Specific strategies to encourage mindful eating
1. Acknowledge that all forms of non-hungry eating are normal and have a biologic basis. You are normal. You are not weak. You are human and you are not alone.
2. Understand the limitations of willpower. We all have a limited amount. Knowing your limits is the key so that you can plan accordingly. What things tend to drain you? When is your willpower reserve likely to be low? What specific actions can you adopt so that making healthy food choices is easy not just during the best of times, but also at the worst of times? For example, if you have to buy a trigger food, keep it out of sight or make it harder to reach. Research has shown that simply making a food physically less accessible is a viable deterrent. Meal plan or have quick healthy food options available always. When you are tired or drained, it is unlikely you are going to have the energy or motivation to cook something. You're more likely to reach for the crappy, quick option.
3. Stop and think before you put it in your mouth. Whether we are talking about habitual/boredom eating or emotional eating, the ability to stop in the moment and think about what you are doing and why you are doing it is critical. Initially, this is hard. It takes energy and effort. Our brains (which are basically lazy) will resist. It has evolved to conserve energy and resources for more important stuff. But don't worry. Eventually, it will get easier as you adopt new habits and learn new, better strategies for dealing with stress and emotions.
4. Whenever possible, create distance between you and the impulse or emotion. Angry and reaching for the Ben and Jerry's? Set a timer. Go for a walk. Take a bath. Drink a cup of tea. Write down your emotions/motivation in a journal. If you can create space between you and the impulse or emotion, it will likely pass. And, you can even give yourself permission to eat whatever it is you were going to eat after that "cooling down" period. Whatever decision you ultimately make will be the result of a conscious choice that takes into account the cost and benefit of the behavior rather than a knee-jerk reaction.
5. Learn positive ways to deal with stress. Coping strategies are important. Learning to deal with stress in a healthy way is the goal. Meditation, yoga, exercise, reading, relaxation, a hot bath, a cup of tea, aroma therapy, journaling, traditional therapy, a massage, getting adequate good quality sleep. There are many positive ways to deal with stress. The key is to find a more positive way to deal with negative emotions. Again, this takes awareness, mindfulness, and practice. Lots and lots of practice. Yet over time, you will literally rewire your brain, and instead of turning to food, you will begin to turn to these other strategies.
6. Be kind to yourself. Always. Kenny Rodgers was onto something with his lyrics from the Gambler. "You've got to know when to hold'em. Know when to fold'em. Know when to walk away. Know when to run." Sometimes giving into a craving is the best thing you can do. Why? Because, sometimes that craving serves a purpose. We've all tried to resist a craving for something we really wanted not because we were hungry but because we wanted it, damn it. Instead, we ended up eating 10 other things we didn't want, only to end up eating what we really wanted in the first place. Food isn't just about eating calories. Food has a cultural and emotional context. And sometimes the benefits of eating that cookie outweigh the costs. So eat the cookie and then move on. Not everything you put in your mouth has to qualify as a health food or satisfy hunger. I personally like the 80/20 rule. The idea is that 80% of your choices should reflect an effort to nourish, while the other 20% can be just because you enjoy it or you want it because it makes you feel good. By allowing yourself these indulgences, you minimize the unproductive and often toxic effects of guilt. Along the same lines, don't strive for perfection. Sometimes good enough is good enough.
7. Focus on nourishing your body, not punishing it. Food is beautiful. It tastes good. We need it to survive. It has a cultural and emotional context. Eating it is an enjoyable experience. There is no doubt that our food choices often reflect our complicated relationship with food. We've been thrust into an unnatural environment where food is not only available 24/7. Furthermore, much of the food out there is unhealthy food that has been engineered to make it irresistible and then aggressively marketed by companies who are all to happy to exploit our weakness if it increases their profits. But that is the world we live in. And in order to honor your health, you need to make mindful choices. This has never been more difficult. Fortunately, it does get easier, especially if you can harness the power of habit to work for you rather than against you. I won't lie. It takes effort. It takes time. There are many forces conspiring against you. In the end, your ability to love yourself and make decisions that honor your health because you do love yourself is critical. Choose foods that nourish. Stop seeing healthy eating as punishment or penance. It's about caring for this awesome body you live in. Stop using your body as a trashcan and making excuses. I just can't help myself, I can't afford to eat healthy. I don't have time to food prep/cook. You can help yourself. Eating healthy doesn't have to be any more expensive than eating unhealthy. You absolutely do have time to take care of yourself. After all, self care is about giving the world the best of you, instead of what's left of you. And this brings us back to mindset. The only way to control what you put in your mouth is to start with your mind. It all starts between the ears.
