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What No One Is Telling You About Mindful Eating

A therapist offers 3 Ingredients for successfully managing (and enjoying!) all the holiday treats

‘Mindful eating’ is one of those deceptively simple self-explanatory terms.

The Center for Mindful Eating defines it as, “Allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food selection and preparation by respecting your own inner wisdom.” 

That’s nice.

Is there any of that pasta left over from last night?

The problem with mindful eating isn’t really with mindful eating at all, it’s that unless you’re naturally a mindful eater, conscientiously eating in a consistent way is actually a skill that typically takes months and months (if not years) to hone in on and develop. 

Here’s what no one is telling you: simple isn’t easy when it comes to creating consistency.  

Mindfully eating once is pretty easy.  Mindfully eating at every meal for the rest of your life is not pretty easy.  

Forget about the rest of your life, mindfully eating for the rest of the week is likely to present a legitimate challenge.  

And yet so many blogs and vlogs and three minute segments on your local morning TV show offer mindful eating up as something you can just go ahead and do, easy as pie, a piece of cake, other low-hanging-fruit food puns.  

But if you know anyone that has struggled with food issues and has learned to eat mindfully, then you know someone who has dedicated a truly immense amount of time, energy and resolve to fundamentally changing their entire relationship with food, and even more notably, with themselves.

You know someone who has done the work to cultivate deep self-awareness and self-compassion where there was once a ton of numbing-via-food and self-rejection.

Mindful eating is packaged as a simple trick to regulate food intake when it’s actually a hidden spiritual practice that involves anchoring yourself in the present moment regardless of what you’re feeling/whether or not you’re triggered, what type of food is available to you, what your emotional reflexes around food are, what anyone around you is doing, what you learned about food as a kid, whether you’re alone in the kitchen late-night style—the list goes on.

Mindful eating is about creating access points to yourself so that you can ask and answer the ever important question, “Am I hungry for food or something else?

Eating mindfully is about staying in the present moment and making space for whatever you feel in that moment.

Perhaps most challenging, mindful eating is about trusting yourself. You can mindfully eat Ben and Jerry’s, but not if you don’t trust yourself to do that.

Underestimating all the skills required to eat mindfully in a consistent way sets you up for failure, and all the feelings of defeat and dis-empowerment that go along with it.

If you assume eating mindfully is as easy as putting your fork down every 4 minutes and chewing slowly, you’re just putting yourself on another thinly veiled yo-yo diet that makes you feel terrible about yourself when you break it.

It’s a cycle those who struggle with food know all too well —

You adopt a new strategy for ‘healthy’ eating, particularly around the holidays — 

I’m going to eat mindfully! 

{or} 

I’m going to allocate 1250 calories to food and burn 200 calories every day for the next three weeks! 

{or} 

I’m going to let myself eat whatever I want for the whole Thanksgiving weekend but then I’m totally detoxing and only eating non-processed whole foods for the next two weeks.

You power through your newfound healthy strategy and it works (!) It’s just that the efficacy wears off usually anywhere between 24 minutes and 4 days.

When your energy wears down a bit, all of a sudden you’re playing a not-fun game of emotional chicken in your mind:

Your impulse to eat something and your resistance to that impulse crash into each other repeatedly, the crashing exhausts you, and from that exhausted place you make a choice that doesn’t reflect your health goals.

In other words, you “cheat” (worst word ever to describe eating something that was unplanned) and you find yourself in an extremely familiar place: 

I didn’t get it right today, I’ll do it ‘for real’ tomorrow.

The unconscious message you send to yourself in the process is this: “I’m not good at self-control and I’ll never really change.”

The most successful strategies around healthful eating focus on three things, and self-control is not one of them.

That’s right, FOOD ISSUES ARE NOT ABOUT WILL POWER. If they were, they would be so much easier to resolve!

There are a myriad of other dynamics going on besides your level of self-control; when you deny and reduce those dynamics to the simple: “I’m not getting this right because I have poor will power,” you’re cementing a false identity of someone who can’t change.

What I learned in the two years I spent running food addiction therapy groups is this:

The most successful strategies around healthy eating focus on recruiting support, maintaining awareness that choosing to be healthy is a continual process (and not an event) and self-compassion.

Trying to change your relationship with food on your own is like trying to teach yourself long-division in second grade: SUPER STRESSFUL.

That’s because of the old therapy adage: it’s never about what it’s about.

Your destructive habits around food are just a representation of something that is calling to be healed. That ringing bell won’t stop ringing just because you throw away all the junk food in your house. It’s about more than that.

Everyone carries something that needs to be healed, it’s okay. Having something that needs to be healed doesn’t mean you’re someone with “issues,” or “baggage,” it means you’re a human being.

TO RECRUIT SUPPORT, connect with a health coach who gets it, find a support group, talk to a therapist, begin meeting with a holistic dietitian, or if you insist, commit to some seriously disciplined independent study. Everyone has their own style when it comes to recruiting support — whatever your style of support is, connect to it.

TO MAINTAIN AWARENESS THAT CHOOSING TO BE HEALTHY IS A PROCESS AND NOT AN EVENT, treat each moment as its own moment.

So what if you ate a few all of the fun-size Milkyway bars that were left over from Halloween, that was two hours ago. That doesn’t mean you “ruined” your plan and you have to start over from square one again tomorrow.  Entertaining that mindset is just an excuse for you to not take responsibility for the rest of your food choices that day.  Making excuses isn’t empowering and it doesn’t make people feel good.  You deserve to feel good, so stop sabotaging yourself with perfectionistic standards and keep it moving.

When you can, do not give your setbacks the power to dictate the rest of your evening or week.

This is a new moment, what do you want to do in this moment? What you ate twenty minutes ago has nothing to do with whether or not you make a choice that feels good and healthy for you now.

TO BE SELF-COMPASSIONATE, be nicer to yourself in your head!  

In other words, incorporate kinder, more encouraging self-talk.  

Recognize that nothing that works works all the time and that as lovely as you are, you’re not perfect, so of course you’ll make mistakes!  

You can change, and you’re figuring out how right now. Like #3 in the philosophy of my practice, real change takes real time.  Brush yourself off, we all fall.  Take a moment to rest and restore, try again.  You can do this.  (That kind of thing, but in the first person).  

Please remember, the bigger the issue, the more false starts there are.

It takes hundreds of tries sometimes, not just for you, but for anyone who really wants to change. Keep trying.  Give yourself some credit for not giving up on making positive changes and living a life you can really feel good about.  Lastly, enjoy the holiday treats!  

Katherine Schafler is an NYC-based psychotherapist, writer and speaker. For more of her work, join her newsletter community, read her blog, or follow her on Instagram.

Originally published at www.katherineschafler.com

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