As obsessed as we are with food and diets, you’d think we’d be thin and healthy by now. So why are we Americans still universally less-than-fit and soft around the middle?
The fact is, diet tips, rules and tricks won’t work if we’re ignoring the mental and emotional side of eating. Why do we still overeat—or eat the wrong things? Most of the time, when we’re craving cookies, we’re really hungry for love, sex, friendship, peace, a sense of purpose and meaning. And when you’re gripped by that kind of hunger, all the tips and tricks in the world won’t save you.
Next time you’re ready to embark on the next fix-me-fast diet, try something different: instead of focusing on the food, tune in to address the emotions that make you stray. Here’s how to start:
1. Feel your hunger. After a lifetime of denying our hunger, it’s hard to tell when we really need food. But we’re all born with the capability to eat when were hungry and stop when we’re full. As children, we eat in response to our bodies’ hunger signals. As adults, we eat in response to the clock, the latest magazine article, or our uncomfortable feelings.
Get back in touch with your body’s signals by carrying a small notepad and charting your hunger before you eat, rating it on a scale of 1 (starving) to 10 (uncomfortably full). If you do this day after day, feeling your body’s cues will soon come naturally. You’ll know you’re on the right track when you start eating in response to your body—a rumbling in your belly, a slight lessening in your ability to concentrate—instead of your thoughts or emotions.
2. Stop counting. That means calories, fat, carbs, grams, portions—whatever number you use that keeps you out of your body and in your head. When you count, measure, weigh or calculate your food, you’re eating according to your intellect rather than your body’s cues. For a life-long food counter, the prospect of free-for-all noshing can be scary. Start small: eat one meal a day without counting anything. After several days, eat two meals without counting. Continue at your own pace until you’ve stopped counting your food—and start eating in response to your body, not the numbers in your head.
3. Examine your cravings. When you’re feeling the urge to eat, what are you really hungry for? If you’re craving chips, does your jaw want to chew and crunch, to relieve stress and tension? Does the noise the chips make drown out the racket in your head? When you’re aching for ice cream, maybe the soft, creamy texture makes you feel nurtured, or fills up some empty spaces. Once you have a better idea of what you’re really craving, you’re better equipped to make a conscious choice. Maybe you massage your jaw, minimize sources of stress, visit a friend who makes you feel nurtured. Or maybe you have a scoop of ice cream—but you do it as a conscious decision.
4. Practice mindful eating. There you are, in front of the fridge at 9 p.m., noshing on leftover Chinese right out of the container, with no recollection of how you got there. It’s called “eating amnesia,” where the unconscious, hand-to-mouth action of feeding yourself becomes so automatic that, before you know it, you’ve wolfed down a whole box of cookies. Become fully aware of the act of eating. Always put your food—including snacks–on a plate. Then sit down at the table, remove distractions like television, and observe your plate. Notice the colors, textures, shapes and smell for 30 seconds to a full minute before you take the first bite. As you eat, notice the chewing action of your jaw, the taste of the food, how it feels moving down your throat and into your stomach. It’s such a pleasant practice, it will soon become second nature.
5. Be in your body. Many of us walk around all day in a state of half-awareness, not really present in the room, on the earth, in our bodies. And when we’re not in our bodies, we can’t tell if we’re hungry or when we’re full. How often are you aware of your body? Tune in right now, as you read this, and check in, starting your toes and moving up through your body. Pause at your stomach, and notice how it feels. Is it empty, or satisfied? Does it feel rigid and tense? Numb or dull? Or is it soft and relaxed? Once you become intimate of your stomach’s sensations, you can begin to identify true hunger.
6. Pause. When you experience a craving for food, just stop and observe it. Don’t try to make it go away, but don’t indulge it. Sit with the discomfort of the craving. It may become intensely distressing, even painful; that’s okay. Stay with it, and notice what comes up. You’ll often find a vast ocean of emotions like fear, anxiety, even grief, under the craving for food. It’s a powerful exercise—but quite illuminating, and sometimes life-changing.
7. Be happy now. Maybe you’ve been postponing your happiness until you lose ten pounds, give up sugar or eat more greens. But the happier you are now, the more likely you’ll be to stick to your eating goals. The “do-have-be” mindset tells us that success breeds joy when, in fact, it may be the other way around. Once you’re able to accept yourself exactly as you are, you’re more likely to achieve your dietary goals, and less likely to eat from stress, depression or anxiety. And anyway, there’s no point in postponing joy. Be happy now; the rest will come.