Over lunch, I feel a fight brewing with the slice of spinach-ricotta torte. An Italian version of quiche, it glistens from the oil in its cheesy filling and the butter in its flakey crust. Before even tasting it, I argue with myself, It’s so small, can I get seconds? Ugh, no, that one slice must have 800 calories. You should eat something else.
Stuck between wanting to inhale the whole thing or not even try a bite, I look to the woman sitting across the table from me for help.
Ronna Kabatznick, Ph.D., is a nationally known expert in “mindful eating,” and I’ve come to her home near the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley for help with my eating habits. Either I harshly judge and control myself, as I did when faced with the torte, or I eat mindlessly, as I did while pinching leftover waffle bites off my son’s breakfast plate that morning.
Kabatznick is a stocky older woman with a sweet smile and bob of brown hair that makes me imagine Mary Lou Retton as a grandmother. She coaches me, “Now, pay attention bite by bite. As they say in Las Vegas, ‘You have to be present to win.’ ” Then she picks up her fork and invites me to do the same.
Mindful eating applies the concept of mindful awareness—of paying attention deliberately and nonjudgmentally to live more fully in the present—to eating and thinking about food. Eating mindfully involves slowing down and using all your senses to explore and savor food, and using your hunger and fullness cues to guide you to start and stop eating. It often leads to permanent weight loss, but it’s not about losing weight as much as it’s about appreciating food more and sustaining a healthy relationship with it.
I latched onto mindful eating midway through 2008 in my search to find the single best thing to keep my optimal weight while also fostering peace of mind, a better body image and more positive family mealtimes. It sounded as if it might be the Holy Grail of healthy eating. Freedom from dieting and from the deprivation and guilt that go with it? Hallelujah!
I take a bite of the torte and deliberately put down my fork so I can pause to reflect on the creamy texture and range of flavor. To my surprise and disappointment, the salt overpowers the spinach, and the ricotta creates a thick, bland paste in my mouth.
Kabatznick continues, “Now, take a deep breath, check in and ask, ‘On a scale from 1 to 10, how hungry am I?’ Also, look at the colors and see what you’re attracted to. Notice the pushes and pulls of desire and craving, and see if you sense any battlegrounds on your plate. It’s interesting to notice that before you begin eating, you’re looking forward to more. Just noticing that is great mindfulness.”
My eyes rest on some arugula mixed around pasta shells and cherry tomatoes. I take a bite and suddenly experience a symphony on my palate as a tangy, sweet dressing on the pasta balances the bitter green. My desire to eat the whole torte has dissolved into indifference, so I stick with the pasta salad. When Kabatznick reminds me to “check in with myself,” I find I feel fairly full—about a 7 on the “hunger scale”—and unusually relaxed.
An assistant clinical professor in the University of California San Francisco’s department of psychiatry and author of The Zen of Eating, Kabatznick helped Weight Watchers International incorporate mindful awareness into its program two decades ago and now works with groups and individuals on weight, depression and relationship issues. “The beauty of mindful eating is you’re making a connection to your direct experience, and if you can have the experience fully, you’ll be surprised at how even one morsel of a potato chip can be so satisfying,” she tells me. “It’s really about quality over quantity.”
Here, at last, seemed a way to have my cake and eat it, too—that is, to relish all kinds of food, and the cooking and dining experiences that go with it, without overindulging and packing on pounds.
Was it too good to be true?
From Mindless to Mindful
Before I made the lunch date with Kabatznick, I felt trapped by mindless munching.
Packing my kids’ lunches, I’d swallow a spoonful of peanut butter. Scanning the news online, I’d finish a bag of M&M-laced trail mix. Sitting next to my two kids at dinner, I’d reach over and help myself to whatever they left on their plates. It felt as though my hands were disconnected from my brain and mechanically feeding my face. After the food disappeared, I would wish I could have more, and then I’d berate myself: What are you, a garbage disposal?
Complicating my relationship with food is the fact I love to cook and eat, but I’m also an athlete who strives for a fit and optimally fueled body. Several extra pounds gained early last year clung to my frame well into summer, slowing me down at my sport of long-distance running. But it wasn’t the modest weight gain that bothered me as much as my feeling of powerlessness to do anything about it. I tried seemingly sensible strategies—such as keeping a food diary, measuring portions and limiting dessert and alcohol—all of which backfired after a week, maybe two, because the rigidity of such strategies made me want to rebel and heightened my desire for whatever I tried to limit.
Everyone says balance and moderation are the paths to health and happiness. To get from mindless to mindful and maintain that magic middle ground, I sensed I needed to bring the principles of mindful meditation to the kitchen table.
Mindful meditation, rooted in Buddhism, entered the mainstream a generation ago when Jon Kabat-Zinn and others at the University of Massachusetts Medical School used it as the basis for developing a highly successful stress-management program. Mental health professionals consequently began to use mindfulness to help treat a variety of emotional and behavioral problems, including eating disorders and obesity. Nearly 10 years ago, Indiana State University psychology professor Jean Kristeller conducted a study that indicated mindfulness meditation can significantly help reduce binge eating. The mindful-eating therapy she developed showed such potential that the National Institutes of Health funded a large study that confirmed the effectiveness of mindful eating. Over the past year, interest in mindful eating mushroomed as the concept entered women’s magazines (under headlines such as “The No-Diet Diet”) and rode the coattails of the Slow Food Movement, which promotes a more sustainable, less processed approach to eating and greater appreciation for food’s flavor and source.
