Few of us exclusively eat when we are actually physically hungry, when our body sends us hunger signals such as a grumbling stomach, slight dizziness or an empty stomach feeling, which let us know that we need fuel up our bodies.
Most of us will eat at other times too - when it's the "right" time on the clock, when we feel stressed out, upset, bored or when we have a craving for a particular food. If we are offered food we will often take it, no matter how hungry we feel, and we will eat just because we are in the company of other people who are eating. Sometimes we know that there won't be any food available or that there'll be no time to eat later on, and so we eat more than we need so we have enough food in our bellies until there is food again.
As a consequence of this, it is easy for our calorie intake to exceed the amount we actually need and so inevitably we gain weight. Our society's prescription for having too much weight is an often extreme, short term diet in order too lose a few pounds and then eat less and more healthily for the rest of our lives.
Why Diets Don't Work
Usually when we start a diet we are very disciplined. We have a dream target weight, a food plan, freshly stocked kitchens and so we enthusiastically commence our diet. As soon as the first few pounds are off the scale, for many of us, something almost miraculous happens: super-hero motivation fills us and we burst with willpower. At this stage, we might not even be able to understand anymore why we were eating too much, let alone ever touched chocolate cookies or crisps! We feel like a new person who has finally got their weight and eating habits under control.
Unfortunately, this first phase doesn't last forever. I believe this may be because human beings are evolutionarily programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. In phase one, the pleasure of losing our first pounds is so exciting that it unquestionably exceeds the pain or discomfort of not eating that second portion or bar of chocolate in front of the television after an exhausting work day. We've got endless willpower!
After a while, however, something shifts and our willpower decreases. We realise that in order to keep those pounds off permanently we will have to always maintain that same level of discipline. In addition to that realisation, we might go through a stressful period at work or a difficult period with our family - or simply feel a bit low, as life can be. That's usually when we discover that we can't maintain our willpower anymore and we slip. "After all, what's the problem with a little piece of chocolate here and there anyway?" we might think. But it never ends with that small piece of chocolate, which soon becomes a bar and we end up back in our familiar and comfortable eating habits. This is shown by the fact that about 95% of people who lose weight by dieting regaining it in 1-5 years. Not only that, our dieting can promote an unhealthy relationship to food.
I believe this is because diets don't help us change our eating patterns in a sustainable way. They change - for a certain time - the food we put on our plates and into our mouths, but they do not change our relationship with food. In order to change our eating patterns in a sustainable way, willpower is simply not enough.
Mindful Eating - Tapping Into Our Innate Abilities
Unlike diets, Mindful Eating teaches us to change our eating patterns step by step. It teaches us mindfulness skill-power! However we cannot develop this overnight. It takes time. Because just as eating patterns take years or decades to evolve, they take a lot of training to sustainably change.
Mindful-Based Eating Awareness Training doesn't tell us what to eat or what not to eat. It doesn't provide us with any rules or orders. Instead it trains our innate ability to tune into our bodies cues and learn to read these signals telling us when it's time to eat, how much to eat and when to stop eating. It teaches us the skills to tap into our hunger and fullness awareness, to better develop our taste satiety and trains our ability to slow down while eating, thus tasting our food mindfully.
Hunger and Fullness Awareness
Training our hunger and fullness awareness lets us reconnect with our ability to check in with physical hunger and fullness symptoms. For example, instead of listening to our mind when it says it's time to eat, we start listening more to our belly and whole body's signals of when it's time to eat. We also learn that hunger and fullness are intimately linked but don't completely ;it is possible for us to feel full and still physically hungry. In the water bottle meditation during the course, participants are asked to come to a session hungry and then drink half liter of water (or 1 small bottle of water) while mindfully observing how they feel fuller and fuller in their stomach, yet still they may have a feeling of physical hunger.
Food tastes a lot better when we start eating and this satisfaction starts to decrease when we go into the phase of overeating. This satisfaction decrease is because our tongue sends feedback signals to our brain to tell us to stop eating. But many of us don't tune into these taste satiety signals. The more we can train our taste satiety ability, the more we will be able to tell when food doesn't taste as good and will then naturally stop eating because we do not get as much satisfaction.
Mindful Eating also teaches us how to slow down. Through training, we can learn that by taking time to eat we to savour every bite. If we gulp down our food or watch television while eating (or both), our tongues and brains hardly register that we've eaten a whole meal. No wonder our mind and body will then not be satisfied after a meal and will request more food. Many of us, when we start to practice mindful eating, will become real food gourmets, because mindful eating not only trains us to savour every bite mindfully, it also teaches us to look at our food, smell it, feel it and sometimes even mindfully listen to it. As trained mindful eaters we don't want to gulp down a whole chocolate bar anymore, but will now go for smaller sized deliciously prepared desserts that not only satisfy our tongues, but also our other senses.
Emotional Eating, Urge Surfing & Self-Compassion
Every time we eat when we are bored, anxious or even happy, we are eating for emotional reasons. We're not eating because we are physically hungry and therefore our body doesn't need to be given food. In such moments, we not only need to tap into our hunger awareness, taste satiety and mindful eating skills, we also need something else to cope with our emotional discomfort or pain. This is where basic mindfulness skills come in.
One of the many things mindfulness teaches us is to learn to accept and sit with uncomfortable states of mind, heart and body; to accept this very moment as it is - pleasurable, neutral or uncomfortable, and observe it with curiosity and with a non-judgemental awareness. When we feel upset or bored, we often don't stay with those feelings but immediately feel the urge to push them away. In those moments, a piece of chocolate comes in handy because it momentarily takes our mind off of an uncomfortable state.
A technique called Urge Surfing helps us with such emotional urges. Urge Surfing helps us to accept and observe emotional urges with kindness and curiosity so that we will become stronger and stronger in surfing them. This is important because no urge lasts forever (mostly only a few seconds or minutes). Thus, the more professional we become in surfing the urges, the less we will give in to them.
Self-compassion is a vital part of Mindful Eating. Often when we have overeaten we end up berating ourselves, which usually makes us more upset, and in many cases makes us want to eat even more. In a Mindful Eating course we instead learn to treat ourselves with kindness, so that we can interrupt the cycle of overeating, beating ourselves up and then eating even more as a result.
Mindful Eating is not about willpower, restriction or following rules. It's about reconnecting us with our bellies, taste buds, emotions, treating ourselves with compassion and kindness.