I know I often overeat – especially at dinner – but there’s not much I can seem to do about it.
When faced with a favourite dish I can make up 100 reasons why I need that second, third helping, or why I needed another snack, and afterwards, I almost always regret it – wondering why I didn’t stop myself.
A lot of Brits are similar in their eating patterns, and when I talk to my friends about it, the female ones in particular tell me not to get so hung up on food and that I should just enjoy myself and 'stop dieting'.
Frustratingly, this isn’t the problem for me.
As I am a lot more knowledgeable about my food than I was 10 years ago, I do eat much more healthily and I regularly exercise. I don’t do restrictive diets (that’s anything from Paleo to 5:2), I don’t calorie count and I’m the right weight for my size, with a normal BMI.
But – I regularly find myself bloated with food or full of regret – so it’s clear that I need to re-examine the triggers of why I do so because I want a better relationship with my body and my diet.
The Mindfulness Project is a company started up by Autumn Totton and Alexa Christine Frey, which is the first of its kind in London.
They run classes and retreats about how to apply mindfulness to your life. If you're the kind of person who tends towards anxiety so, let's say you fret about what's happened in the past or the future or you've developed patterns of behaviour that you aren't sure are healthy or are making you happy, it's a great practice to apply to your life.
Alexa has offered to show me how to do mindful eating, and when I show up at Sixty One, a chic and polished restaurant in Marble Arch, I'm introduced to Cinzia Pezzolesi, one of teachers.
First, I need to know what on earth it is. “Mindful eating,” says Cinzia, “is about developing a good relationship with food, is about you not feeling guilty about having or not having food, and is about forgiveness and compassion towards ourselves.
“The components are several; the first is called inner wisdom. That’s helping people to become aware of the signals that the body sends. Sometimes when we overeat for a long time, we forget that the body knows what it wants. So one thing is about becoming aware of our hunger levels, and even our satiety in terms of how the food tastes. So the first part of mindful eating is learning how to self-regulate. ”
“The other part is becoming aware of the thoughts and feelings and emotions that are related to our eating behaviour. For instance, we should be eating because we are hungry, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes you eat to celebrate or you’re sad, or stressed. Also, people learn to differentiate between what is hunger and what are the triggers.”
After the first few sessions, you start to develop something called outer wisdom. This, Cinzia says, is learning how to make the best use of your knowledge about food.
“So that’s being aware of calories and physical exercise – but not every rule is relevant for everyone. We need to adjust our eating routines with baby steps so that the changes are permanent. Because the problem we have with diets is that you restrict yourself but we cannot keep doing it forever so you come back to where you started out.”
What about compassion? Alexa and Cinzia tell me that this is when we beat ourselves up because we’ve strayed from our healthy eating intentions. You’ve eaten something forbidden, and while you’re eating it, you start to feel really guilty.
"This feeling can go on for hours, or even days,” says Cinzia. Mindfulness apparently helps with this.
We order starters to test out the practice – I order rabbit, which arrives in two dainty terrines on a bed of salad leaves and a brush of dark sauce.
In a calm tone – similar to a yoga teacher instructing your breathing – Cinzia asks us to take a few deep breaths to centre ourselves. Then she asks us to look at the dish, focusing on each detail.
This may sound super simplistic – but when was the last time you really, really looked at your food? When I do this, I notice the tiny lines on the salad leaves, the darkness of the sauce and the strange components of the rabbit. It’s pretty surreal.
Then Cinzia asks us to ever so slowly, take a tiny portion on our fork, look at the food on our fork and then smell it.
I’ve never eaten so slowly – it’s almost excruciating. My family and I have a ‘pigs at trough’ manner of eating.
Smelling the food, however, throws me into conflict. It turns out I don’t actually like the smell of rabbit, although in my mind, I love the taste of it. Because I don’t cook it at home, I almost always order it when I see it on a menu. Being made to slow down each process however makes me think: I actually didn’t want this, what I wanted was a vegetarian starter, something simple.
We’re then asked to place it on our lips to feel the texture, and then to put it in our mouths and chew very, very slowly. We then swallow, and when that happens, without thinking, you start to be aware of it journeying down your oesophagus.
After a few more bites – roughly when we are halfway through the meal – Cinzia asks us to ‘check in’ with our stomach’s hunger level.
For me, this proves to be the most revelatory lesson from the session.
Normally, I would carry on eating. The portion size is not big, and I find it hard to leave food on a plate – wasting food makes me feel extremely guilty.
But the truth is, that by checking in with my stomach as to whether or not I’m hungry, I’ve prevented myself from overeating. I look at the remaining food, feeling really confused by it all, but when the plate is taken away, I don’t find myself thinking about it.
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When the main arrives, we begin the start of the meal in the same way (I’ve stopped caring that the other diners might think we are nuts), and then Cinzia says that we’re free to ‘eat mindfully’ or not.
I employ a mixture of both – I engage in conversation but I do pay more attention to what I’m eating and the taste than I have done, ever. Again, I check in with my stomach and don’t finish the entire meal. Nor do I have a snack when I get home, which is something I often do, even after I've eaten out.
This method of self regulation, I feel, has changed the way I will eat forever. But how easy is it to do when other people are around, I ask Cinzia and Alexa?
It takes time to practice, they both tell me, and there are parts of mindful eating that you can employ without it being too obvious. For instance, you may feel too self-conscious smelling each forkful, but on the other hand, you can eat slower.
What I also found very helpful - in terms of slowing the meal down and savouring what I was eating - was that once I put it in my mouth, I put my fork down, and would not reach for the next bite until I had swallowed the food.
When I apply what I’ve learned during the week, for the first time ever, I don’t have that bloated, guilt-ridden feeling. I find that checking in with my tummy is the best approach to not taking more than I need, and to avoid wasting food, I’ll take less rather than more to start with.
What I’ve learned feels so precious and fragile, I’m scared that I’ll revert to my old ways. But for the first time ever, I feel like my mind and body are having a proper conversation, and it’s changing how I look at food in a whole new way.
Will I eat more than I need to from time to time? Probably. But learning to not overeat most of the time is incredibly powerful, and feels more long-lasting and healthy than the sound of any faddy diet.
For more information on The Mindfulness Project, click here.