Diets don’t work. If they did, we wouldn’t be trying again and again to find that perfect combination of food restrictions, self-control, calorie/carbohydrate counting, formulaic nutrient combinations, and searching for the next best-selling diet book.
As the year begins, many of us make resolutions to jumpstart our health in a new direction, often having to do with food. Well-intentioned, our dietary guidelines—or more likely restrictions—are meant to provide structure to lead behavior in more skillful directions. But, wait a minute! “Resolution” also means “RE-Solution”... if diets actually worked, we wouldn’t be trying to solve the same problem again and again!
This year, I recommend trying something different: mindfulness. Mindfulness is the moment to moment awareness of what is, in a gentle, nonjudgmental way. It's an invitation to try something different in your approach to life and in your approach to food. As director of mindfulness programming at Mohonk Mountain House, I lead private and group sessions that support the opportunity for guests to learn how to bring mindfulness into their lives, one moment at a time. Here are some practices I share with guests to help them apply mindfulness to their relationship with food.
1. Be Honest
Before you eat anything, take a moment to breathe and get in touch with how your body is feeling at this moment in time. Take three slow, full breaths to clear the mind and calm the body. Then check in with yourself, and ask if you are truly hungry or if you’re eating for another reason. If you’re tired, sad, angry, bored feeling overwhelmed, food is not the answer! If you are hungry, take a moment to be with that sensation, and then mindfully decide what you will eat. Taking a moment to pause not only helps you make healthier choices, but it helps you become more in tune with your body, and eventually eating will become a mindful choice rather than a thoughtless habit.
Become familiar with your hunger level. Create a hunger awareness scale for yourself so that you can more easily check in with your own hunger level on a moment to moment basis. Your scale will go from -5 to +5. Recall a time when you were really hungry. Perhaps you missed a meal and you can feel the sensations of physical hunger. That’s your -5 hunger awareness level. Now imagine a time when you had too much to eat. You are feeling so full that it’s uncomfortable and you ask yourself, “Why did I do that?” In the middle of the scale, there’s a zero point, which is where you feel comfortable. You’ve had enough to eat. You enjoyed it, and you’re feeling fine.
Taking a moment to check in with your hunger level before you eat will turn eating into a different experience. If you’re hungry, eat slowly, mindfully and enjoy your food. As you eat, continue to check in with your hunger awareness, and use it to guide your behavior. When you’ve come around your “zero point,” it’s time to stop eating. If you find that you ate too much, simply learn from that behavior. Since you’re not on a diet, there’s no playbook that calls for self-blame. Mindfulness is based on compassion for self as we explore the moment. Since you’re not in a rigid food control modality, you don’t have to punish yourself and “start dieting” again. In the next instant, mindfulness will gently suggest, “I can learn from this. Let me try something different next time.”
2. Prioritize Self-Care
If you spend most of your energy on others and put yourself at the bottom of your list, it can be difficult to be intentional as you nourish your body. And when your body is depleted, mind and spirit often follow. Making a conscious effort to take care of yourself means taking the time to do simple actions, such as making a shopping list that includes healthy items you enjoy, instead of shopping without intention. Rather than making grand resolutions that are difficult to fulfill, look for small changes that you can make, like drinking more water, putting your fork down between mouthfuls, sitting down to eat at the table. Remember that changing your relationship to food happens in the real world and takes practice. Changing habits is based on consistency and repetition; the brain begins to build new neural paths as you repeat a behavior again and again. Let the science of “neuroplasticity” support your building a habit of self-care as you focus mindful attention, along with compassion, on behavior that supports well-being.
3. Rehearse Your Success
You can support yourself in the practice of mindful eating by visualizing this desired behavior before doing it. As you work to master this new skill, imagine yourself doing the sequence of necessary actions and make it feel as real as possible. Repeat this again and again, making visualization part of your daily routine. Research indicates that time spent visualizing ourselves performing an activity in advance makes it easier for us to do.
By incorporating simple mindfulness techniques into your everyday life, you’ll find that your relationship with food and eating does not have to be a battle. Nurturing your body with mindful eating becomes a moment-to-moment practice melded seamlessly into how you treat yourself. Since the benefits will continue beyond 2021, let this be the year that you mindfully shift towards exploring an ongoing “solution,” rather than applying the transitory band-aid of a “resolution.”
Nina Smiley, PhD, director of mindfulness programming at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York, holds a doctoral degree in psychology from Princeton University. She is the coauthor of The Three Minute Meditator and Mindfulness in Nature, as well as the CD “Mini-Meditations That Will Enhance Your Life.” Smiley has studied mindfulness with Jack Kornfield, founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and Sharon Salzberg, cofounder of Insight Meditation Society, among others. She delights in sharing insights about meditation and wellness, and her work has been featured in numerous renowned publications.