How many times have you sat down to a meal already worried about the calories or something about the type of food you’re eating? Or spent as much time as you did eating – or more – beating yourself up for what you’re eating or have eaten – while you’re eating it? Or having as much anticipatory guilt or calorie worry – as you do pleasure? Do guilt and feelings of loss of control outdo the pleasure and nourishment of eating? And do you often have an inner food battle – the one between enjoying your food and dieting? Or eating at all and dieting? And do you struggle with digestive symptoms after eating? And have you ever eaten a whole meal and not remembered what you just ate or realized you inhaled your food so fast you never tasted it?
When I teach, I usually start my class – whether an evening class on Zoom or an all- weekend affair – with a meditation to help the group ground and center. Usually women are dropping into this class from a full workday, after getting the kids settled somewhere, or a long drive or flight – battling traffic, time, and sometimes flight changes.
The brief meditation experience activates the parasympathetic nervous system, getting us out of fight or flight, and into a more vagus nerve mediated place of calm. Unlike adrenaline and cortisol which are driven by the sympathetic nervous system, creating fight or flight physiology – or pathophysiology when stuck in the ‘on' mode for too long – the vagal response is nicknamed the rest and digest response. In other words, in addition to creating a sense of inner calm, the vagus nerve helps our body digest and assimilate our food.
I was recently giving a Zoom webinar talk about digestive health, and to help everyone settle in for the talk, and to get us all on the same page, I offered a guided visualization on mindful eating and food relationship that was so popular, and so surprisingly therapeutic to the 80 or so women gathered for the evening event, that knew I had to share it here with you.
But before I do, I want to talk more about our experiences of our bodies – and our relationship to food, starting with my patient, Patricia.
Reviewing her diet diary, I was perplexed as to how Pat had developed pre-diabetes in the year since I’d seen her. A business woman in her early 50s, she had long been attentive to eating well and exercising regularly, was a healthy weight, and, until this visit, had maintained normal blood sugar and insulin levels – important makers of glycemic control, which we tested because diabetes runs in her family.
Her diet consisted of modest portions of healthy foods, mostly prepared at home, and eaten at reasonable intervals and times of day. Her latest numbers just didn’t make sense based on her diet diary.
Food as Love
Digging a little deeper, I asked if anything else had changed in her life. Less exercise? More stress?
“Weeelllll…” she began, “After dinner most nights I’m now having a brownie, an ice cream sundae, or a cookie or two. Sometimes I'm also having something sweet in the late afternoon because my energy crashes.” Her voice trailed off for a few seconds. “My mom always made homemade baked goods … as a kid I always had dessert after supper. She died about a year ago.” She began to cry softly and through her tears said, “I really miss her. I’ve started eating dessert every night – it’s really important to me.”
Now I understood. Of note, her mom had died of complications of Type 2 Diabetes.
And I get it – my grandmother always had a pot of freshly cooked soup, warm and waiting for me on the stove, when I arrived at her house. The soup was usually vegetable, barley, or chicken noodle, or a traditional Eastern European stew called flanken, made with vegetables and beef short ribs. I would eat soup and she would ask me about my week, or what had happened since I saw her last. When I reflect on grandma’s love, my earliest to my latest memories always seem to include soup. Soup remains one of my most pleasurable foods though she passed away nearly two decades ago.
Food holds some of our deepest emotional memories.
Food as Pain
Not only does food bind us to positive experiences, but negative ones as well. One of my patients, a slim, intelligent, athletic woman in her late 30s told me that she was a little chubby as a kid, while both her mom and grandmother were slim. “They had eating disorders. Mom was always weighing herself and skimping on food. And Grandma would comment about her body a lot. When it came time for meals, because I was the only chubby kid in the family, I would get served different food than everyone else. Vegetable sticks, lean meat – I felt ostracized and embarrassed. At 16 I was hospitalized for an eating disorder. I still struggle with food. It’s just not pleasurable for me. Eating is just something I have to do, but I really fight with food in my head.”
I rarely meet an adult woman whose relationship with food is not or has not been stressful at some time.
