Multigrain bagel with cream cheese and halved grape tomatoes.
Although it is normally rude to comment on people’s bodies and ask them what they eat, as a yoga teacher I am often the subject of such remarks and questions. When my figure is complimented, I say thank you and give all the credit to a robust yoga practice and occasional high-incline strolls on a treadmill. As for my diet, I try to be honest with students about my eating habits without seeming too preachy.
The truth is that I eat whatever I want. But that doesn’t mean what you think it means.
It doesn’t mean that I constantly gorge myself on rich treats because I am gifted the metabolism of a hummingbird.
What it means is that I am in touch with what I truly want, and because I am in touch with my real cravings, I need not fear them. That is mindfulness in action. I have filled this post with photos of everything I ate in one day, but it is not the food itself that matters: it is the mindfulness with which I approached my food choices.
Honeycrisp apple with handful of oven-roasted, salted almonds.
To those of us who have ever felt compulsive around food (myself included!), the idea that we should eat whatever we want is frightening. We think that, given free reign of all the food available to us, we would surely eat ourselves into obesity and premature death. Regimented diets and food plans are perceived protections from ourselves, disciplines to corral the ugly glutton within. When we go on a diet, we are saying to ourselves, I cannot trust my hunger. If my relationship with food were not managed by rules, I would go crazy with food.
Deprivation reinforces this negative idea: it generates craving and makes our fear of food freedom worse. When we are hungry, denying ourselves, we create a pattern of withholding and indulgence. We are “good” until we can no longer bear it, then we are “bad.” Because we are deprived, when we give in and are “bad,” we tend to grossly overeat or to consume extremely rich food that we know doesn’t nourish us. We then interpret this pattern as proof that we cannot trust our desires.
Broccoli, carrots, yellow onion, and jalapeno peppers sauteed in safflower oil.
I started dieting at the age of fourteen and have tried countless diets, including some that qualify as eating disorders. For me, interacting with food has often been embattled, and the only solution that works for me is to give up the fight completely: surrender to win. I do this by making mindfulness the operating principle of my diet. Mindfulness can be defined as maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. By slowing down and becoming acutely aware of myself and my needs, I have been able to find the calm and rational voice within- a voice I can trust absolutely.
Raisins and saltines.
Beginning to practice mindfulness means developing a quality of awareness that is radically nonjudgmental and compassionate. If we have struggled with food at all in the past, this is a revelation. The fact is that when we are able to slow down and become quiet enough to listen to our bodies, we start to distinguish emotional needs from food needs. Often, I find that what appears to be a craving for Cheetoes in front of the television is actually loneliness, or that an impulse to skip a meal on a busy day is anxiety disguised. Practicing mindfulness, we will find that what we really want to eat actually supports our health. We have been fighting food for so long that we have forgotten the body’s evolutionary wiring to survive: the body wants to be nourished, and it craves nourishing food. We simply need to become mindful enough to hear what it is asking for.
Mashed sweet potato, sirloin steak, and fresh parsley.
Before I eat, I get quiet and become aware of the physical sensation of hunger, the longing on my tongue. I consider what I know about good nutrition and balance it with what I am craving. I consider the food options in front of me and think about how each option will make me feel. Then, I make a decision on what to eat. It is that simple. When I first started practicing this, I occasionally agonized over choices, but as time has gone on I draw on my inner wisdom and find that I have quicker and quicker access to what will satisfy my body, mind, and spirit.
Two books that helped me develop these ideas and habits were Susan Kano’s Making Peace with Food and Geneen Roth’s Women, Food, and God. I would highly recommend these for people who want to free themselves from obsession with food, body, and weight.
What do you think of mindful eating? Are you afraid of what would happen if you slowed down and simply ate what you wanted to?