I had used Kabat-Zinn’s meditation techniques to overcome insomnia. But how could I practice mindfulness at a business lunch while taking bites between talking and working? Or at a cocktail party, while balancing a drink and small plate in one hand and reaching out to grab an appetizer with the other?
I resolved to quiet my mental chatter and give mindful eating a try.
One Bite at a Time
I started one morning with my usual bowl of breakfast cereal topped by blueberries, but for a change, I served it before I woke up my kids and brought in the morning paper. I hardly ever eat breakfast without simultaneously reading, talking or getting up to move around the kitchen.
Slowly I took a spoonful and chewed, momentarily startled by how loud the crunching sounded in my head. I felt the urge to laugh out loud to add some levity to the moment, so I did, and then I took a deep breath and tried to notice details of the meal, such as the tangy taste of the blueberries as they split open. I practiced putting down the spoon between bites and noticed I was growing impatient by how much time the meal seemed to be taking. Glancing at my watch, I saw that only a minute or so had passed. Another deep breath, some more slow bites, and suddenly I experienced an a-ha moment: I sensed I felt full and could opt to leave a few bites in the bowl. It may have been the first time in my adult life I didn’t eat my entire bowl of cereal.
As I got used to slowing down and approaching food with a more curious, less controlling stance, I felt fewer urges to snack impulsively and experienced a sense of liberation. I could cook and savor something like a tuna melt if I felt like it, with all its mayo and butter, and thoroughly enjoy eating perhaps two-thirds of it. Or maybe I’d eat the whole thing if I felt like it. Either way, it didn’t seem like that big of a deal—whereas before, I probably would have eaten it all in half the time, felt guilty about the high-fat content and automatically hungered for more even though I was stuffed.
The weeks added up to months and I felt pretty proud of myself and well centered. Those pounds I had gained six months prior gradually went away—a byproduct, rather than direct goal, of eating more mindfully.
But it turns out this was the happy beginning, not the end. It took a relapse to lead me to Ronna Kabatznick and to understand more fully how mindfulness can counter cravings and self-criticism.
Old Habits Die Hard
Blame it on Sarah Palin and the plunging Dow.
Not wanting to miss an opportunity to read the latest headlines, I returned to eating lunch at my keyboard to catch up with the news online. My eyes would stay glued to the screen until my sandwich and chips disappeared, and then I’d look down at my plate with a mix of guilt and longing as if to ask, Where did my lunch go, and can I get more? At night, in front of CNN or MSNBC, cheese and crackers accompanied by a glass of wine (or three) helped me ignore my goals and dulled my guilt.
Feeling a sense of failure as my familiar conflicts around food flared up, I contacted Kabatznick to find out what it takes to make mindful eating work not just for four months, but for a lifetime.
At her table, I push the leftover torte aside and break an oversized cookie in half to share. She reassures me that my slide back into munching while multitasking and caving into cravings is normal. It’s a myth, she says, that mindful-eating techniques will make those habits and cravings disappear. Sustaining a healthy weight and a positive relationship to food demands something deeper than learning to chew slowly and putting your fork down between bites. It involves learning to relate skillfully to the insatiable craving that lurks, to varying degrees, in all of us.
“I look at mindful eating as the management of desire,” she says. Using mindfulness to connect to our food and acknowledge our range of feelings is the first step toward allowing those feelings to move through without burying them with excess food. “We realize we don’t need to use food to avoid unpleasant feelings because it’s only a matter of time before they change. Similarly, instead of rushing to sustain the pleasure we get from one cookie by eating another and another, we can notice the transient, fleeting nature of the pleasant feeling or taste and, while it’s with us, connect with it deeply.”
She also puts to rest my notion that I have to eat every meal meditatively, as I had been trying to do, in order to experience the benefits of mindful eating. Every bite or sip in any circumstance provides an opportunity for mindfulness.
Consider, for example, something as mundane and habit-forming as a grande mocha in your cup holder. “You can be slurping down a Starbuck’s in your car and say, ‘Wow, this is disappearing before my eyes. Do I want to linger over it? Or, if I’m going to have it disappear before my eyes, well, then, that’s what’s going to happen.’ You acknowledge that—and that’s what opens you up to making a choice.” In other words, you can momentarily pause and fully savor that pleasure, recognizing that a letdown is inevitable once it’s gone. You also can decide to stop eating when you’re full, and then experience the dignity that comes from restraint.
I thought about what she said the other night when I joined my husband on the couch to watch The Daily Show. I noticed I was a bit hungry, so I asked myself, what do I feel like? The answer hit me: peanut butter–filled pretzels from the cupboard, cold beer from the fridge.