It is difficult for most women to eat without thinking about weight or calories. Stress, confusion, guilt, and self-judgment are frequent mealtime companions. Food choices are fraught with complexity. In an eternal quest to be thinner many women base their daily food intake on their daily weight, or on how much we ate during the day or meal prior.
Sometimes disordered food thinking has to do with feelings of emptiness or loneliness – we reach for food for comfort, to fill our empty places. The comfort, however, is generally short-lived, only to be replaced by self-loathing and feelings of being out of control for eating emotionally. Sometimes it has to do with negative preoccupation about our bodies – we live in a culture filled with very specific images of the ideal body – which few of us typify. And though we know these are Photoshop-generated ideals, many intelligent women are nonetheless plagued with the pursuit of the perfect body – affecting how we eat.
I have not been immune to food struggles. My grandmother and mother were always on a diet. I had an uncle who only dated fashion models (I’m serious) who would say, just as I was about to eat, “If you don’t watch it you’re gonna' get a big fat ass like your mother and grandmother.” (Yes, an exact quote: words emblazoned on my brain!) Though I entered high school at 5’3” and barely over 100 pounds, I spent the year eating my way through stress at home and long hours at a competitive high school. Dunkin' Donuts' colored-sprinkled, chocolate-topped donuts were my weekday breakfast. I finished my freshman year weighing 138 pounds. By the time I was 18 I learned to eat well and I settled into a healthy weight at which I've remained for 30+ years. But 30+ years later I sometimes still hear my uncle’s voice in my head!
The drive for thinness in our culture is so significant, and has been since the 80s, when first it was the slim athletic body that took the place of the desired fuller, more curvy body in the media, which was again replaced by what was called the heroin waif of the 90s, a desired thinness that has held sway since, the bikini body being replaced by the desired yoga body. And again, recently, and despite the horrors of the actual opioid epidemic, the heroin thin look is again emerging as #goals, yes, made worse for girls and women by social media.
Here are some statistics on the drive for thinness:
- 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner.
- 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat.
- 51% of 9 and 10 year-old girls feel better about themselves if they are on a diet.
- 46% of 9-11 year-olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets.
- 91% of women recently surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting, 22% dieted “often” or “always”.
- 86% of those 18-34 and 75% of those 55+ report body dissatisfaction. 85% of women and 79% of girls skip important activities due to body dissatisfaction. In the U.S. only 24% report feeling comfortable in their own bodies.
- Over 75% of adults would be willing to give up something they enjoy or care deeply about to magically obtain their “perfect” body, including disowning their pets or giving up a year of their lives.
- 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders.
Yet the goals set out for women are unachievable across all cultures and ethnic backgrounds: The average American woman is 5’4″ tall and weighs 140 pounds; the average American model is 5’11″ tall and weighs 117 pounds, thinner than 98% of American women
In fact, a new type of disordered eating, orthorexia, the preoccupation with healthy eating and avoiding foods believed to be unhealthful, has emerged. It is accompanied by some of the same obsessive thinking and behaviors as other eating disorders – and can be restrictive enough in calories and nutrients to become dangerous. If you are compulsively cleansing, following highly restrictive diets without a reason (i.e., you don't have food sensitivities or a specific illness necessitating this), please take a close look at whether your relationship to food – even if the food choices seem healthy – is truly healthy and pleasurable.
As if the emotional and cultural issues that shape our relationships to food and our bodies aren’t enough to complicate our lives, top those with a side of deep-fried, sugar-laced food addictions and sprinkle with a dash of salt! Food addictions are just as real as addictions to cigarettes, cocaine, and alcohol, and contribute to a mess of medical problems.
I frequently hear patients say “I am trying to control what I eat but I have no self-discipline,” or “I try to eat well but then I just can’t control myself when there’s a bag of chips or M&M’s in front of me.” So many women are struggling with loss of self-esteem due to perceived lack of self-control over the foods they are consuming – and beating themselves up for it emotionally. Yet food addiction is not simply a matter of self-discipline.
