By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD
I am a big fan of a mindful eating approach. One in which you listen to feelings of hunger and fullness, detach from outside messages about food, and give food your full attention while eating. But after finishing the writing of my first book, I experienced barriers that encouraged the opposite: mindless eating.
I think this happens to a lot of people — they try to eat mindfully only to find it doesn’t pan out. Instead of blaming the approach, you might want to consider the barriers that can get in the way.
1. Too Much Stress: A little stress is good, but when it gets to be too much, it can impact how we eat. As I’ve written before, stress is associated with excess weight. For me, the intense stress I was feeling was short term, and I knew that once I turned in the manuscript I could get back to the way things were. But I found myself rushing through meals and eating to distract myself from all I had to do.
Short-term stressors probably have few long-term effects. But when the stress is chronic, it’s important to consider changing the stressful circumstances or finding a more effective way to deal with them.
2. Lack of Sleep: Stress and lack of sleep usually go hand in hand. It may be that we take more time to relax at night by staying up late or work into the night to get more done. Because I was getting up each morning at 4:30 a.m. to write, I was getting less sleep than usual. And towards the end I was staying up late and getting up early.
Research shows that lack of sleep increases hunger hormones, causing increased hunger and eating. This is what I found over the last couple of months: I always felt hungry. It was hard to for me to satisfy my appetite because it was out of whack.
3. Dichotomous Thinking: This is a term researchers use for looking at the world as black or white. When it comes to food, many look at eating as all or nothing (good/bad, healthy/unhealthy). I’m grateful I dropped this thinking years ago —otherwise I’m sure I would have gained excess weight during this time.
The problem with dichotomous thinking about food is that it can cause people to eat more than they otherwise would, something I call the “excuse-to-eat syndrome.” For example, a 2002 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found those who anticipated future dieting ate more than those who didn’t. Taking the judgment out of food is key to avoiding the binge, restrict, binge cycle discussed in books like Michelle May’s Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat.
4. Strict Rules: Someone recently told me a mindful eating approach didn’t work for them because they couldn’t follow the “eat only when hungry” rule. I understand this because whenever we adopt strict rules with eating, it’s human nature to want to break them. At first these rules empower, but then they tend to backfire because of their inflexibility.
It’s important to remember that being mindful is not about what you do, it’s about being aware during the process of eating so you can make the best decisions.
5. Skipping Meals: It’s tough to stay mindful when you don’t manage hunger well and find yourself famished or not hungry for meals. This can happen when people skip meals, graze on food, or make feeding themselves a low priority. I noticed this happened when I didn’t plan meals and ended up grabbing the lame sandwich for lunch instead of the satisfying lunch I’m used to (sandwich, salad, and fruit).
It’s only been three days since I turned in my manuscript, but I already feel a world of difference. I’m well rested, have my meals planned for the week, and don’t feel constant hunger. Maybe the secret to mindful eating is putting yourself (and food!) at the top of the priority list (at least most of the time).
Do you follow a mindful eating approach? If not, what gets in your way?