By around age six, American girls start expressing dissatisfaction with their bodies.[i] By age ten, 80% of them will have already been on a diet. Yet more than two-thirds of US adults are overweight or obese, about one-third of US children are overweight or obese, and about 20 million women suffer from clinically significant eating disorders at some point in their lives.[ii]
As these numbers suggest, dieting doesn’t work, despite what the multibillion-dollar weight loss industry may profess. This is not a matter of faltering willpower; it’s a principle of our physiology. Neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt[iii] studied dieters and found that five years after their dieting began, they were heavier than before they ever started. When you look at the facts, you could argue that the result of dieting is actually weight gain and disease, not weight loss or health. What then, are we to do?
There’s No Such Thing As “Bad” Food
First of all, the way we speak about food is problematic. I was good today; I didn’t cheat on my diet. I was so bad last night; I went wild and ate too much of whatever. This vernacular sounds more like we’re speaking about a rocky relationship than a plate of nachos. The problem with labeling food “good” and “bad” (or ourselves as such for abiding by or deviated from our food rules) is that it sets up an ethical hierarchy where none exists. Sure, some food is healthier and better supports your body’s functions, but this has nothing to do with morality. This false connection between virtue and eating gives food a powerful emotional charge that leads to disordered eating and negative body image.[iv]
We shouldn’t feel guilt, shame, or even pride in our food choices. In fact, doing so may sabotage our best intentions: studies find that people eat more calories when they categorize the food they’re eating as “healthy.” Eating should – and can – be pleasurable: an experience of delicious tastes, appetizing aromas, delectable textures, and (if you’re occasionally so inclined) ingenious wine pairings. And when it is enjoyable, research shows that people feel more satisfied with less food.iii
The conclusion? Eat real food. If you want chocolate, don’t buy some low fat, chocolate-like packaged product that’s been processed to the point of becoming a food-like edible object. Have a piece of the best, richest chocolate you can find and enjoy every bite.
How to Bring Mindfulness to the Dining Table
So when you do go for that chocolate, how do you keep from eating the whole bar? (Hint: it’s not a matter of willpower.) How do you make the switch from shameful indulgence to pleasant experience? The answer is mindfulness.
Dieting disconnects us from our body by telling us to ignore signs of hunger or desires for certain foods. But this divorce is indiscriminate: it also tunes out signs of fullness or nutritional deficits, leading us to not know what and when to eat, and often, therefore, overeat.
Intuitive Eating (also called Mindful Eating or The Non-Diet Approach) is the process of bringing back awareness to what, when, and why we eat. It calls for nonjudgmental observation of our hunger, fullness, cravings, and emotions surrounding food, as well as focused attention on the experience of eating itself. It encourages you to eat whatever you like, as long as it’s to satiate physical hunger. And the results are pretty profound: multiple studies found that this way of eating is related to positive signs of health, including lower body mass and higher feelings of wellbeing.[v]
You Don’t Need to Fear Your Own Hunger
The notion of giving yourself permission to eat whatever you’d like when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full seems simple enough, but for many of us it is anything but. Especially for those who’ve spent years – maybe even decades – shaming their body and food choices, covering pangs of hunger with thoughts of bikini season, and guiltily stuffing down unpleasant emotions with snack food; the thought of releasing this control is terrifying.
You may think that all your white knuckling around food is the only reason you’re not a million pounds, and loosening up would lead to never-ending junk-food binge fest. And at first, it may be a struggle: it takes time to re-learn how to listen to your body’s eating cues and dispel the emotional charge of certain foods. But eventually, balance can be restored and healthy choices naturally crop up (it turns out un-foreboding the forbidden fruit causes it to lose a lot of its appeal). As you become reintegrated to your innate biological rhythms, research shows that this intuitive way of eating leads to healthier weights than dieters and long term weight maintenance.[vi]
In short, hunger isn’t something to fear and ignore: it’s a sign it’s time to nourish yourself. Similarly, fullness isn’t a sign of failure: it’s a signal your body has all the sustenance it needs for now. The more attuned we can become to hearing these signs, the better off our health – and waistlines – will be.