How to Love Eating! 5 Mindfulness Tips for Healing Your Relationship with Food


Reviewing her diet diary, I was perplexed as to how my patient 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.

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 15 years 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!

Food Obsession

As a country we are in a diabetic crisis – overloaded with sugar, fat, calories, and choices – so yes, healthy eating is paramount to the wellness and even the fiscal health of our country, because we are bleeding out billions in diabetes medical management. But healthy eating can also become as much of an obsession as wanting a bag of chips or a candy bar.

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.

Food Addiction

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.

Almost daily in my clinical practice I hear a new patient 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.” 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! A separate blog will address food addiction, which can be conquered. The mindfulness steps below, accompanied by stress reduction and blood sugar balancing, are the gateways to freedom.

Breaking Free: 5 Simple Rules for Food Mindfulness

The key to enjoying eating is approaching your food with mindfulness. The first step to mindful eating and breaking free is to learn to be completely honest with yourself about your food issues and your eating habits and patterns. There is no judgment, good, or bad. There is only choice. A mindful relationship to food allows you to identify and change unhappy eating patterns. This is not always a quick or easy road, and additional support (i.e., cognitive behavioral therapy, counseling) might be needed if you’ve struggled hard with an eating disorder in the past, but it is very possible to transform lifelong patterns.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 you are struggling with overeating, this practice will help you to shed pounds; if you are struggling with an eating disorder, this will help you with your sense of control over how much you are eating – just make sure your sense of satisfaction matches up with eating enough. Hari hachi bu is associated with greater longevity so it’s a win-win for everyone.

Once you start to feel more mindful about eating, you’ll love eating again! You’ll also be amazed at the transformation that can happen in your life. The time you previously spent thinking about, planning around, obsessing over, or worrying about food, your body, and your weight will now be available for thinking about your life, your work, and other interests. You will feel stronger and confident in many areas of your life – and you will make healthier choices in general. I love watching this sense of confidence grow in my patients. I am confident that you, too, will find yourself thriving in ways you never imagined!

I look forward to hearing insights in the comments below.

Please LIKE this blog and SHARE it with the women you care about. I guarantee some of them are struggling with issues around food.

Wishing you health, peace, and lasting pleasure,

AJR Sig

 

 

 

 

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Suzanne

Thank you for this insightful post. I am from a "Clean Plate" family. Many times I was still sitting at the table long after all others had left. No dessert until you finished the main course made dessert more important, the goal of eating the main meal. As I can see in family photos, I was never thin just a bit round. My tonsils were removed in part because I did not eat enough! Over the years I have learned to leave food on my plate when I have had enough (most of the time). Have been able to keep my weigh in a safe range and been healthy. One Mom I know, after going down the road of dessert as the goal of eating dinner, has adopted a healthy option for her family. The children must eat some of each item in the dinner. They stop eating when they are full. A bit of fruit follows. Only if they ate their dinner and the fruit do they move on to a sweet dessert item which they often do not want. Every gathering of family and friends includes food, sometimes not of the healthiest types. It is part of our culture. I have seen an improvement in the selections offered, more veggie dips, fewer bowls of chips. More salads instead of pasta casseroles. A great direction! Thinking about our relationship with food is worth the time spent.

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Leenie

I so very much needed to read this today. What a struggle all of this is for me and this dove-tailed precisely with conclusions I'd been coming to on my own. I was so worn out from all the diet theories and methods and I just wanted to get back to a place where I ate foods I love (produce I grow or wildcraft mainly...I love plants!) when I was hungry and stopped when I wasn't anymore. I am so drained from focusing on calories and grams and measurements. It had gotten so bad that I sometimes just went and meditated instead of eating when I was hungry because I felt so stressed out about what I ate. After an hour I was calm enough to just eat without anxiety or shame. Definitely, changing my way of thinking. Thank you.

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Jennell Kvistad

Again, Aviva, you shine! Everything about this is spot-on. A few weeks ago I was in the middle of the "food battle" (#3) you speak of. I don't know what made the shift, but I recognized it as something that needed to change. I decided to have the food in question. I told myself the food gods would not hurl a lightning bolt at me, that this was all ME. I felt my whole body relax and let go. It was marvelous. A little part of me worried that I was on a slippery slope. But what I found is the opposite: a new sense of empowerment.

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Charis

I hear the good advice you're sharing but I am at loss for applying it to the point of real change. I have four young children at home, one still nursing and I am constantly hungry. But often all the thought I put into making their meals makes it hard to have the same consideration for myself (except for dinner when we all eat the same food). Often I am so hungry while making their lunches that I have eaten whatever I can while making their lunches and I have no idea how much I have eaten. I am overwhelmed at the thought of tracking anything for them or myself. I guess this rambling is to ask for advice to implement mindfulness in this chaotic phase of life.