Now that I know what it is, how do I stop it?
In both non-hungry/boredom eating and emotional eating, the first step to getting it under control is to acknowledge that it is a problem. It is also important to recognize that it has a biological basis and is not necessarily a moral failing. Biology is a powerful driver of our behavior. Giving into a craving does not make you a bad or a weak person. It makes you human.
It is also important to understand that willpower is a limited resource. We often blame a lack of willpower when we cave to a craving, yet most experts agree that willpower is a finite resource, and while some of us likely have a bigger reserve than others, most of us will reach the bottom of the barrel at some point. When you accept the limitations of willpower and motivation you will begin to appreciate the importance of planning in order to ensure better food choices.
Mindfulness is Key
Because boredom and habitual eating is primarily driven by habit, you have to address the habit. This starts with mindfulness, the ability to be aware in the moment and to make conscious choices rather than simply react. Yes. I know. This is hard. Habits by nature are an attempt for the brain to bypass a mindful state. The point of autopilot is so that you don't have to waste time or energy thinking about it, and the brain will resist your efforts, at least initially.
Unfortunately, the only way to change a habit is to stop yourself in the moment and take inventory of your motivations and your choices. I want a cookie. Okay, are you hungry, tired, or bored? Do you want the cookie simply because it is there and it smells good and it looks good? Does the benefit of eating that cookie (the enjoyment you experience) outweigh the costs (gaining weight)? Sometimes the answer may be yes, and that's okay. The point of mindfulness is to make a conscious decision rather than an automatic one. And it takes practice. Lots and lots of practice. (Don't worry. We will be exploring real strategies in part III of this series).
Overcoming emotional eating also requires mindfulness. Emotions like anger, fear, frustration and sadness are normal. They are automatic, and we have no control over the emotions we feel. What we do have control over is how we deal with those emotions.
Many of us avoid discomfort at all costs. So when sad, we eat or drink to make us feel better. When angry, we throw things, scream, and/or eat a gallon of ice cream. When afraid, we seek comfort through binge watching Netflix and binge eating pasta. Obviously, eating to sooth ourselves isn't necessarily always a bad thing. Coping mechanisms serve a purpose even if they can have unwanted side effects. But ultimately, while an oxymoron, we must learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
A mindful approach to eating allows us to create distance between ourselves and the emotion or the impulse in the moment. So, I'm angry. Huh. Okay. I don't like how that feels. By creating some distance and allowing yourself to experience the emotion non-judgmentally, you give the emotion a chance to play out. Most emotions peak and then wane. The point is to let the emotion(s) pass without reacting.
Again, mindfulness requires awareness, and it takes practice. It's a skill like any other that takes time to master. And it starts with your head. With the story you tell yourself. With the inner dialogue you create and with your attitudes about food, about eating, and about yourself.
What is non-hungry/emotional eating?
Non-hungry eating is a broad category that essentially refers to eating for reasons other than hunger, such as eating out of boredom or habit.
Emotional eating is a form of non-hungry eating in which individuals use food (or liquid calories) to cope with emotions.
For the purpose of discussion, the term non-hungry eating will be used to refer specifically to boredom/habitual eating, while emotional eating will be used to refer to eating that is driven by emotions. Obviously there is some overlap between these two categories, but it's still worth differentiating between them since the motivation behind each can be quite different.
What causes non-hungry eating?
