Food can be fun! We eat 3–5 times a day, meet friends and colleagues for meals, and celebrate with food. Why should food be something you’re afraid of, have mixed emotions about, or even battle with? You may have a long history with dieting, bingeing, or shame around food. It’s time for you to feel better, transform the way you eat, stop emotional eating, understand yourself, view food in new ways, and live with contentment.
Mindfulness is the key to almost everything you want, and what you want is on the other side of difficulty. Find the courage and motivation you do have, whatever small amount is there, to take beginning steps toward being who you can be, liking your body and enjoying food.
Here are techniques I’ve taught for almost 30 years, learned as a competitive athlete and from an internship at a hospital where lifestyle approaches were incorporated into their weight loss programs. Simply begin where you are, and take these tools along.
1) Savor your food. Let’s do something fun, right now. Taste your food. Well, only if you’re really hungry! This exercise works well with a small piece of chocolate, like a Hershey’s kiss. Open the wrapper, close your eyes, and start by smelling the kiss. Take a little bite and savor it, chewing it well, rolling the food and the flavors around in your mouth. Take another bite, noting any difference in taste. Nice, isn’t it? Mindfulness is kicking in. Eat your meals this way, as much as you can.
2) Kick start your success. If your appetite is out of control, and you don’t trust yourself with food, try putting yourself on a structured plan for a week or more. Not a diet. Diets don’t work for lots of reasons, partly because they instill lack of trust in oneself. So dump the diet mentality and follow your intuition. If you know you need immediate progress to gather your motivation and enthusiasm, make it happen. You’ll need: enough good tasting food, nutrients, to minimize or avoid trigger foods (foods that make you feel bad about yourself or eat compulsively), and to maximize your new commitment to change. Try a Paleo program, or an Eat Right plan that you create around their models (see Resources list). Get going with some weight loss and new habits, then proceed with more of these ideas below.
3) Food is your friend not a fiend. Think of food as nourishment. If food could speak, it would say, “I’m on your side! I’m not out to get you. You are not in trouble because of me.” Let food have a new voice in your head. Educate yourself about foods as sustenance so that it can. Learn why foods are good for you or not, and develop a keen eye for nutrition labels. You’ll start to think of food with a smile, supporting your wellbeing.
4) Notice your emotions, this second. If you will, please. What are you experiencing, in your heart? Try to express it out loud with 3 feeling- words, such as “I’m feeling interested, agitated, and calm.” One can feel 3 or more different and seemingly disharmonious emotions all at once. If you can’t figure out what you’re feeling, notice what’s happening in your body and your thoughts. Those are clues. Why do this? Emotional awareness is one of the primary ways out of unconscious emotional eating, which we all know leads to overeating, eating what we don’t really want, or not feeling full. Trying to “feed a hungry heart” is what many of us have done for years. So, instead, make room for challenging feelings to sit down with you: feeling trapped, unworthy, ugly, fat, or lonely. Observance of feelings is your all-day-long ticket to understanding yourself. If you know what you feel and have felt, things which molded your view of who you are, you can decode the determination it has taken to protect and defend that person by eating to contain, manage, or avoid those feelings.
Eating intuitively begins here, by paying attention: before you eat, while eating, and afterwards. Start paying close attention. Pinpoint with 3 feeling-words as often as you can. Are you beginning to eat because you’re really hungry? If not, what’s truly going on? What do you feel while eating? Guilt? Don’t judge yourself, saying, “I shouldn’t feel that way;” just allow it. To eat intuitively, you must learn to trust your Self, and listening to your emotions is a step towards trust. Fear not, they don’t define you! And, they will change on short order if you accept them.
If you have a long or difficult history of emotional or compulsive eating, the psychotherapy office is your safezone for the feel tank you need, uncovering and recovering from bigger, underlying issues. Find a skilled, mindful therapist.