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    aviva

    Hi Charis, I do understand, having 4 homeschooled and breastfed children myself. It's tough - and I grabbed that chocolate of a hunk of bread more than once in an absolute state of being hypoglycemic and exhausted. But planning can be done (I learned to do all of my meal planning and shopping in Sunday and was set for the week) and it makes a WORLD of difference to set aside the time to do it. You'll feel better and more nourished, and it will make life SOOOO much easier. Just print a monthly or weekly calendar, get out a few cookbooks or your computer and look up meal plans or recipes, and fill in the calendar. At one point I just picked a type of meal for each night of the week - ie Monday Mexican food, Tuesday soup and salad, Weds Mediterranean type, --- or whatever suits your fancy. Once you have a stockpile of these calendars you can just reorganize and reuse. I promise, this habit will change your life. Especially if you make enough dinner that there's always lunch for the next day! Keep your own blood sugar balanced first. Sort of like putting on your own 02 mask on a plane before putting on anyone else's! And please trust that I learned this from experience (not the oxygen, the taking care of myself) and my kids have become healthier for it! With love and understanding, Aviva

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Linda

Oh how I would love to be so relaxed about food! I grew up in two households that had exact opposite approaches to food. One was 3 meals, clean plate, no junk. The other was a whenever, whatever, however. The combination was not good for me. I learned to feel guilty about leaving food on my plate but desire the emotional freedom that came with the junk food. Three years ago I tried taking a scientific, analytical approach to my food. Meals were planned, ingredients researched, spreadsheets used, I even tracked the vitamin and mineral content to ensure I was getting what I was "supposed" to without adding costly supplements that had questionable efficacy. It was intense. Nine months later I had lost thirty pounds, reached what BMI says is an ideal weight for my frame and began to relax the rules. For me, all that structure allowed me to change what normal felt like. Making balanced meals no longer requires conscious thought, it's instinct. I experimented with varying protein/fat/carb balances and evaluated how each impacted me as an individual. Because of that, I can interpret and eat appropriately instead of allowing the cycle of poor nutrition to confuse and contaminate my body. I did not let the battle go. I fought until I won. It wouldn't work for everyone; my entire support system thought I was crazy and tried to talk me out of it. Admittedly it may not have been the best method, but I no longer fear food or the messages my body sends about it and that has been more liberating than I ever dreamed.

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    aviva

    Kudos Linda! Yes, sometimes fighting the fight or even getting fighting mad can be a game changer! I've got that sort of spirit myself!!! :) Aviva

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Jill Richardson

Thanks for this Aviva. My family struggles from a screwed up relationship with food. My brother was obese and ultimately died at 23 of a heroin overdose. In the months before his death he claimed he had given up fast food. After he died, my mom opened his bank statement and found out he'd been frequenting every drive-thru in town. There's a lot of shame connected to food in our family. I've dealt with it by becoming an expert in nutrition and agriculture and becoming a freelance writer with that focus (you can see my weekly op-eds on it here: http://otherwords.org/author/jill-richardson/) The one thing I'd add to your excellent post is that folks should check out Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon. It's an absolutely brilliant book.

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    aviva

    Jill, Thank you for your sharing this story about your bro. I am so sorry your family went through that pain. I just checked out your site and book - brilliant and amazing! What a way to transform the shame and to transform the lives of others. I'd love to interview you for this blog if you're ever interested. With warmth and respect, Aviva (And thank you for your reading my blog!) Aviva.

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Rose

Dear Aviva, Thank you for the information you offer so generously. I appreciate your sound perspective, thoughtful and loving advice, your ability to meet people where they are at while challenging them to be intentional and seek true satisfaction in life. I don't appreciate the photos that you chose to accompany this article. I have noticed with many of your blog posts that the photos do not match the information; you are offering self-acceptance and true health to your readers, while showing them images of beauty ideals, the "healthy-looking" models we all have seen much more than enough of in fashion magazines, "health" magazines, tv commercials. "We live in a culture filled with very specific images of the ideal body – which few of us typify." A photoshopped picture is worth a thousand encouraging words. I think you can do better! And give us all a breath of fresh air.

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    aviva

    Thank you for your comments, Rose. I welcome your suggestion for sources of photos of "real" women - they are not so easy to find! I will keep my eye out and be mindful of this - it has crossed my mind!