Boredom, habit, and/or access to food is often the driving force behind mindless non-hungry eating. The desire to eat is driven primarily by external cues. Eating a bucket of popcorn at the movie theatre. Devouring a hotdog and cotton candy at the ball park. Finishing off an entire bag of potato chips while binge watching Netflix. Any of these sound familiar?
In the case of non-hungry eating, there is generally a trigger. A visual cue. A smell. A ritual that has forever paired a food or eating behavior with a specific activity, like pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving or cake on our birthdays. It could also be driven by the taste of food and/or how that food rewards the brain.
What causes emotional eating?
Emotional eating is a type of non-hungry eating that generally goes beyond boredom or habit. Food becomes a coping mechanisms. We eat as a way to deal with an emotion. Sadness, anger, frustration, fear. These emotions make us uncomfortable, so we eat in an attempt to blunt that emotion and feel better, if only in the moment.
Unfortunately, the foods we choose to self-medicate are often high in fat and sugar, and the relief we get is often only temporary at best and may even leave us feeling worse in the end. Ironically, like drugs and alcohol, fat and sugar have addictive qualities. And while eating a cookie (at least on the surface) is arguably less harmful than taking drugs, in its most severe form, emotional eating can lead to binge eating, a serious eating disorder, as well as weight gain and chronic health diseases like heart disease and diabetes that have detrimental effects on our mental and physical health.
Interestingly, emotional eating tends to be more of a problem for women than men. There may be many reasons for this. For example, traditionally women were more likely to be the ones shopping for and preparing foods. A woman also experiences monthly fluctuations in powerful hormones that contribute to cravings for fatty and sugary foods. Furthermore, hormonal shifts associated with pre-menopause and menopause may come into play. Women are also the fatter sex because their bodies were designed to not only provide calories for themselves but also their off-spring. Finally, although this is changing somewhat, the objectification of women's bodies has likely placed pressures on them that contribute to an unhealthy relationship with both their bodies and food.
Biological basis for non-hungry eating
Boredom/habitual eating is generally caused by habit. And habits are powerful. They are the brains attempt to conserve valuable and limited resources. It's clear that our ability to switch into autopilot is essential to functioning in a complex world. We'd be overwhelmed without this automatic mode. Unfortunately, many habits are not consistent with our health goals and do not serve our best long-term interests.
Emotional eating also has a physiological basis. Once upon a time, the threats we faced didn't just feel like life and death, they were. As a result, when under stress, physical or emotional, our body releases hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol in particular can have a profound impact on not only hunger, but the foods we choose to satisfy that hunger. During times of stress, we tend to crave fatty, sugary, high-calorie foods. Our distant ancestors likely had limited access to both sugar and fat, and the foods that did contain these macro nutrients also contained many other essential micro nutrients like vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. We also had to work a lot harder for our calories back then, unlike today when we are literally surrounded processed foods high in sugar, fat, and calories but lacking in nourishment. Elevated cortisol levels can also impact the quality and quantity of our sleep which further increases cortisol levels. Disrupted sleep also affects leptin and ghrelin, two additional hormones that regulate hunger and satiety. It's a vicious cycle. Finally, increased cortisol levels favors weight gain particularly in the midsection. This belly fat, also referred to as visceral fat, is associated with chronic systemic inflammation, which has been implicated in cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, auto immune disorders and diabetes among others.
Finally, hormonal fluctuations can impact cravings and food choices as well as how our bodies process those calories.
Non-hungry and/or emotional eating leads to the consumption of food (often unhealthy food) to fulfill a need other than hunger. Most of us engage in some form of non-hungry and emotional eating. It's common and has a biologic/physiologic basis. Occasionally eating out of boredom or because we are stressed is unlikely to cause significant harm, unfortunately, for many, this type of eating is all too common, ultimately contributing to weight gain, the inability to lose weight, and/or the development of life-style related diseases. In a nutshell, it keeps many of us from achieving the best version of ourselves.
Lifespan: Why We Age—and Why We Don't Have To by David A. Sinclair
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is an intriguing book written by the renowned Harvard researcher, David Sinclair.