5) Give permission to difficult emotions, inviting them in. Permission is both a choice and a feeling. Take a breath, often, while you eat, and really taste your food, noticing your emotions and permitting their presence. If you’re sad or angry, being aware of that may help you curtail eating to “stuff” a feeling, or to “comfort” yourself. Most feelings morph or change in 1 – 3 minutes if we allow them. Food doesn’t really help us stuff feelings, or provide us comfort anyway; it’s the power or value we attribute to our food which does that. You’ve probably historically felt comfort from food not just because of the taste, but due to the association you powerfully placed on the food for doing that for you. In actuality, you are the one who decides if you feel security or relief, and you can give those things to yourself without food. You may face some demons. Emotional awareness isn’t always pretty. You may be angrier, more sad, or lonelier than you realized. You may discover that you tell yourself you hate your body. To “stay” is hard work. You have to believe there is something worth staying for. Once you notice what you really feel, you can mindfully allow it and decide what to do –in wisdom, not reactivity. This type of awareness is a huge part of the process of eating with intuition, instead of from habit or compulsivity.
6) Eat because you’re hungry. Not because others are, or it’s that time of day. Sometimes we must eat during those times, during a lunch hour or an important dinner; but if you’re not very hungry, eat less. In general, though, eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. It may be hard now, but it will get easier with diligence! If you don’t know what hunger or fullness are, practice noticing. With mindfulness, tune into your body. Your mouth – is it watering? Your belly – is it empty, grumbling, full? What are the signs of hunger? Of fullness? Ask yourself, and work at this. If you’re not certain, it’s time to research it, and your body is the studyground. If you’ve messed up your metabolism and hunger signals over the years through dieting or food deprivation, work with a good therapist for answers.
7) Eat breakfast. Don’t skip breaking your fast. That’s right, it’s been since the night before when you ate last! 8- 12 or more hours! Starting your day with at least a few bites gets your metabolism going, sending the train out of the station. If you skip breakfast, your body receives a signal that it doesn’t know where the next meal is coming from, and it had better conserve calories, burning them more slowly. That big train just sits in the station, waiting. Yikes!
8) Eat more greens. Put greens into or under your food 3 times a day. Why? Because kale, spinach, arugula, bok choy, turnip greens and the like are loaded with micronutrients and fiber, power charging your meal and curbing cravings. The more micronutrients you consume, the healthier you become, and the more regulated your body is. You’ll get sick less often, and may prevent diseases. Eat lots and lots of dark green vegetables, as many as you want! Start small, eating the ones you like most, adding greens here and there, then work up to 1-2 cups at each meal. No kidding! Taste is acquired. The more greens you eat, the more you’ll like them. Eat a big salad filled with dark green veggies, and a variety of colorful ones too, every day. At breakfast, throw baby kale or fresh spinach into whatever you eat. Try blending a huge handful of chopped spinach into your Greek yogurt, or wilt it in, at the end of cooking your eggs. On the run? Stuff some greens into a sandwich-sized baggie, and eat them along with your protein bar, or roll them inside deli-turkey slices. Spiralize zucchini as your new pasta; make apps using squash slices or cucumbers as crackers, layering them with hummus, grilled fish, tomato and an olive. Check out recipes on-line.
9) Eat lean protein often. Most of us don’t eat enough protein. I know, I know, some of the research says we don’t need as much as we think we do. But as a thin athlete with a huge appetite, I can vouch that we become more satiated eating more protein, less likely to binge or compulsively eat. So, experiment, noting protein grams consumed and how you feel afterwards. Notice everything you eat! Not just calories. Read labels, watching for carbohydrate, fat, and protein grams. Begin to build your awareness. Keep a log or journal with you, increasing your observation of bites here and there, or forgotten meals. What are some “lean” or lower-fat proteins? Fish, turkey, beef jerky, hardboiled eggs, and egg white scrambles are a few.
10) Incorporate good fats daily, too: eat at least a quarter cup of nuts or seeds every day, a quarter or third of an avocado. Why? Because you’ll feel more full, they’re good for you, and you’ll burn (not store) “good fats,” like olive oil or coconut oil. That is, you won’t store it if you don’t eat an entire 12 oz. bag of nuts. Your body will store whatever extra calories you don’t need, as fat, but if you’re eating small portions, you’re fine. And don’t skip meals. None. You’ll just slow your metabolism down, which is the opposite of what you want. Make yourself eat just a couple of bites if you don’t have time for a whole meal.