.The BIG FOOD industry is no dummy. Entire research and development teams at BIG FOOD companies thrive on creating non-food junk with just the right amount of sugar, salt, or fat (or all 3 rolled into one tasty package) to make us want more – and more – and more. This is the very same neurological wiring that is activated in drug addiction!
Breaking Free with Mindful Eating
The mindfulness steps I’m going to share with you, especially when served with a blood sugar balancing meal, are a gateway to food stress freedom, restoring the nervous system health that is needed to realign our brains, appetites, and our eating – and how we feel – physically, mentally, and emotionally afterward, and restoring a greater sense of ease and alignment so food is our ally, not our frenemy.
While mindful eating won’t unpack everything we’ve internalized and inherited from our culture and our families, it is a place to restart claiming personal food sovereignty and an inner peace the help you to reclaim and take ownership of your relationship with food – to even begin to imagine what that could ideally look like. And we have an opportunity to reinvent this relationship every time we sit down to a meal, every time we raise our food to our lips.
Geneen Roth, author of Women, Food, and God, said: “Awareness, not deprivation, informs what you eat. Presence, not shame, changes how you see yourself and what you rely on.”
Weaving mindfulness into our food relationship is simple – yet shockingly powerful. Embodying presence and centeredness creates new neural pathways, and what’s wired together fires together. In other words, how we sit down to eat, and how we experience our food and our meals, rewires our entire food relationship. And since for most of us as women, our relationship with food is intimately tied to our relationship to our body (and probably to money, personal relationships, and much more), we are re-embodying ourselves on deeper levels. It also shifts us out of the sympathetic drive – which activates or exaggerates stress eating and hijacks our willpower, while also literally diverting blood flow away from our digestive system!
Mindfulness also improves our vagal tone – and with it our digestion, as well as sleep, mood, immunity, and hormonal health. Bringing mindfulness to eating has been shown to:
- improve digestion
- reduce stress
- improve cortisol
- and help us to eat less (and thus can improve weight).
We have the opportunity to practice and each day, replacing the battles with intentionality, gratitude, and ease.
A Meditation for Mindful Eating
You can listen and do this practice wherever you are right now – just keep your eyes open if you’re driving, out walking or running, or operating heavy machinery, so to speak. IF you’re somewhere you can settle in quietly for a few minutes, eyes closed, all the better, and if you do listen with eyes open, save this so you can again later today with eyes closed.
Also, save this and replay the visualization daily for a week, before one meal each day, to more deeply integrative this into your lifestyle.
So let’s get started.
Take a nice deep breath in through your nose. Feel your feet on the ground whether you're sitting or standing, unless you're laying down, and then kind of feel your back connecting with your bottom and your legs, connecting with whatever you're laying down on and whatever you're sitting on.
If you are sitting, feel your bottom really connecting with that. Get the sense of gravity pulling you down toward the earth. Just in other words, stop holding yourself up and just let yourself kind of settle in. Let yourself sort of sink down good posture, but all your weight being supported by the earth, not by you. Nice deep breath in through your nose and a big breath out through your mouth.
Now gently push that breath all the way out through your mouth. Push the breath so far out that your lungs start to feel empty so that the next breath almost automatically comes in. And one more out through your mouth all the way and in through your mouth. And now just let your breath come in a little more softly out through your mouth and through your nose.
On the next couple of breaths imagine that you're sitting down to your next meal and your food is in front of you and you're sitting at your chair at the table.
You have a lovely place setting in front of you. No electronics, no news, no computer open, not a “TV dinner,” just a lovely relaxed meal. It could be that your food is on your favorite plate or maybe you had a favorite plate at your grandmother's house or your mom’s, that plate was for you. Or maybe it's this lace setting of your dreams. Maybe you have your eye on some Mud pottery and that's what your setting is. Maybe it's at the most beautiful hotel you ever stayed at, and you also have a beautiful place setting of a fork and a spoon and a knife and a linen napkin that someone else is gonna’ wash for you.
