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Mindful Eating: Relax Already and Dig in!

Do you often find yourself eating more food than you intended, then berating and criticizing yourself for doing so, especially when looking in a mirror? If the answer is yes, then you’re not alone. We live in a culture inundated with countless advertisements for three-course meals, “twice the meat,” value meals and huge portions of foods with extremely high fat and calorie content. At the same time, we’re also bombarded with advertisements for diet supplements, weight-loss programs, appetite suppressants, and clothes designed for “size 0″ models. Those two conflicting messages together are enough to make anyone desperate and confused! So what to do?

First, try to stop berating and criticizing yourself for your behavior. In her book Self-Nurture, Dr. Alice Domar, a psychologist specializing in mind-body medicine, emphasizes that it is far more destructive than beneficial to link self-esteem to weight and body size. Doing so can actually sabotage one’s efforts to engage in healthy eating and behavior. You may worry that turning off your inner critic means no longer holding yourself accountable. However, you can still set realistic goals and attempt to achieve them without punishing yourself.

Stand back and non-judgmentally observe your thoughts and feelings related to eating, food and body image. One mental image you may find helpful is to imagine your thoughts as fish swimming through an aquarium; note specific features of your thoughts and feelings as they swim by, then let them go. You may need to slow down to do this. For instance, the next time you sit down to a meal, take some deep, slow breaths to help you focus, then begin eating. Notice how quickly or slowly you eat. Become aware of your feelings, thoughts and sensations. Notice your surroundings: are you in front of the TV or reading a book? Are you alone or with people? How big is your plate or portion? How do these factors affect your mood and experience?

According to Dr. Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, factors such as the proximity or size of one’s bowl, plate or packaging make a tremendous difference in the amount of food the participants in his studies consumed. And here’s the disconcerting part – the participants typically had no idea how much they were eating.

If you suspect you’re being influenced by these factors or find you’re rushing through eating your food, as many of us are prone to do, try paying more attention by slowing down. Absorb yourself in becoming aware of the aromas, textures, and tastes of the food. The first time you do this, you may want to try with something small but with intense flavor or aromas that are appealing to you, like an orange, a Hersheyís kiss or a small handful of nuts. You may be surprised. Let yourself experience the pleasure of the food you’re eating, without guilt or judgment.

Another way to slow down is a small ritual, like a reflection or blessing. If you are religious, you may want to thank the form of the Divine most significant to you for providing or creating what you are about to partake. You could also reflect on the source of the food you are about to eat, starting from the plant or animal sources that gave their lives to sustain you, and the people involved in harvesting or butchering, preparing, and transporting the food. Or you could reflect on all the ways that the food you’re ingesting is benefiting or nourishing your body, such as carbohydrates giving you energy, fiber helping your digestion, or antioxidants or other nutrients helping your body fight off disease more efficiently.

And if increasing the nutritional value and health benefits of what you eat is important to you, try making it fun! Pick a healthy ingredient that seems obscure or mysterious to you, find a recipe with that ingredient in it or a restaurant that serves it, and give it a try. There are probably all kinds of whole grains, fruits, vegetables or types of cuisine you’ve never heard of or tried, so experiment. Try a variety of flavors, textures and colors. Make healthy food an adventure, not a punishment. Remember, go easy on yourself as you learn and experiment. Relax and enjoy!

Note: February 25-March 3 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Month. To commemorate that event, you are invited to see the documentary film about gay men with eating disorders, “Do I Look Fat?” on Tuesday, February 27, 2007, at 7 p.m. in PAC F. The filmmaker, Travis Mathews, will speak after the showing. If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating, please contact the UIS Counseling Center at 217-206-7122 for information about individual therapy or to find out more about the Make Peace With Food group for people who struggle with eating and body image issues.

By Dr. Alison Bess.

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