Sinclair believes that our attitudes about the inevitability of aging may be somewhat flawed. In fact, based on his research, he believes that not only will we be able to slow aging down, we may someday be able to reverse it.
He discusses the shortcomings of aging research that is partly a function of the fact that we don't currently classify aging as a chronic disease, thereby making its research ineligible for government funding. He also argues, and strongly so, that aging is by far the biggest threat we face, pointing out that most other chronic diseases are secondary to the aging process.
The last fourth of the book explores the social, cultural, and ethical implications of extending life significantly. This, for me, was wasted space as it's all supposition and didn't really do the topic justice.
Definitely worth a read for anyone who is interested in cutting edge anti-aging science. According to Sinclair, understanding why we age (something that is becoming more clear) is the first step in stopping and maybe reversing the process. Some things that might slow aging...fasting, short exposure to temperature extremes (hot or cold), the diabetes medication metformin. According to Sinclair, it's an issue of when and not an issue of if we will be able to slow/reverse aging. The cure for aging is on the horizon. And, he's probably right.
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The Autoimmune Epidemic: Bodies Gone Haywire in a World Out of Balance--and the Cutting-Edge Science that Promises Hope by Donna Jackson Nakazawa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book is written by a journalist who finds herself with a somewhat rare and very debilitating autoimmune disease called guillain-barre syndrome.
As someone with an autoimmune disease, I was intrigued. At the age of 25, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism (the result of an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto's thyroiditis) after suffering with extreme symptoms for over a year. At the time, I was in grad school, studying to become a physical therapist. I was tired, chronically cold, and dare I say it, horribly constipated...all the time.
The doctor I was dating at the time said I just needed more fiber. Of course, having already earned a BS in Nutritional Sciences, I knew that my diet wasn't the issue. Still, what was I going to do. I certainly wasn't going to go to the doctor.
It was only by chance that my diagnosis was made. A thorough exam by my gynecologist revealed an enlarged thyroid, and via his encouragement I had it tested. Ultimately, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism.
20 years later, and my daughter who is 10 is suddenly struck with chronic vomiting and diarrhea. Testing reveals she has Celiac disease...closely associated with autoimmune thyroiditis (what I have) and also an autoimmune disease. Then we find out my mother also has celiac or at least an autoimmune response to the protein gluten.
So, yes. I get it. Ironically, it's only recently that doctors have even acknowledged that the immune system is capable of an autoimmune response. No wonder so many people, mostly women, go undiagnosed.
In her book, Nakazawa explores the rise in autoimmune disorders and what environmental factors may be at play, among her revelations...the fact that some of us may live on or near toxic dump sites...is eye opening.
She also talks about the need to start identifying autogens much the way we try to identify carcinogens as she argues that autoimmune disorders are just as serious and can be just as debilitating especially since they are often misdiagnosed.
Good book that looks at what is likely to be a growing area of concern for many of us, if it isn't already. Nakazawa points out that our immune systems are bombarded with foreign substances daily, from microscopic carpet fibers, to exhaust fumes, to chemicals we breath in and even eat. It should be no surprise that so many of our immune systems are going wonky.
ROAR: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life by Stacy Sims
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This was okay.
Main strength: Women are not little men, and training like little men does our body a disservice. I also like that Sims recommends using real food to meet your energy and hydration needs. I think this is wise advice.
I learned two things from this book:
1. A woman’s performance can be impacted by hormones (aka where she is in her cycle). Seems like a no brainer, but not something I had really read much about. In fact, I would have thought performance would be worse during the actual menstrual cycle, but she lays out the evidence for why this is not the case.
2. As women age, changes in their hormones impact how their body burns certain fuel. Again, makes sense and actually good to know. I'll be 49 in a few months, and I do feel as if my approach to training and diet has had to change.
Weakness of this book:
I felt as if beyond the two things I learned not much else was there. Above a few generalizations about hormones, by her own accounting, each athlete has specific needs, and the only way to fully understand what they need is to get tested and then use the results of those tests to tweak what they are doing.