11) Become complex with your carbs! Yes, it’s true. Eating fewer simple carbs or sugars and replacing them with complex carbs will lead you into a leaner, more content body. But don’t be afraid of carbs! Instead of breads, pasta, and sugar, go for, fiber-rich veggies and fruits like broccoli and berries, beans, or whole grains such as quinoa and brown rice. They digest more slowly, are filling, and are loaded with vitamins and minerals. Eating vegetables and fruits of different colors will help provide you with nutrients and antioxidants, as well. Commit to it. It will get easier.
12) These are new habits. That means letting go of old ones. Embrace change and it will have your back. You may feel scared. The process will be uncomfortable at times. So, jumpstart it with some successes. Eat the way I described above, and your patterns will change; most likely, you’ll either feel better and/or lose some weight fairly soon. Combine all this with regular exercise, 3- 5 times per week, and more certainly you’ll feel and look better. Make time for yourself, if you want to see progress. Food is the biggest change agent, so at least begin there. All of these habits are waiting inside of you; trust your intuition and new knowledge, then follow through, little by little.
13) Get some support. Most of us can’t begin to change, then sustain our motivation and maintain new patterns on our own. Enlist a dietitian, perhaps for only 3 sessions. Or go to a group. Sign up for therapy. Having a small team can increase your likelihood of success, and feel nice! It’s all in your mindset. Step out of your comfort zone. You’re worth the cost, and the accountability is priceless. Perhaps ask a friend to be your accountability partner, too. You’ve only got one body and one lifetime to live in it, so make it better. Books and resources are supports as well. Read up! Go on-line for info, like lists of vitamin, mineral and nutrient contents in foods. Build upon your incentive. You are on your own side. Resist self-sabotage. If you do, at least notice that too, then apply what works for you, intuitively. There will be a few relapses. Though frustrating, allow them, process what happened and move through them. Get the picture? This is mindfulness.
14) Stop comparing how much you eat to others. Please please please. Notice this inclination to compare and judge, and any reasoning behind it, and drop it like a hot potato. There is nothing positive that comes from comparing. You cannot “should” yourself into a new ability to eat more calories and not gain weight. Each person has their own individual metabolism, muscle mass, adrenal system, genetic predisposition, bone structure, body type, etc. You cannot change yours by wishing or shoulding it into being. You may, however be able to change how much you can eat over time, if you develop these mindfulness skills.
15) Guard your determination. Keep up your drive! Check in with yourself once a week: observe, how are you doing on all of this? Don’t judge, but make adjustments accordingly. Take it one day at a time, purposefully deciding at each meal that you want to be happier. Remind yourself that you’re committed to this new lifestyle approach, and you will exert daily effort in creating new habits. You are brave enough to face whatever is in your way, even your own demons.
~Pamela W. Brinker, LCSW
“You are not a mistake. You are not a problem to be solved. But you won’t discover this until you are willing to stop banging your head against the wall of shaming and caging and fearing yourself…Either you are willing to believe in kindness or your aren’t. Either you are willing to believe in the basic sanity of your being or you aren’t. To be given wings, you’ve got to be willing to believe that you were put on this earth for more than your endless attempts to lose the same thirty pounds three hundred times for eighty years. And that goodness and loveliness are possible, even in something as mundane as what you put in your mouth for breakfast. Beginning now.”
— Geneen Roth
Resources: When Food is Love, Women, Food and God, Feeding the Hungry Heart, and Breaking Free From Emotional Eating, 4 superb books by Geneen Roth; Nutritarian Handbook & ANDI Scoring Guide, and Eat For Health: Lose Weight, Keep it Off, Look Younger, Live Longer book & cookbooks by Joel Fuhrman; Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life, by David Servan-Schreiber; The Mindfulness-Based Eating Solution, by Lynn Rossy; Intuitive Eating, by Tribole; The Zen of Eating, by Kabatznick; Weight Loss from the Inside Out: Help for the Compulsive Eater, by Marion Bilich; The Food and Feelings Workbook: A full course meal on emotional health, by Karen Koenig; Diets Don’t Work, by Bob Schwartz; Paleo In 28, by Kenzie Swanhart; Thin Inside Out: How to Have Your Cake and Your Skinny Jeans Too, by Spinardi; Eating Disorders: The Journey to Recovery Workbook, by Goodman & Villapiano.