I’m a fan of intuitive and mindful eating, in case you didn’t know that already. I work with my clients to honor their hungers and to figure out the ways of eating that work best for their individual and unique bodies. Many feel elated when their relationship with food seems to flow more easily and they are feeling tuned in to their bodies’ needs.
Recently, a member of my Non-Diet Book Club asked the billion dollar question: How do I eat intuitively when I still want to lose weight? (I say that it’s a billion dollar question because the diet industry that profits from a focus on losing weight is, in fact, a billion dollar industry.) In my 15+ years of experience working with people who are renegotiating their relationship with food, I have discovered that holding onto a primary goal of weight loss just gets in the way.
I firmly believe that in letting go of the focus on weight loss, and prioritizing one’s relationship with food first, we will best take care of our bodies. In doing so, we eat in the way that supports the healthy weight that our bodies are meant to be. Do we choose the food option that makes us feel our best, or choose the lowest calorie option possible just to meet weight loss goals? The former uses our bodies to make the decision, while the latter comes only from the head.
This is not to say that we don’t use our minds or our knowledge about nutrition to make decisions about eating when we eat intuitively. For example, you can say, “Eating that full bag of Cheetos last time made me feel sick. I don’t want to do that again.” Here you are using your mind and your past experience to make a food choice, not just your body’s present state.
Let’s look at this more closely...
If you hate your body right now and focus on how it will look in the future (once you theoretically lose the weight), are you able to really be in the present, listening to what food choices really appeal to you and will satisfy you right now?
Isn’t it easier to make a commitment to take the best care of your body possible when you accept your body where it is?
When you see your body as the living, breathing, miracle that it is (extra pounds and all) and focus on nurturing and caring for that body with life-giving, healthful food, there is a very different focus. There is no deprivation. There are no shoulds or shouldn’ts. There are no mistakes -- only opportunities to learn what foods feel best. There is no criticism and guilt. There are only choices.
We can choose to eat the light and fresh salad greens or the more grounding sandwich or the ice cream cone because it’s a hot summer day and that’s what we feel like. We can choose the entree that speaks to our palates, and seems interesting and aligned with our values and preferences, without second guessing ourselves.
We can slow down and savor every bite because the food is so delicious and worth savoring. We aren’t eating a certain amount of calories or carbs or points. We are eating life-giving, pleasure-providing food -- and we will eat just enough of it because we are staying present with the eating experience, paying enough attention to the food and our bodies as we eat it. We take in the sensory enjoyment of the food, the texture, the warmth or coolness, the feelings of hunger and satiety. We are in our bodies when we eat -- not in our heads.
Does this seem like pie in the sky? In today’s world, this is not easy to do. It might involve learning to distinguish between emotional hungers, diet thinking, the effects certain foods can have on our brain, and healthy body wisdom, for example. It might involve reprogramming everything that you learned about food as you grew up, bringing you back to how you ate when you were a toddler and you knew that a few bites of a cookie are enough when there are other pleasures in life to explore. This is why many of my clients appreciate some coaching and support along the way.
Once practiced regularly, mindful eating is liberating, freeing, and truly brings people into their healthiest bodies. That body might not be the “ideal body” that we envision, but it will be a respected, honored, and well nourished one. And isn’t that what is really important...? It’s not how we look in that bikini, really; it’s the fact that we are out enjoying the sunshine. Don’t let anyone -- the diet industry, well-meaning relatives, your partner, your own inner critic -- tell you that you should look different. (If they do, it may be because they have their own body image insecurities.) Don’t let anyone trick you into thinking that weight loss is more important than feeding yourself well, in a way that is aligned with your own body’s needs.
Despite all the news coverage of the “war on obesity,” the Centers for Disease Control in 2005 determined that only when the BMI reaches 35+ is there a meaningful decrease in mortality. People in the “overweight” (BMI 25-30) category actually have the lowest mortality rate. Why are we calling these people “overweight" anyway...?
So, the answer to the question at the top of this post is that you can lose weight while you work on eating intuitively and mindfully, but you really have to surrender and not make weight loss your primary goal. In my many years of experience, I have seen that when clients fall back into that trap of focusing on weight loss, they do something that undermines their ability to deeply and accurately listen to their bodies. They shift their focus from self-care to trying-to-please, from inner wisdom to outer judgement about what to eat. And then they understandably push back against the deprivation that they feel and find themselves overeating. They want to lose weight, but feel like a failure. This is all on top of what the initial under-eating did to slow down metabolism.
Many studies have shown that 95% of all people who go on diets will gain the weight back (often plus more). Letting go of dieting and restricting and coming into harmony with what the body is really asking for does take some work, but it’s so worth it. And it is the only way that I have seen my clients grow to feel better about their bodies -- no matter what their size or shape. How can you take care of something that you loathe? So.... love that wonderful shape of yours and all your unique curves, angles, bumps, and smooth spots. Give your body wonderful food, energizing movement, and fresh air. You have a unique bodily form that makes you You.
Focus on what you have to gain in the process of learning to eat more mindfully and intuitively and joyfully -- not on what you have to lose!