My life is not in balance.
I work far too much and my family suffers.
I am driven by what I do and the fact that I truly believe that the universe created me to help heal.
I am a medical doctor, but don’t use any medications. My tool kit is: food, activity, acupuncture, herbs, essential oils, and mind-body medicine to help the 3,000 plus patients per year who I am humbled to say choose me for help.
My main focus is weight loss and I see hundreds and hundreds of suffering people who have, for a myriad of reasons focused on food as their daily “fix” to deal with life.
Most admit to me that they are binge eaters, a tragic condition that mindfulness can help change this unhealthy relationship to food.
Binge eating is the uncontrollable urge to eat as much as you can. It is not really related to hunger, but rather to emotion. Most bingers aren’t even aware that they are eating as much as they are during a binge period, or that they’re eating to console themselves with food for comfort rather than fuel. Food is an ally and an enemy all at once, and the act of eating is stressful and filled with struggle and anxiety.
Everybody enjoys a meal with good friends around a sunny table in a joyful atmosphere, while binge eaters find every mealtime a challenge filled with such intense emotions as love and hate.
So what can we do about this problem?
We can learn a cutting-edge technique called mindfulness-based eating (MB-EAT) that helps change peoples’ relationships with food, based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, of the University of Massachusetts.
Here is the basic idea.
When you put on your socks every day, do you start with the right or left?
Have you ever found yourself getting to work by car and not being able to recall anything about the drive you just completed?
We live a lot of our lives on auto-pilot, doing many mundane activities like dressing, driving or even eating in a trancelike, automatic fashion, really not aware of what we are doing.
If you were to perform one of these tasks with the full awareness of what you were doing, that would be called mindfulness. Mindfulness really means concentrating and focusing all of your attention on the task or activity that you are performing.
It is a form of meditation, like when elite athletes are in the zone during a game, totally focused, not distracted by anything, in a state of mindfulness.
Now imagine eating with mindfulness, with total focus, concentrating on the texture, taste and smell of every bite. Eating slowly and savoring every instant! This is a core component of MB-EAT, and it is much harder than it sounds!
But how do I learn to eat mindfully, you might be thinking.
The best way to illustrate what a mindfulness eating practice in your life looks like is to imagine eating two pieces of chocolate.
The first piece you quickly stuff in your mouth, chewing for brief seconds and then swallowing practically whole, barely managing to taste the food you just so quickly consumed.
Now ask yourself: were you truly present when you ate it?
Did you savor the moment and the flavor of that bitter-sweet confectionery ?
Now move onto the second piece, but this time, stop, feel the texture of the chocolate on your fingers. Is it smooth or lumpy? Deeply inhale the aroma and with eyes closed, fully appreciate its many hints and tones. You might even put the chocolate up to your ear, listening for sounds as, for the first time, you use all your senses in the process of eating
Break off a small piece and put it on your tongue, letting it melt slowly and waft around your mouth in a stream of saliva. Try another piece and this time suck the flavors slowly from the rich, dark core. Finally swallow a small piece and notice how you feel as the morsel descends into your throat and down into your stomach.
And that, my dear friends, is how to eat with mindfulness and it is a powerful technique to enhance everyone’s experience of eating.
But it is hard—the great challenge is dedicating the five minutes per day necessary to enjoy your daily chocolate the way you are supposed to.
So how does mindfulness help with binge-eating?
Clearly MB-EAT is the polar opposite of the mindless binge eating that some people fall into when they are upset. MB-EAT teaches people to cultivate awareness of what being hungry and being full really feels like. It helps you recognize why you are eating.
Are you eating because you are hungry or are eating because you are actually upset and looking for love?
Other vital components of MB-EAT are the concepts of self-acceptance and wisdom. Participants in the program are encouraged to recognize that they have an internal wisdom, a guide that can give them helpful advice to cope with their difficulties. They learn self-acceptance and how to forgive themselves, learning to ignore the negative thoughts about themselves that pop into their heads when they are faced with food challenges.
It may sound rather new age, but there is growing evidence that this technique actually works for people who are binge eaters. In one study, 18 morbidly obese women who had been diagnosed with binge-eating disorder participated in seven sessions of MB-EAT over a six-week period. At the end of the program, the number of weekly binges had dropped by nearly 75 percent (from four weekly binges per person to just over one). In addition, the patients all stated that they were eating significantly less food during their remaining binges compared to before the program.
I use mindfulness every day with every patient, just savoring that piece of dark chocolate and being present for those few minutes when you focus only on its sweet, bitter tones. Mindfulness eating is a powerful technique and one that everyone of us can utilize daily, binge eater or not, as chance to stop and take a “time out” to refocus and reframe.
Kristeller, Jean L., and Ruth Q. Wolever. “Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training for Treating Binge Eating Disorder: The Conceptual Foundation.”
Eating Disorders 19, no. 1 (2010): 49–61.
Author: Joe Feuerstein, MD
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Courtesy of Author