Imagine a different approach to your New Year’s resolution, one that doesn’t immediately assume you need to restrict your food options and daily meals to be healthier.
Imagine not focusing on a number of pounds to lose, calories to eat (or not eat) or minutes you absolutely must exercise each day.
Imagine, instead, enjoying your food experiences, eating mindfully and honoring what your body needs.
This year, set a resolution to follow mindful eating and movement practices, without measuring your progress in pounds or minutes. You just may end up healthier—in body, mind and spirit—than you would have been by starting the same old diet song and dance again.
It’s Time to Rethink Dieting
Traditional restrictive diets are rarely sustainable and realistic. If they were, we wouldn’t be talking about how to “get back on the wagon” every January.
The good news is, there’s another way to think about diets. By definition, a diet is the foods a person typically eats.
Home in on the part of the definition that stresses what you habitually eat—a continual commitment, not 5-day detoxes. The way you choose to eat is really a way of life. It incorporates cultural traditions, social celebrations and daily practices. A diet is a habit, and habits are your norm; they have to be sustainable and realistic for you and your lifestyle. So if you love cookies, cutting out all sugar may not be realistic. Habits take practice and the mindful commitment to repeat again and again until they’re the standard, not the exception.
What Is Mindful Eating?
Quick fixes rarely yield long-lasting or satisfying results. No by-the-numbers diet plan is designed to meet every individual’s needs, and when you follow a diet, you ignore, or tune out, your own body’s hunger, satiety and satisfaction messages. Without an awareness of what food your body is asking for and responding to, you too often may find yourself “recommitting” to an eating style that doesn’t suit your needs.
Mindful eating requires you to break this cycle. It is a practice of noticing how foods taste, being aware of hunger and fullness, and sensing how your body feels when you honor both your food preferences and nutrient needs.
Mindful eating is not a food or diet plan. It is a rejection of restrictive weight-loss diets altogether.
A recent study shows that registered dietitian nutritionists (R.D.N.s) who work in weight management prefer to use “nonrestrictive/intuitive eating practices” over more traditional restrictive diets. The majority of the 18,622 R.D.N.s who participated reported having a “positive view” toward mindful eating practices.
How to Break the Cycle and Start Eating Mindfully
First, make a list of the diet rules you follow, even when you’re not “on” a diet. These rules become a filter for every food decision made throughout every day. Fighting to stick to them quickly becomes mentally exhausting, and therefore the rules often backfire.
Let’s say you think you have a weakness for potato chips, so you try to limit the occasions on which you eat (or maybe even encounter) potato chips. Imagine that when you do encounter them, you find yourself overindulging. This is your diet, failing. It’s your body and mind taking advantage of what may be the last time you allow yourself to enjoy these foods. You may think to yourself, “If I’ve already given in, I might as well eat all the chips and then quit again.”
Chances are, this binge will happen over and over again, the more you try to avoid the foods you love.
As another example, have you ever found yourself wondering why you were hungry at an “unusual” time—like between breakfast and lunch—but decided to hold off on eating something because you “shouldn’t” be hungry yet?
Diet and food rules don’t improve your health. Instead, they put your mind in a place of restriction, and make certain foods, or food quantities (e.g., large portions) even more appealing. Your mind then becomes obsessed with the very foods you’re trying to limit.
This is especially true if energy and nutrient needs are not being met, as seen in the classic Ancel Keys “Starvation Study” of 1950. The young male participants—following a “semi-starvation diet” of 1,570 calories per day for six months—began to fantasize, and reportedly dream, about food.
Break the Rules
Make a list of rules you have that define when, why, what and how much you eat each each day. Pick one to “break” each week, or go through the list at a pace that feels comfortable to you. In this phase, it’s helpful to work with a registered dietitian trained in intuitive and mindful eating.
Then, start tuning into your body’s hunger and fullness signals.
If you’ve been following a diet for years (or decades), or have a history of disordered eating, be patient with this step. Your body’s hunger and fullness signals are accustomed to being ignored, but this step is all about starting to sense, feel and respect them. This sounds simple, but it can be a real challenge: when you start to feel hunger, honor that with a meal or snack (depending on the time of day and level of hunger).
Initially, your response to hunger may be to question or mistrust it—”Why am I hungry if I just ate lunch?” But try to acknowledge it by allowing yourself to eat before you get too hungry. When you become famished, symptoms such as irritability and difficulty concentrating make it more difficult to make mindful food choices. Eating when you start to feel hungry will help you enjoy the food you’ve chosen.
Learn to Appreciate Fullness
Fullness is another sensation that may take some time to notice and honor. Diets teach you to eat a certain portion size, or number of calories, not to eat until you feel “full.” But your body has a natural way to regulate food intake and meet your nutrient needs. Hormones and body sensations tell you when you’re full; you just have to learn how to listen.
You start to feel full, and satisfied, when you eat enough and eat foods you like. But remember the law of diminishing returns: beyond a certain point of consumption, even the foods you love the most won’t be as delicious anymore, because you’ve passed the point of satisfaction and started to eat beyond your needs.
Practice eating your meals and snacks slowly, without distraction—no TV, no phones, no books or tablets. If it helps, eat alone for a while.
Take one bite at a time, and pause to notice if you’re starting to feel full. It’s easier to stop eating a snack, meal or dessert when you know you’ll allow yourself to eat again soon (if you feel hungry).
Eat to Feel Good
In mindful eating, there are no “wrong” or “right,” “good” or “bad” foods. Those are categorizations and morals that restrictive diets assign to foods, which in turn determines how you feel about eating them.
Instead, learn to focus on how you feel when you eat. When you start to eat foods you like, eat when you’re hungry, and stop eating when you’re full and satisfied, you feel content. That can happen whether you’ve eaten a salad, a chocolate-chip cookie, a sandwich with fries, or a piece of fruit.
When you eat mindfully, honoring your body’s needs and your personal food preferences, it feels good. Not because you played by the rules, but because you did something to respect yourself.
Move Mindfully, Too
Sometimes, it feels good to work out hard. Sometimes, it feels good just to be outside, or enjoy a walk with a friend or partner. If you’ve set boundaries for yourself about what a “workout” is or what kind of “exercise” you do, you might be missing some of your body’s signals there, too.
While you’re already tuning in to hunger and fullness, practice giving up the exercise rules, too. If you think a workout only counts if it’s hard or sweaty or one hour long, then those rules determine what you do, how you feel when you do it, and what results you expect to get from it. In other words, that’s a diet, too.
Pay attention to what motivates you to be active. Then move in ways you enjoy, and that will make you feel good.
Commit to Mindful Eating and Movement This Year
Start with your list of diet rules to break, then tune into and honor your hunger and fullness. Finally, experiment with various types of movement that you enjoy.
This year is a good year to rethink “success” and whether or not any diet or exercise plan you’ve tried has been successful for you. Instead of restricting yourself with rules and limits, commit to being more mindful of how food and exercise make you feel, and enjoy doing what feels good.