Mindful Eating: Change Your Beliefs to Change Your Life
- Category: Depression
- June 1, 2023
You want to cut out gluten, dairy, or sugar? Relationship With Food.
You want to lose 10, 20, or 100 pounds? Relationship With Food.
You want to eat more vegetables? Relationship With Food.
You want to stick to that diet everyone is talking about? Relationship With Food.
No matter what change you want to create, if you would like to change your eating permanently it is time to take a look at your Relationship With Food.
In other words, what are your beliefs about food? What do you consider to be good and bad? What triggers negative self-talk and what triggers self-approval? Sustaining change will be much more efficient and accessible if we peel back the layers and take steps toward unlearning and relearning our individual food beliefs. Let’s get started.
One: Identify Foods Function in Your Life
Aside from nutrition, energy, and physiological fullness, what does food do for you?
First, let’s identify your slippery slopes with food. Keep in mind that some categories overlap with each other and take note of what applies to you:
- Eating to Self-Soothe: Do you feel numb and/or comforted when eating certain foods? Do you notice reaching for certain foods when feeling anger, sadness, disappointment, loneliness, or any version of emotional discomfort? Do you feel unable to comfort yourself and/or cope with hardship without food?
- Eating for Sensory Input: Whether conscious or not, many of us seek sensory input to self-regulate on a neurological level. This may be more prominent among neurodiverse individuals (i.e. people with traits related to ADHD, Autism, OCD, etc.). Do you crave the CRUNCH? What about the GLIDE of SIKLY SMOOTH? Or perhaps it’s the SEIZE OF SOUR? Or, for you, is it the CHEW?
- Emotional Eating: Which emotions are you resisting? What thoughts are you quieting with food? Anxiety (“what if….?”), Shame (“I am unlovable.”), Self-loathing (“I hate myself.”), Anger (“This is unfair!”). Alternatively, are you celebrating with food? Are you expressing love with food?
- Food as Distraction: Truly, what in your life is not living up to your expectations? Work, relationships, living situation, general fulfillment, health, freedom? What holes are you filling with food? What is food distracting you from?
- Self–Stimulation: Do you use food to fulfill needs for freedom, novelty, and/or pleasure?
For many of us, food may do a little bit of everything and become a universal coping strategy. Many of us find ourselves using food to cope daily. We are not failures because we fell into the easy, accessible lure of food-related coping. And, no matter how daunting the task may seem, we can ALL pull ourselves out of unhelpful habits (yes, even you!).
Two: Slow Down and Gather more Information
For this next step, YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO MAKE ANY BIG CHANGES! Instead, I suggest you insert a few pauses and observe yourself.
Pause for 30 seconds or more:
- Before you take your first bites during any given meal or snack
- Before you get seconds of any meal or snack
- After you finish a meal or snack
- If you notice you’re in a poor mood (or an elated mood) and notice the desire to eat
During Pauses, and in general, focus on the following questions or whatever feels helpful:
- How is my body reacting right now? Do I notice a stomachache, headache, or sensations of emptiness or fullness? Do I feel content in my physical body?
- What emotions am I feeling?
- Do I notice any thoughts/beliefs about the food I am eating? How do I imagine it will affect me?
- Is there anything I am avoiding or desiring distraction from?
- Did I choose this food for any specific reason? (e.g. nutrition, nostalgia, texture, sweet/salty/spice)
- Which senses might this food satisfy?
During the process, many of us will notice labels of good/bad, unhealthy/healthy spinning in our minds as we judge ourselves and the food we are eating. Notice this. Is there space to observe as though you are a scientist? You are here to collect information not to praise or condemn your behavior.
Journaling about your experience during this step is highly recommended. One helpful process is getting more comfortable with being uncomfortable as you face your relationship with food. We need to learn how to endure the emotional pain that accompanies self-judgment while also inviting a gentle inner perspective.
(P.S. You are worthy and capable regardless of what you’re eating, how much you weigh, or what you’re struggling with).
Three: Identify & Experiment with Alternative Coping Behaviors
The magic question: What can I do to cope effectively without food?
Well, there are various approaches. My favorite is to insert new coping strategies or exploration strategies into life, into our routines, BEFORE we make any life-altering diet changes. Here are some coping strategies/routines to try out:
- Learn new coping strategies and find your favorites (e.g. four square breathing, ride the wave, do the opposite, grounding through the senses).
- Eat consistently during the day so you are not at your wits end with food restriction when the evening rolls around.
- Flip the script by eating larger meals earlier in the day and keeping dinner small.
- Consider drinking decaf tea with honey and milk at night instead of snacking after dinner.
- Incorporate smaller portions of indulgent foods regularly to break the cycle of restricting/binging
- Remove all distractions when eating and really tune in to the tastes and other sensations you experience while eating.
- When you notice boredom, emotional pain, or elated mood– journal, drive around, shower, or call a friend. In other words, wait to eat. Use a coping skill first to explore alternative coping strategies and then reassess whether eating is helpful in that moment.
- Drink more water to ensure you are hydrated and to prevent mistaking thirst for hunger.
- Explore food rules you learned in childhood with a therapist, with a friend, or through journaling. Which beliefs/attitudes have you taken with you? Which are helpful and which are unhelpful? What beliefs would you like to replace? With what?
- Acknowledge your feelings of defeat, hopelessness, helplessness or other emotional states that may be getting in your way of change. YOU CAN CHANGE. NO QUESTION. Your mind & heart are getting in the way. Your emotions need not make the decisions for you.
- To what extent are you defining your self-worth with body size, clear skin, or general appearance? You are so much more than your physical body. The value placed on physical appearance keeps us stuck, and trapped, and profits large companies that do not bat an eye at our suffering. You are a complex human! Explore what it could mean to adopt the belief that merely existing creates inherent worth and meaning for us all. (No, you are not the exception!)
There are so many coping strategies and routines that may be helpful; it is impossible to cover everything. Educate yourself with other options. Watch documentaries, work with a therapist, read blogs by people with similar goals/values. More than likely, this process takes experimentation and customization. Adjust your expectations–a quick & painless fix is unlikely to exist (and, it is helpful to grieve the loss of the quick & painless fix to promote acceptance).
Four: Ground into Your Reasons for Changing and Make Moves
From here, begin making the changes you imagine could be helpful. Some people like to make all the changes at once, while others benefit from focusing on one behavior at a time (e.g. eating a protein-rich breakfast while waiting to change other meals).
Sustaining change is not usually easy, and it is never perfect. If you have any perfectionistic tendencies, this is the time to challenge unrealistic expectations and acknowledge the complexity of what you are working toward. Changing our diet requires so much effort and a reorganization of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It takes time.
Most importantly, what are you changing for? Sustainable change will be more effective if you take this deeper. Get layered with this. “I want to be thinner” is only one layer of how changing your diet can change your life.
Even if your appearance stayed the same, what other benefits do you see?
Return to step one. How can you get your needs met more deeply instead of using food as a temporary fix? Disrupting maladaptive coping and implementing adaptive coping will lead to a more fulfilling life.
Return to step two. What has self-observation revealed about how you feel when eating your current diet? Are you sluggish? Does dairy make you gassy and groggy? Do raw nuts seem to lead to headaches? Does tomato sauce give you heartburn? Does nighttime snacking disrupt your sleep? Alternatively, which foods make you feel energized and light?
Keep in mind: acceptance leads to change. Take the leap to accepting where you are at and you will find that change flows from there.