I paused, and then deliberately got a handful of pretzels and a beer. I took my eyes off the TV to look at each little round pretzel before popping it in my mouth and savoring its salty crunchiness, and I looked at the bottle before taking a swig and appreciating its refreshing taste. Then I refocused on the TV and laughed at Jon Stewart’s spiel.
One handful of pretzels, not half the bag. Two beers over two hours, not three. It was the most enjoyable night of the week, and the next morning I had no regrets.
• Ronna Kabatznick will lead a five-week workshop in the East Bay on mindful eating beginning in February; for information, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• The Center for Mindful Eating, www.tcme.org
• The Center for Weight and Health at the University of California, Berkeley, www.cnr.berkeley.edu/cwh
• The Bay Area–based Association of Professionals Treating Eating Disorders, www.aptedsf.com
Take a deep breath and assess how hungry you are on a scale from 1 (painfully hungry) to 10 (nauseatingly stuffed). Start eating before you get too hungry, around a 4 or 3 on your “hunger scale.”
Ask yourself: “What food would satisfy me and feel good in my body right now?”
Try to sit at a table while eating and minimize distractions.
Eat slowly and savor the flavor. Try to put the utensil down between bites.
Notice how the food looks, smells and tastes. Notice your positive, neutral or negative reactions to it.
Consider where your food came from and the people who harvested and prepared it. Take a moment to be grateful for it.
Pause midway through eating to check back in with your hunger level. Make a choice to stop before feeling too full, around a 6 or 7 on the hunger scale.
Think choice over control. Instead of telling yourself, “I should eat this” or “I can’t have that,” think: “I choose to eat this because it looks good and nourishing” or “I’d like to try some dessert, so I’ll choose not to have second helpings at dinner.”
If your mind wanders off, and you start eating automatically, that’s OK—just pause and bring it back.
Don’t aim for perfection at every meal, but try to mindfully eat at least one meal or snack each day.
If you overeat, forgive yourself. Let go of the guilt and appreciate the moment that you’re in.
The urge to eat isn’t all in your head (or stomach). Myriad cues in our everyday environment condition us to eat mindlessly and make us want more. Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (Bantam, 2006), by Brian Wansink, Ph.D., offers a fascinating and funny examination of the reasons we ignore feelings of fullness and eat everything within reach, even when the food tastes bad.
Wansink is a professor of marketing and nutritional science at Cornell University and is credited with developing the 100-calorie snack-pack concept. In one of his studies (which he conducted in cities across America, each time with similar results), people were invited to watch a movie at a theater after lunch, and they unexpectedly received free popcorn. Half got medium-sized buckets, half got extra-large ones, and both types of buckets were filled with five-day-old cold popcorn. Even though the audience felt full from lunch and the popcorn tasted like Styrofoam, they all ate it automatically—and those with the bigger buckets ate an average of 53 percent more. The size of the bucket, the distraction of the movie and the fact the popcorn was free conspired to make them eat mindlessly.
In another study, Wansink shows how we’re duped into eating more when we believe the food is healthy. In this one, he handed out granola to a group with half the bags labeled “Regular Rocky Mountain Granola” and the other half labeled “Low-Fat Rocky Mountain Granola.” In reality, all the bags contained the low-fat variety, but people with bags labeled “low-fat” ate 49 percent more.
Wansink offers lots of tips for enjoying food more—and consuming fewer calories—by slowing down while eating and being aware of mindless-eating traps. For example, try to be the last person at the table to start eating and the last to finish, and stick to the “half-plate rule” (half the plate covered with veggies and fruit, the other half with protein and starch). Log on to www.mindlesseating.org to take “The Mindless Eating Challenge” and learn ways to combat mindless eating.
Many of us turn to food when we’re stressed, upset or simply bored. When the relief or pleasure from the food fades, we can feel driven to eat more, regardless of whether we’re stuffed.
The next time this urge makes you feel like a pig, say hello to the real PIG—the “Problem of Immediate Gratification.”
University of Washington psychology professor and mindfulness expert G. Alan Marlatt, Ph.D., uses the PIG acronym to help people overcome addictive behaviors and prevent relapse. By recognizing and objectifying the urge, he says, you can relate to it rather than feel possessed by it.
“If you can accept it, you can work with it rather than fighting it or feeling guilty about it,” he says. “Guilt and shame drive the machine of overindulgence or self-medication, which can be food or drugs or any number of bad habits that feel good in the short run.”
So, how do you “work with your PIG”? Marlatt recommends “urge surfing,” a technique he developed for someone who was struggling to quit smoking. The client was a surfer, and it helped him to visualize his crave as a wave.
Like a wave, cravings naturally roll in, peak in intensity and then subside. Try to surf your urge; that is, instead of trying to control it or giving into it, try to ride it out. Accept and observe your feelings around it, knowing that with time, the urge will retreat on its own.
“Urges are often a conditioned response to some cue. If you give into it, you strengthen it—it’s called negative reinforcement,” says Marlatt. “If you don’t give in and just ride it, it won’t be negatively reinforced.”
With practice, you’ll discover you can surf your urge without falling off—and take your “pig” along for the ride without feeding it.