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Louise

Hi Aviva… I am a life-long vegetarian but have struggled with my own issues of body image & food throughout the years, too. Several years ago I took stock of my health, cleaned up my diet, lost 60# & regained my sense of wellness. I had started relying on frozen vegetarian entrees for meals after my kids grew up & left home because I was often too tired to cook after work. However, those meal options were loaded with hidden calories as well as a ton of sodium which contributed to my weight gain & many other health issues. So, I buckled down & rediscovered the joy of cooking & just love the dishes I craft from fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains. I sometimes get comments from friends & co-workers that they wish they could eat good wholesome foods, but they are far too expensive. Expensive? Really? I rarely eat out, I do not buy processed foods & make just about everything from scratch. No, it is not any more expensive-I just choose to use my food $ differently. To me, cooking & preparing meals has become, once more, a spiritual experience. And, thanks to my healthy eating habits, I have resolved my health issues, as well.

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Anita

Thank you for this wonderful, thought-provoking article. The description of orthorexia sounded uncomfortably familiar, and I read more about it here: http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/orthorexia-nervosa. I feel compelled to more closely examine the intention behind my eating choices.

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Myrna Penner

Thanks Aviva, I love youre positive attitude toward food. I always struggle with food and weight. This article helps me to remind myself to be calm and positive towards eating what is good for my body.

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Astrid

As always what an enlightening post Aviva. I truly enjoy your newsletters and articles, and this one couldn't have came at a better time. It is truly overwhelming at times to try and eat the 'right things' these days with so many diets, lifestyles, no time etc. when I think I have it all figured out I learn that the healthy alfalfa I was using in my salad is now GMO... Great! Green juices and salad - Alfalfa here I come! (sigh) As you mention, it is imperative to be aware of our emotions and to learn how to take "me time" in order to balance things out no matter what. It is Easier said than done, but not impossible. As I child I was also part of the "clean your plate" or you wont be able to go out out and play. So guess what followed? unwillingly finishing the entire meal, just to go and have fun! Definitely not doing that to my child, while making sure he does eat a little bit of each food group I make for the family. To this day I battle with that and despite dramatic changes in lifestyle, focusing on eating calmly and not in-front of the PC (very hard as that is my line of duty), phone or distractions, thinking of food as nourishing and not eating while feeling emotional in one way or another. it can be daunting and tedious, but doable. I have changed little by little what was instilled through out the years in order to become a better-happier person. Thanks Aviva-- please continue to enlighten us with your edifying articles. Blessings! .

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Renee

This just hit the nail on the head. I could identify with all the women you spoke of outside of there being any good memories of food. My mother was on an eternal diet and always had us on one as well. I wasn't fat as a kid but because I started to develope even before my older sister I was called fat. Even with that my father would threaten us if we didn't eat with, "If you don't eat all your dinner, I'm going to use a pitchfork and shove it down your throat!" No issue there, right? I grew up and started a family and gained weight with each child and never learned the proper way to eat until recently. I believe I did such a poor job of eating, for one, I just didn't care anymore! By the time I did care, I was extremely overweight, with type 2 diabetes and hyertension. I still am heavy but I've lost probably half the weight I need to a little at a time, including exercise a little at a time as I increase in strength and ability. I have arthritis (which is affecting me less and less) and was even to the place of using a cane to walk. Not anymore. I can even walk up a flight of stairs where before I couldn't make it up even 2 or three without being winded and in total pain. Life is a training ground, good and bad, for better or worse. I have learned that my body can't tolerate certain food that other people have no issue with at all. I don't eat any processed foods AT ALL anymore, I use only olive, grapeseed and coconut oils, I eat only fresh fruits and vegetables unless I can them myself but I don't use sugar, if it is white, white sugar, white salt, white flour...I don't use it. I prepare all our food here a home now, including bread made with almond flour as I don't use grains anymore either. Every once in a while, if I have to have a sweet treat, I make something with organic cocoa powder and a little bit of honey and add in some nuts. I craved white sugar before, now, not much since I took it totally out of my diet. I've started a garden in my teeny tiny back yard to get wholesome fresh, organic foods and I eat weeds, dandelion, purslane, lambsquarter, etc...Before, I never even knew they existed outside of people wanting to rid their lawns of them. All this to say, we have suffered long enough with this eating thing and you have done a wonderful job of laying out some great ideas to help. SO, thank you!

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Debbie

Aviva , You are such an inspiration to me. These tips validate how i want to be teaching mindful wellness to women in my practice. Feeding our body and soul is essential to to feeling good about life. I will be encorporating, these tips with fond thoughts of you, as I continue to develop my craft of helping women be all they can be in their journey through life--puberty through menopause. Thank you wise woman:) from the bottom of my heart. Debbie

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