations was that my relationship with sugar was closer to an addiction than I had ever been willing to admit. And more often than not, my mouth tried to scream louder than both my stomach and head: "We're not done! I want more foooooooood!"

But all in all, my main victory, and the secret to the success of this endeavor, was mindfulness. Slowly but surely, I became mindful of my relationship with food, how I felt about food, how I reacted to food. I already knew that I ate some of my emotions (stress, boredom, fatigue). Now I noticed that I was often on automatic pilot when food I liked was on display (at parties, for example: I would just reach out and get it, even if I wasn't hungry). I noticed I reacted to ads about food (where else would a sudden, intense craving for a specific type of cake or ice cream come from? Once I saw an article about a power plant in France that uses cheese as fuel, and that was enough to make me crave a piece of Camembert.) I noticed that I ate too fast. Reading Thich Nhat Hanh, I learned to eat slowly, mindfully (my trick: practice with grapefruit; it takes so long to prepare that you have no choice but to slow down and enjoy). I realized I don't even like S'Mores, so why do I always have a few when I go camping? And so on.

My mindfulness toward food did not stop there. I started wondering: Where does my food come from? Is it produced locally? Ethically? Is it fair trade? In season? Wholesome? Humane? Environmentally friendly? I was already not a big fan of juice boxes and steak, but this new perspective made me even more aware. To paraphrase Socrates, I began to say "The unexamined food is not worth eating".

Mindfulness was the most important tool I used to conquer my relationship with food, and I had not invented the concept: it seems that mindfulness can indeed help you achieve your weight goals.

Mindfulness this Week

How is your relationship with food? Please share!

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  1. I really enjoyed reading this, Julie! You've done so well on a voyage that most people can not accomplish. When I lived in France, Camembert was my least favorite cheese because of how soft it was. I was thinking, if you can master the grapefruit, try the pomegranate as the PhD of slow fruit :-)

    1. Haha, pomegranate is an exercise in patience indeed! And honestly, I prefer harder cheeses to.

  2. Since my livelihood has been tied to my eating for 30+ years, enjoying food has *mostly* been a secondary consideration for me through the decades. That said, a secondary consideration most of the time can lead to deprivation and then over activation, ehr... binge eating everything in sight for short periods, then back to the normal mindful way of eating. Will probably be writing about this at some point.

    However, I have found overall that when I am most true to myself -- to the values I hold most dear, and true to the beliefs ascribe to live, my eating is such a basic part of my life that I really don't even think about it...

  3. Over this weekend we traveled to CA.
    When we went to get on the plane the child ripped into a big big big bag of popcorn a friend had given to her.
    After she did she turned to me and said THIS IS SO MUCH POPCORN. IM GLAD MY STOMACH WILL TELL ME WHEN IM DONE.
    Im not positive but but Im taking that as a babystep toward mindful eating :-)