You're sitting just about six inches or so, maybe a foot away from the table. You haven't pulled your chair up to the table yet. You can start to smell your food a little bit. Your hands are resting gently in your lap and you're feeling really calm and peaceful in your body and you're noticing your feet on the floor and you're noticing the backs of your legs in your bottom touching the chair. You can feel your hands in your lap. You have literally no stress about the plate in front of you and the food on it. You're not worried about calories or food reactions or allergies or foods you can't eat.
See some of the foods on the plate – foods that you would really love to eat and that are healthful for you. They're healthy foods and they're foods that your body's really excited about. You're really excited to eat. You can feel this in your cells which are vibrating. It can be any meal to me, breakfast or lunch or dinner. I'm imagining dinner. And just hold that place for a minute.
Now start to imagine the aroma of the food coming toward you. With your next deep inhale you catch the notes of your meal – the scents of food that make you feel safe, comfortable in your body, at ease.
There's no rush to eat your food. There's no pressure about the temperature, There's no rush. You're just sitting there relaxed and you start to experience a sense of gratitude rise up in you. Gratitude for the person or people who grew your food, gratitude for sitting in a beautiful place, setting gratitude to have food to eat. And you start to just feel a gratitude for your body and where you are right now with no judgment, just tender, compassionate, joyous, self caring and appreciation and gentleness.
Just take a deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth. And another deep breath and exhale.
When you're ready, open your eyes. If you feel inspired, hit pause and jot down some notes about how you’re feeling right now. What came up for you?
The “Why” of Mindful Eating
It's so easy for us to rush into our meals, to not enjoy our food, to not even remember what our food tasted like or smelled like after we ate – let alone the next day when someone asks you what you ate for lunch the previous day. It's also really hard for a lot of us to sit down at a meal and see the meal as not nourishment, but as a fight. Like calories that we're concerned about eating too many of or fear that we don’t know when to stop. Or you might be pregnant or breastfeeding and have worries about whether you're getting enough and feeding your baby enough. Or for many of you you've gotten afraid to eat a lot of foods, understandably so, because they make your tummy upset or they make you not feel good.
Eating more mindfully means we’ll be approaching our food more intentionally and chewing our food more thoroughly so we’ll be starting our digestion where’s it meant to start – in our brains and our salivary enzymes. Our digestion will already have begun before the food reaches our digestive organs – we don’t need those digestive enzymes when we've started the process ahead of time as we’re meant to physiologically. Eating more mindfully also means we're going to eat more of the right amount. We'll get that satiety after 20 minutes.
I invite you to take some time before you eat your meals to reconnect to calm, to food as nourishment for your cells, information for your cells and your soul, and to trust your deeper knowing – your ability to eat intuitively when you eat slowly, calmly, and savor your food.
It doesn't have to be for that long. Most of you won't have that long, especially at breakfast or lunch, but at least one meal a day. Take a little bit longer. But before you eat each meal, take just 30 seconds or a minute to get quiet. Drop out of your head and into your body. Feel gravity, feel what you're sitting on. Get really centered in your body and away from the worries. And just start to pay attention to reconnecting to food pleasure, enjoyment, and simple eating. Retain that sense of calm as a touchstone that you can start to pay attention to as you eat. Does it drive anxiety for you? Do you get worried about what you're eating? What are your thoughts related to food? You can start to unpack those a little bit and just be gentle with you. Just start to observe them.
You don't even have to do anything with them, but recognize them. A lot of women, a lot of people, but especially women, have what are called interojects – automatic negative thoughts or just automatic thoughts related to food. It might have been that your mom had a lot of food issues, or someone in your family had a lot of food issues or made a lot of food comments, or somewhere along the line you picked up fat phobia or food phobia and those flood in without you even realizing it. Interojects are external thoughts and words and sayings that just automatically pop into our head and they can sound like our own voice or they can actually sound like someone else's voice. Just start to notice those. If you're inclined to journal about them, wonderful.
“If you pay attention to when you are hungry, what your body wants, what you are eating, when you've had enough, you end the obsession because obsession and awareness cannot coexist.” ~ Geneen Roth
I believe that if we simply just paused before meals and sat and digested for a few minutes after, or took a light walk, the amount of symptoms that would improve for so many people would be significant – without spending a dollar on supplements, herbs, or medical costs.