I also don't agree with some of her dietary advice, which goes against other stuff I've read. For example, I think she shortchanges intermittent fasting. I've actually read several books on TRE which is a form of intermittent fasting that has been shown to have many health benefits. I personally have started a 8 hour window of eating with a tremendous amount of success. I'm not participating in an ironman, but I do train regularly. In fact, I think as a woman who is getting very close to menopause, it has helped me beyond expectations. I've never been leaner, stronger, or slept better with less overall effort. So there you go.
So, yeah. It was okay.
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Who would of thought...grit, aka perseverance, aka showing up everyday with a solid work effort and an unquenchable fire for something could lead to success? Maybe even a greater predictor of success than talent or natural ability?
Still, I enjoyed this book. I mean, maybe it's a no brainer, but still something worth reminding ourselves of.
Duckworth looks at success, and how the power of passion combined with perseverance leads to it.
And it's not just effort. It's effort that regularly seeks to outdo itself. It's effort that is structured and related to tangible outcomes.
I read this on the heals of "Outliers," another book that explores success from a slightly different perspective, so I thought it was a nice compliment to the ideas presented there, which maybe enhanced my reading experience.
Definitely a book for those with aspirations and for those who believe in the power of a good work ethic as it reinforces the importance of showing up, maybe even when things aren't going your way.
How Not to Diet: The Groundbreaking Science of Healthy, Permanent Weight Loss by Michael Greger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
So, I became a huge fan of Dr. Greger after reading his first book, "How Not to Die," which to me is probably one of the best books out there written on diet as it relates to health.
This book was also good, but felt a little more gimmicky in its presentation.
It starts off with a comprehensive look into the food industry and its shortcomings along with the politics of processed food. Because I happen to do a lot of reading on the subject, much of this was stuff I'd read in other books...which is not Dr. Greger's fault, but was a bummer for me.
He then goes through the various claims made about certain foods/products as they relate to weight loss. He looks at the research and discusses what is and what is not supported by the research to date.
I felt this was kind of useful, but again, kind of gimmicky, at least at times. I think the overall premise is to find easy nutrition hacks/tweaks to our diet that might assist with weight loss and weight maintenance while also promoting better health. In that sense, it succeeds.
My favorite part was a review of the literature on time restricted eating, a form of eating I've been reading a lot about and have recently adopted and had huge success with.
Like "How Not to Die," "How Not to Diet" is a lengthy book, maybe a little longer than it needed to be. That said, I love that Dr. Greger is constantly looking to the evidence as opposed to simply making claims about a particular food/diet strategy. For example, does apple cider vinegar assist with weight loss? What about drinking water? Flax seed or chia seed? Is one better at trimming our waistline? I also love that he provides links to all the cited works. Again, he makes sure we have access to the evidence so that we can decide for ourselves. I also learned some new tidbits, which is always nice. We are constantly bombarded with diet tips...eat this, not that...kind of thing, and it's nice to actually see what we have evidence for and what that evidence says.
Also, as in "How Not to Die," Greger's bias for a plant-based diet comes through. Clearly there is a lot of evidence for plant-based diets, but I think his enthusiasm goes a little beyond the science, and I'm okay with that.
Bottom line: this wasn't as good as "How Not to Die." That said, it does succeed at using the science to either support or debunk many popular diet hacks. Gregor's discussion of the politics of the food industry, while not novel, is still worth reading.
His next book due out in 2022? "How Not to Age." Will definitely be buying and reading that one, too.
Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Often when we see an extraordinarily successful person, we attribute their grand accomplishments to their natural ability and talent. IE...he's just a genius.
But what if success is less about innate talent and more about pure dumb luck? What if our success is as much a function of chance as it is our uniqueness?
Many of the examples cited in Gladwell's book perfectly illustrate the role that external forces play with respect to our achievements. For example, he cites examples from sports in which age cut-offs are used to group athletes as a means to make his point. Clearly, at certain ages some older boys may have a physical advantage over their teammates, especially around the ages of typical puberty. I have three sons who all play baseball, and I've seen this at work. My oldest son was always a little better and bigger than his peers, even though he was not the oldest kid. Then many of his peers started to go through puberty, when he did not. He went from being the largest kid...to the smallest. He started moving down in the line-up, got less playing time, got to pitch less. He just couldn't compete with some of these boys who now had full-beards.
