Saturday, June 12, 2010

Do you hear that?

That's the sound of rules breaking.

A few nights this week, I ate peanut butter straight out of the jar. Spoon in the peanut butter. Spoon in the honey. Spoon in my mouth. Repeat. I'm not outing myself to lament having fallen off the food wagon. As far as I'm concerned, I'm driving this wagon. I'm just using Patrick's map. Up till now, when I've taken a detour it has usually (but not always) meant eating less at a meal if I wasn't hungry or having an extra fruit snack if I was. When I started this program, I made a commitment to myself to make mindful, healthful eating a natural part of my daily life, but it does take practice. There have been moments when I've stopped to ask myself, "is this food going to help my body or harm it?" In those instances, I've usually had to put it down and walk away.

But the greatest challenge of mindful eating has not been choosing healthful foods. It has been understanding why I eat. If I reach for a handful of granola when I'm not hungry, what am I trying to cover up? I recently read Geneen Roth's Women, Food, and God, and I've been practicing her approach of inquiry—stopping in the moment of wanting to binge to allow myself to understand what I'm feeling. (In fact, as I type right now, I have a strong urge to get something to eat.) My favorite of her seven Eating Guidelines is "Eat (with the intention of being) in full view of others." Because I tend to eat like I'm afraid someone's going to take my food away from me. I eat quickly. I eat simply because the food is there. And as it turns out, if I give myself the choice to put my snack on a plate and walk it over to the dining table, I usually choose not to eat it. Because food isn't what I wanted.

I met yesterday's mindful consumption e-mail from Patrick (eat a treat, be present for it, and recognize how your physical body reacts) with some discomfort. In fact, I reacted by making a huge batch of granola, snacking on it straight off the baking sheet, feeling terribly gassy all afternoon, and getting a stomach ache later because farting in a movie theater is against our social mores. But in the midst of all those terrible feelings, I continued to eat.

I think there's a flaw with the physical approach to mindful consumption. Food is too entwined with personal experience. Understanding the physical consequences of eating certain foods and overeating in general is not enough. For me, at least, the physical pain can add to the desired result—it provides a distraction from the anxiety, the sadness, the frustration, the embarrassment, etc.—although it ultimately exacerbates those feelings. It's a punitive cycle. Like getting a massive hangover and swearing you're never going to drink again . . . until next weekend. If millions of Americans were going to stop eating Big Macs because they give you indigestion, obesity would not be endemic to our culture right now.

The tricky part is that while the physical consequences are tangible, the emotional causes of eating are not always readily evident. I have no idea why I ate that peanut butter because I didn't bother to find out. If I had, I probably wouldn't have eaten it.

So what is the answer? For me, I have to constantly remind myself that my mind and my body are worth the extra time it takes to a) understand what I'm feeling and b) determine whether the choice I'm making is ultimately going to lengthen or shorten my life. I take more time to chew my food. I've decided that I have enough of everything I need—enough time, enough food, enough money. I meditate. This aspect of the program, I find, has been the most beneficial to me almost instantly. In fact, I've noticed that sometimes anxiety or frustration that might previously have caused me to eat now produces a great desire to sit instead.

What has been your experience with the mental side of mindful consumption?


  1. Very insightful post! There is a very tangled web that revolves around food. Figuring out how it relates to everything else is the mission. Understanding the relationship is the challenge.

  2. Awesome post, Ms. E! You hit the nail on the head. As women our challenges with these projects are different, given that we are often socialized to maintain disordered relationships with food and our own bodies.

    If we took the energy we spent agonizing over our food consumption and weight and put it somewhere else (becoming a warrior, a best selling author, or just maintaining inner peace) dope would that be?

  3. Good stuff Emily, sounds like you've got a book in you yourself around this topic.

    I know exactly that feeling you describe, of being fully aware of how nasty something is making you feel and continuing to eat it anyway.

    I'm not sure what to make of it either, but one thing's for sure, it's a hell of a lot better than not being aware of the pattern at all.

    If you were designing the mindful consumption practice, what would you do differently? (The KFB is a work in progress you know!)

  4. I'm not sure if there always has to be a reason why we eat something. Does pleasure have a reason? I don't know.
    I think that sometimes we eat something forbidden simply because it tastes good. No intellectual or emotional side to it. Pure animal pleasure.
    And then with pleasure comes the desire to repeat...

  5. I agree, Lili. Sometimes we eat what we eat b/c it's what we want. Indeed, everyone has a different relationship with food. But I often overeat and eat when I'm not hungry, and I know many other people do as well (otherwise so many people, women especially, wouldn't struggle with body issues—if you're eating something because it makes you happy, there's no reason to feel guilty about it.) I'm speaking to those times—when I mindlessly reach for food as a reaction to something that's bothering me, internally or externally.

  6. Patrick—I think the mental side of it probably comes up more when someone feels the desire to cheat on the diet. One approach to mindful consumption would be to ask participants to notice throughout the program when they feel compelled to eat something that's against the rules. Given time to really think about it, what's going on in those moments? If they do eat it, how do they feel afterwards, not just physically but also mentally? Or in terms of a mindful consumption challenge—what prompts the choices we make when we do indulge? Our taste buds obviously lead us to think of certain foods as "treats," but I think we often make those choices based on how the foods make us feel. I think when looking to change our behavior—i.e. practice mindful consumption—what happens before we make these choices is more important than what happens after.

  7. I like this thoughtful post, Em. I feel ya!