Public Health England—the U.K.’s health agency—recently came out and stated that it wants to put the whole country on a calorie-restrictive diet, faced with a rapidly expanding generation, in which the country’s millennials are on track to become fatter than its baby boomers. Meanwhile, over at The Washington Post, a new study reports that instead of dieting, mindful eating may be the best way to reduce overall. The trick, of course, is to give up emotional eating, and that’s where many of us falter.
My relationship with food was fucked right out of the gate. As the daughter of a compulsive dieter, I learned to sneak food at an early age. When I was torturously bullied in sixth grade, a pack of raspberry coconut Zingers became an acceptable stand-in for a shot of bourbon. I learned how to use food to comfort myself, and unfortunately, never really came up with anything else.
I remember weighing myself in the eighth grade, not much shorter than I am now (5’1”), and despairing over being 117 pounds. I have always wanted to be 100 pounds; I’m now significantly far from that goal. I dimly remember once being in the 90 lb. range; I might have been 10 years old. I inherited this all from my mother, who was even shorter than I am and so aimed for the same weight goal. She was usually around 110 pounds and always looked beautiful, but like me, she longed for the side of the scale below 100. Between the two of us, the drugstore calorie counter got a lot of use. We both had a small notebook we wrote all our food into, trying to stay under 1000 calories (always trying to leave 500 calories for dinner). To be clear, I’m not blaming my mother for anything; she was my favorite person in the world. But, like so many women, she grew up and believed in a culture that preached thinness as the only acceptable body type.
If only diets worked. After decades of experience, I am here to tell you that they don’t. Or maybe they would if I followed them to the letter, but who does that? Along this torturous food journey, I have read and re-read the books of Geneen Roth many times. She’s a former compulsive overeater who lost 60 pounds by eating mindfully, and now writes and holds seminars about this all-important topic. It sounds so simple: Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. Someone asked her, “That’s what you wrote a whole book about?” She answered, “No, that’s what I wrote two books about,” and several more since then. My favorite is When Food Is Love, which I practically know by heart.
Ms. Roth just might remember me: I stood up in one of her seminars once and admitted that due to the stress of my father’s longstanding fatal illness, I couldn’t stop eating beige food. Most of the other attendees knew exactly what I was talking about: French fries, donuts, grilled cheese. Another news story reported by NPR and elsewhere described the ability to zap away our food cravings with “deep brain stimulation” as a possible weight-loss tool. It still seems a bit close to electric shock treatments for my liking, even though it could conceivably stop addictive behaviors related to drugs, alcohol, and overeating. The Guardian published a story last week in reaction to the country’s prescribed calorie count. Titled “In the obesity blame game, it’s easy to forget the role emotions play in food,” it wisely points out: “Only rarely, moreover, do we interrogate the relationship between what we eat and our mood—another component, broadly speaking, of the environment. If depression and anxiety are on the rise, and few would argue that they aren’t, shouldn’t we expect them to trail all manner of disordered eating patterns, up to and including over-consumption?”
So I was heartened by the study written about in the Post, even as I despair of ever being able to stop emotional or mindless eating myself. Even now, when I know it’s wrong and I currently have the metabolism of a chubby snail, I will grab a late-night snack to “give me energy” while I’m writing late at night, say. But it’s really feeding my brain, not my body. How many times do I eat things just because they’re put in front of me? Why do I have seconds of free Indian food at work when I am already stuffed? (I know, the answer is “free Indian food.”) What is this compulsion that threatens to actually destroy me due to ill health, that I haven’t been able to conquer my entire life? If I’m lucky, I will have another 30 or so years on this planet: Will I never be thin for any of them?
There was another Post article I could easily relate to: “How I’m raising my kids to have a healthy relationship with food, despite my eating disorder.” Believe me, I live in fear. Weirdly, so far it’s my 11-year-old son who seems focused on developing six-pack abs: His twin sister, bless her heart, is unconcerned, even though she’s already at the age I was when I could tell you how many calories were in an apple, a banana, a slice of bread. But when they go for seconds, or want a bowl of cereal in the middle of the afternoon, I can’t help but grill them: “Are you really hungry? Do you really want that right now?” Of course they say yes. My guilt is compounded by the fact that I believe I am a sucky role-model: My late-night deadline-stress-induced ice-cream binges are the very last thing in the world I would want them to mimic. I feel like one of the greatest gifts I could ever give them would be to love their bodies their whole lives instead of hating them, as I have hated mine.
So, emboldened by this study, I want to give it yet another try. Eat only when you’re hungry. Eat slowly. Stop when you’re full. After all, the results were nothing less than astonishing:
In the journal Current Obesity Reports, nutritionist Carolyn Dunn and colleagues from North Carolina State University performed the first review of research papers on mindful eating and weight loss. “All studies showed weight loss results” with mindful eating, they reported. In addition, four of five studies over a follow-up period found continued weight loss. The expected regain occurred in only one of the five studies. The review concluded, “Increased mindful eating has been shown to help participants gain awareness of their bodies, be more in tune to hunger and satiety, recognize external cues to eat, gain self compassion, decrease food cravings, decrease problematic eating, and decrease reward-driven eating.”
Mindfulness, as we know, can be an extremely effective tool overall. If I can give 10 minutes to a meditation practice in the morning, can’t I apply those same principles to my meals?
I am certainly willing to try. In fact I found the news about this study much more heartening than nationwide calorie limits or scary hunger-fighting electrodes. Best of all, mindful practices promoted by Geneen Roth and the experts in this study are the opposite of deprivation—which is what every diet is about and likely why so many of them fail. Am I even enjoying the late-night ice cream or am I just looking for immediate stress relief? Obviously, it’s the latter. If I’m mindful about the food, I am celebrating it and appreciating it. I’m also taking better care of my body, instead of mentally beating it up for not being an unattainable size 6.
I like this Geneen Roth quote (from her book Women, Food, And God) so much I should get it tattooed on the crook of my arm (well, maybe part of it):
When you no longer believe that eating will save your life when you feel exhausted or overwhelmed or lonely, you will stop. When you believe in yourself more than you believe in food, you will stop using food as if it were your only chance at not falling apart.
I’ve read those words many times, but I might be finally ready to take them to heart.