I know from experience that this slower mindful eating can be tough for us as moms – but I also want to emphasize that this is really a US phenomenon – in many countries I’ve traveled to around the world, mealtime is graceful, calm, respectful, a time for conversation, and slow, contemplative food enjoyment. But if all you do is pause before you take an action with food, if all you did is pause, it's a huge enormous step. We can just be simple about these things.
When you're in that stress mode, you're literally diverting blood flow away from your digestive organs. You’re putting food in but your digestive system is actually offline. Fight or flight diverts the blood flow from your gut. So what's happening is you've got food going into your digestive tract and it's actually just gonna put strain on your digestive system because the blood flow is not there to move the food through. There is such a deep and profound ability to listen to your gut, the ability to trust what you eat, all of that is predicated on having good open communication channels between your mind, food, and digestive system. If all you do is learn to hit pauses both from around eating so that you're eating more slowly, more intentionally in a more relaxed way with a more loving relationship with your food rather than a love hate, antagonistic stress relationship, you can experience wonderful changes. And you get to practice again and again each day.
7 Tips for Mindful Eating
Pick one meal a day to practice at.
No TV, no electronics. ((Watching TV while eating increases food intake by at least 50%.)
Learn to identify hunger.
Eat only when you are hungry. A lot of feelings masquerade as hunger: boredom, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Learn the difference. If you’re unhappy, agitated, or eating out of anything but hunger, wait a little while to eat so that you only eat when you are hungry and feel calm. Also when you're not sure what to eat or when you go to open your pantry or fridge, if you were to hit pause for 15 to 30 seconds then those impulses settle down and you can make better decisions around your food.
Set a timer to 30 minutes.
Take that entire time to savor your Meal, no interruptions other than possibly gentle conversation with someone you love who is sharing the meal with you.
Make each meal an intentional pleasure.
Sit down to eat. Always. Your car and computer desk don’t count. Put a placemat down – even at work – you can use a cloth napkin that you keep folded in your lunch bag as one of my colleagues does. Set out your fork or spoon and food. Enjoy 30 seconds of silence and gratitude before you eat. Learn to prepare delicious food. Eat slowly. Chew. Taste your food.
Let go of the food battle in your head.
There is no good girl vs. bad girl, no cheater vs. good dieter. There is only choice. And the choice is yours. If you’re in the middle of a food battle with yourself, refuse to participate. Consciously give yourself some understanding, patience, and love. Once letting go of the battle becomes a habit, it will become second nature and the battle will cease.
Eat what your body needs.
At first it can be a little tricky to know what your body needs, but learning to become body-wise can get you there. Instead of standing in front of the open fridge or kitchen cabinets, or instead of grabbing something fast at a deli or restaurant, step back, take a few deep breaths, and get centered in yourself. Close your eyes and ask yourself what you really need to eat in that moment. What is your body really hungry for? Nobody has ever told me his or her body really asked for a Twinkie. Usually it’s a salad or something with protein. You’d be amazed at how wise you are – and what information you’ll get just from listening to your intuition.
Practice hara hachi bu.
This is a Japanese term that means eat until 80% full. Being satisfied but not stuffed is an art. As kids we were taught to eat until we cleared out plates, regardless of satiety. Also, many of the foods in the Standard American Diet confuse our ability to tell when we are full – they were designed this way, actually, in labs, to increase our consumption of them. Thus it takes some paying attention and adjusting down large portions to be able to identify that feeling of satisfied that should precede feeling full. Once you figure it out, learn to stop eating there. If eating too fast is a problem, try eating with your non-dominant hand, or try eating with chopsticks if you don’t usually do so. Hara hachi bu is also associated with greater longevity!
Remember, you have the visualization/meditation in this episode to return to as a touchstone, and many women tell me that listening many times to a visualization helps them to anchor my voice in their head as a sister on the journey – so feel free to do that!
I wish you a whole new and loving relationship with food, and your body, no resolutions, no battle, no struggle needed, starting right now. I’ll be right there, practicing with you. See you next time.