Ironically, at 17, though still behind the curve in some respects, he is again the tallest boy. While some of his teammates peaked at 12, he still hasn't. Unfortunately, in some respects the damage may already be done. For many years, he was denied opportunity, not based on raw ability or talent or even potential, but based on his size at a specific time...or lack of it, thanks to his genetics. He's a late bloomer, now 6 foot 3 and still growing, however, he has missed opportunities throughout his development due to falling behind the curve.
Along the same line, my 3rd son and 4th child has had only a fraction of the opportunity to play a sport as his two older brothers have had. I mean, I had four kids in five years. By the time number four came along we were pretty busy, and as a result, our youngest has had a lot less opportunity to excel in a sport than his brothers, purely because he was the youngest. There is simply less time and money. Also less enthusiasm and support from us. I often wonder if he would be a better ball player if he had been born first and had had the opportunities his older brothers have had?
The point is that when we pick winners and losers, it has the potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In short, whether or not talent is nurtured is often influenced by many factors outside an individual's control.
This is true in education as well, and really in many areas of achievement.
Research I've read in other books has also shown that a teacher's attitude about a student's ability, can in fact impact how they ultimately perform.
In that sense, ability and talent is often ignored because where a child is in development can impact our perceptions about innate ability and talent.
Gladwell further explores the role of opportunity by referencing Bill Gates, who, thanks to dumb luck, had unique opportunities that ultimately may have given him an edge that had he been denied could have changed everything.
Clearly, Gladwell isn't trying to deny that people like Gates are extremely smart, talented, or even destined for some sort of success. Instead he is pointing out that innate ability and potential are only a part of it. The world is constantly shaping us in ways that we can't take credit for.
I wished Gladwell would've talked more about the ability to see and capitalize on opportunity as being a factor. If that is true...it's more than just dumb luck or opportunity. It's our ability to see the opportunity which again might reflect an innate ability that some of us have and that others may lack.
All in all, an interesting read about the outliers among us and some of the forces that help to create and shape them.
Healthy Habits Suck: How to Get Off the Couch and Live a Healthy Life… Even If You Don’t Want To by Dayna Lee-Baggley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was a fun and informative little book written by Dayna Lee-Baggley, a psychologist who discusses exactly why healthy habits are so hard to adopt and sustain. In short, they are hard because, in her words, they suck. They go against years of evolutionary conditioning that values energy conservation. Unfortunately, in a world where calories are all too accessible and where the physical demands of life are no longer sufficient to promote fitness, adopting healthy habits, no matter how inconvenient or difficult, is key to both longevity and a good quality of life as we age.
Hate to exercise? Too bad. According to Baggley, many of us hate getting up to go to work, but we do it because we value the pay check. Exercise or eating healthy is no different. It would be great if every healthy choice was easy, convenient, or welcome. But at the end of the day, sometimes they are necessary and that alone should be reason enough to push forward.
The key, in her opinion, is to tie the healthy behaviors into something we value. Make it personal. So maybe we don't like to get up early to exercise because it's much more satisfying to hit the snooze button, however, we do value health because it allows us to enjoy our kids, spouses, or other activities. So the exercise is a means to an end, even if it isn't always "fun."
There is a lot here for someone who is a chronic "excuse maker." The "I don't like exercise" or "I just don't have time" groups. It also offers a lot of useful advice for emotional eaters. Those who eat to sooth some emotional need or dull some uncomfortable emotion.
I've read quite a few of these types of books and what I liked about this one was that Dayna doesn't sugar coat the truth. She also doesn't feel the need to overwrite the book. It's short, and instead of filling it with fluff to beef it up, she simply says what needs to be said, which I appreciate. Too many authors try to fill up pages even if it means going off topic or being overly repetitive. This is concise and to the point.