Mindfulness and Dieting

All we have to do is consider losing five pounds, and we are confronted with dozens of theories of weight loss and hundreds of diets. A lot of them seems plausible, and some of them almost seem doable. The one thing nearly all of them lack is a statement at the end: "If you try to follow this plan exactly, you will probably end up gaining weight instead of losing weight." This is the unfortunate truth. Chronically being "on a diet" is not usually a good thing for one's weight. Efforts to rigidly follow a diet are often a set-up for failure, and failure is often a set-up for eating out of frustration and self-hatred.

In fact, it's difficult to imagine that any generalized diet could actually dictate all of the choices we need to make to eat in a healthy way. For one thing, relying on an external source to regulate our eating deprives us of the most important factor in developing a healthy diet: our inner wisdom.

We often rely on some external program because we do not trust ourselves to be guided by that inner wisdom. This is not a new problem. We have a record of a Chinese Zen teacher in the tenth century saying to the people who had gathered to hear his talk, "If you continue to seek the truth in someone else's mouth, when will you ever have today?" A thousand years ago, it was pretty clear that seeking outside oneself was a good way to become estranged from the here-and-now source of well being that most of us would like to cultivate. The same is true today about many of the things we seek, including a balanced and healthy approach to eating.

Diets aside, human beings are able to access an essential way of regulating weight: we can learn to eat when we are hungry and stop when we are full. We can let ourselves be guided in our food choices by all of our sources of knowledge: about nutrition, health, our hunger, and our preferences in the moment. We can eat in a way that lets us enjoy and appreciate our food and our ability to nourish ourselves. Quite importantly, we live in a culture in which most of us can be sure of our next meal, and so we are not driven to gorge ourselves because of realistic fears of scarcity. We can stop eating when we are satisfied, secure in the knowledge that we can eat more later, when we are hungry again. The hyperavailability of food in modern western societies, while terrifying and tempting to dieters, can be a source of reassurance and security to self-guided eaters, lowering the biological need to eat past the point of satiety. There's more where that came from!

The self-guided "diet" really depends on our ability to know ourselves, to be able to tell the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger, and to have the wisdom to respond skilfully to both. Our dieter's tendency to ignore and suppress moderate levels of hunger ("It's not time to eat yet!") only guarantees that when we do eat, we will have to deal with the pressure generated by distressingly high levels of hunger.

To be self-guiding, we also have to pay attention while we are eating and know when we are starting to get full. We have to be open to all the pleasures that are inherent in eating - tastes, textures, aromas, companionship, feelings of being nourished - so that we can actually feel satisfied with our food.

In other words, to be self-guided in our diet, we need to develop our mindfulness. Eating with full awareness, but without judgment, allows us to guide ourselves in sensible ways. And this is exactly what mindfulness cultivates: our ability to be compassionately aware of ourselves, our experience, and our environment. With mindfulness, we have a tool that is absolutely essential to healthy eating.

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