Why Mindful Eating During the Holidays Doesn't Work

'Mindful eating' is one of those deceptively simple self-explanatory terms.  The Center for Mindful Eating defines it as, "Allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food selection and preparation by respecting your own inner wisdom." That's nice.

...

Is there any of that pasta left over from last night?

The problem with mindful eating is that unless you're naturally a mindful eater, it's actually a skill that takes months and months if not years to hone in on and develop.

If you know anyone that has struggled with food issues and has learned to eat mindfully, then you know someone who has dedicated a truly immense amount of time, energy and resolve to fundamentally changing their entire relationship with food, and even more notably, with themselves.  You know someone who has done the work to cultivate deep self-awareness and self-compassion where there was once a ton of numbing-via-food and self-rejection.

Mindful eating is packaged as a simple trick to regulate food intake when it's actually a hidden spiritual practice that involves anchoring yourself in the present moment regardless of what you're feeling/whether or not you're triggered, what type of food is available to you, what your emotional reflexes around food are, what anyone around you is doing, what you learned about food as a kid, whether you're alone in the kitchen late-night style---the list goes on.

Mindful eating is about creating access points to yourself so that you can ask and answer the question, "Am I hungry for food or something else?"  It's about staying in the present moment and making space for whatever you feel in that moment.

Perhaps most challenging, mindful eating is about trusting yourself.  You can mindfully eat Ben and Jerry's, but not if you don't trust yourself to do that.

Underestimating all the skills required to eat mindfully in a consistent way sets you up for failure, and all the feelings of defeat and dis-empowerment that go along with it.

If you assume eating mindfully is as easy as putting your fork down every 4 minutes and chewing slowly, you're just putting yourself on another thinly veiled yo-yo diet that makes you feel like expletive about yourself when you break it.

It's a cycle those who struggle with food know all too well --

You adopt a new strategy for 'healthy' eating, particularly around the holidays -- I'm going to eat mindfully! {or} I'm going to allocate 1250 calories to food and burn 200 calories every day for the next three weeks! {or} I'm going to let myself eat whatever I want for the whole Thanksgiving weekend but then I'm totally detoxing and only eating non-processed whole foods for the next two weeks....etc. etc. 

You power through your newfound healthy strategy and it works for usually anywhere between 7 hours and 4 days.

When your energy wears down a bit, all of a sudden you're playing a not-fun game of emotional chicken in  your mind.  Your impulse to eat something and your resistance to that impulse crash into each other repeatedly, the crashing exhausts you, and from that exhausted place you make a choice that doesn't reflect your health goals. 

In other words, you "cheat" (worst word ever to describe eating something that was unplanned) and you find yourself in an extremely familiar place:  I didn't get it right today, I'll do it 'for real' tomorrow.

The unconscious message you send to yourself is this: "I'm not good at self-control and I'll never really change."

The most successful strategies around healthful eating focus on three things, and self-control is not one of them.

That's right, FOOD ISSUES ARE NOT ABOUT WILL POWER.  If they were, they would be so much easier to resolve!

There are a myriad of other dynamics going on besides your level of self-control; when you deny and reduce those dynamics to the simple: "I'm not getting this right because I have poor will power," you're cementing a false identity of someone who can't change.

What I learned in the two years I spent running food addiction therapy groups is this:

The most successful strategies around healthy eating focus on recruiting support, maintaining awareness that choosing to be healthy is a continual process (and not an event) and self-compassion.

Trying to change your relationship with food on your own is like trying to teach yourself long-division in second grade: SUPER STRESSFUL.  That's because of the old therapy adage: it's never about what it's about.  Your destructive habits around food are just a representation of something that is calling to be healed.  That ringing bell won't stop ringing just because you throw away all the junk food in your house.  It's about more than that.

Everyone carries something that needs to be healed, it's okay.  Having something that needs to be healed doesn't mean you're someone with "issues," or "baggage," it means you're a human being.

TO RECRUIT SUPPORT, connect with a health coach who gets it, find a support group, talk to a therapist, begin meeting with a holistic dietitian, or commit to some seriously disciplined independent study. Everyone has their own style when it comes to recruiting support -- whatever your style of support is, link to it.

TO MAINTAIN AWARENESS THAT CHOOSING TO BE HEALTHY IS A PROCESS AND NOT AN EVENT, treat each moment as its own moment.  So what if you ate a few all of the fun-size Milkyway bars that were left over from Halloween, that was two hours ago. That doesn't mean you "ruined"  your plan and you have to start over from square one again tomorrow.  Successfully managing your goals isn't about avoiding setbacks as much as it's about not giving those setbacks the power to dictate the rest of your evening or week.  This is a new moment, what do you want to do in this moment? What you ate twenty minutes ago has nothing to do with whether or not you make a choice that feels good and healthy for you now.

TO BE SELF-COMPASSIONATE, don't hold yourself to a solitary and rigid diet strategy like the ones mentioned above.  Recognize that nothing that works works all the time, and incorporate a kinder script into your thought loop.  You can change, and you're figuring out how right now.  Like #3 in the philosophy of my practice, real change takes real time.  The bigger the issue, the more false starts there are; it takes hundreds of tries sometimes, not just for you, but for anyone who really wants to change.  Keep trying in new ways and give yourself some credit for not giving up on making positive changes and living a life you can really feel good about.   Hope is brave, and so are you.