Monday, December 14, 2009

mindful vs mindless eating

In the book, Mindless Eating, the author comes up with all kinds of ideas to help you lose weight: cut out the handfull of candy at the office, use smaller plates, use less cream in your coffee, switch to diet drinks... The thinking is, that by skipping the soda a day, or using one cream instead of two, you would save 100 calories a day and magically lose 10 pounds a year! This is just not how our bodies work. In fact, if they worked that way, I would have gained alot of weight these last few years.
You see, since having a child and having to learn to eat in a way that is mindful and trusting of my body, I have done lots of little things that in theory would add 100 calories a day. I now eat a small candy bar a few times a week with coffee (occasionally even two.) I eat tortilla chips with lunch a few times a week- full fat! Mostly I drink milk and water, but many weekday lunches, I enjoy mango smoothies or real soda, usually satisfied with a half a can or so. I have stopped eating fat-free yogurt (or fat-free anything for that matter.) I eat more eggs. And recently, I've been baking and eating lots of bread -fresh, crusty bread. Initially I would eat 2 or 3 pieces thinking , "This is so good, I probably shouldn't eat so much, but I'm trying to eat in a way that trusts my body, so I will eat what I have an appetite for." Versus be "good" and eat one piece, then craving and eating way more than I originally would if I just let myself eat enough in the first place! (An example of what I consider mindless eating.) I enjoyed my bread this way for a number of weeks. Nothing changed. My clothes fit the same, I otherwise ate the same way- satisfying meals and snacks. Soon thereafter my appetite for bread lessened. I could eat half a piece and still enjoy and savour it. My body figured it out.

What all the standard mindless eating thinking ignores is that it is more complicated than calories in/calories out. When we try to cognitively control what we eat- by points, plate size, strict portion control- we don't do a very good job at it.
You see, our bodies can compensate. Not maybe every day, but over days and weeks if we eat in a way that is truly tuned in to what our bodies need. Maybe I ate a candy bar's worth of calories less over the next few days? I have weighed within 15 pounds since I was 16. I stayed the same the summers I swam 2 hours a day, or the months when I did no exercise and ate Coke and Doritos at 2 in the morning during residency. (I probably also don't have a genetic predisposition to gain weight easily.)

How can we support eating well and trusting our bodies?
We need to give ourselves permission to eat what tastes good, and enough of it. We need to be disciplined enough to provide regular meals and snacks and to give some thought to nutrition when planning what to eat. We need to tune in to and enjoy food while we are eating it. There is room for the handful of candy at the office or the cream that makes your coffee heavenly. This can be harder for some than others. (See my website for information on the How to Eat series.)

How do we screw up eating well and our body's amazing self-regulation powers?
Diet, overexercise, deprivation, eating cognitively instead of intuitively. Losing weight or eating less calories than your body needs triggers a cascade of hormonal, neural and psychological factors that work really hard to get your body back to it's previous weight, often overshooting the mark and even resetting the weight your body will strive to maintain. Dieiting impairs your body's internal regulation system.

Practice mindful, not mindless eating.


  1. Yay! You're on the feed! I saw the title of this article and thought OOOOH THAT LOOKS INTERESTING, WHO WROTE THAT? And then saw it was you. Woohoo!

  2. I read Mindless Eating, too, and while I usually agree with your observations, I don't this time. My issue with Satter's philosophy in adults is that it doesn't account well for emotional eating. I eat when bored, depressed, happy, to be social. Little tricks like keeping the food on the stove and not on the table in front of my plate and putting away the candy dish make a real difference in keeping me from mindlessly overeating, but I don't feel deprived. I don't consciously deny myself, but I am preventing myself from unthinkingly consuming many extra calories. I've reversed the 5 lbs per year I found myself putting on since college. Perhaps due to eating habits I picked up in childhood, I cannot trust my body to stay within 15 lbs of its setpoint without paying attention!

  3. Thanks Dana, What a great comment! I'm glad you found something that works for you. I agree that the Mindless Eating book gives lots to think about, and it sounds like it helped you be mindful of when you were eating when you weren't really hungry. Do you think it's helped you tune in also when you are full? i think all the things you mention that you do are totally in sinc with Ellyn's work. Have you had a chance to read Secrets to Feeding a Healthy Family? It deals the most with how we as adults eat. She stresses permission and discipline. Meaning, we shouldn't deprive ourselves of "forbidden" foods, but that we do need to provide for ourselves in a regular and predictable way. (Meals and snacks, avoiding grazing, putting candy and other trigger foods out of site so we don't eat "minldessly." The foods are still available, but we need to check in with ourselves. Do we really want it? Are we going to have time to sit and enjoy it, and pay attention while we eat it, and pay attention so we know when we are full?) I think you have it figured out. You are paying attention, eating mindfully, and not depriving or creating more stress or obsession about food. I think that what I object to with the Mindless Eating approach is that it is sold as a weight loss plan, and perpetuates the notion of fewer calories = predictable weight loss. Many people who follow the advice won't lose weight, many may not be able to follow the advice (dieting casualties who might perceive these tactics as deprivation...) I try not to make my blog posts too long too! I also think many people confuse Satter's work with pure intuitive eating, and it is different. Intuitive eating doesn't include the notion of providing and discipline. (Different than restriction.) I will come up with something more useful and write another post! Thanks again!