Saturday, April 24, 2010

Mind the Gap

For the sake of full disclosure, I should let you know that this weekend I am attending a workshop on Mind-Body Medicine, which has framed my voice and intention today. If that creates a negative visceral response for you (like you can now taste undigested items from earlier meals in your mouth), then this may not be the post for you and you should feel free to come back when I once again tackle some of the crazy food trends that are so popular lately.

Over the past week some of you have asked whether I intend to write about nutrition. If by that you mean, will I spell out daily menus, diet tips, healthy recipes and superfoods? Then no. Thankfully I have plenty of teachers, colleagues and friends, wiser than me, who have undertaken similar types of projects and I can recommend them to you. I will, however, share my thoughts and ideas about nutrition. They're based on what I've heard, read, studied and experienced though I can't claim to have any more wisdom than my 30 years has provided. I don't promise to practice what I preach and in a few years I may rescind every word. But that has been my point in starting this blog: to take aim at our food and wellness beliefs and examine the extremes to which we've taken them. My focus isn't on calories but on quality of life through awareness, mindfulness and acceptance. When we see a gap between where we are and where we think we should be, rather than beat ourselves up we can practice compassion. Then move, act, create opportunity and change. And stop taking ourselves so darn seriously.

At the center of this approach is the concept of mindfulness, something I've been playing with recently. My first introduction to mindfulness just over two years ago was a bit of a disaster, and ended with me in tears and a room full of strangers offering me hugs. It was awful and frustrating. I could barely sit still, let alone watch my thoughts - thoughts like, "I could be on my way home right now or out tackling my to-do list, making better use of this time." But eventually I found mindfulness techniques to be calming and healing, and I'd like to think that in an era when Facebook asks us at every moment, "What's on your mind?" we have more opportunities to notice our thoughts than ever before.

What does mindfulness have to do with food and nutrition? Just this: what matters more than what we eat is how we eat. Are we paying attention to eating cues? Do we chew enough to really taste our food? How quickly do we eat? Where do we eat? At the television or computer (as I am now)? Are we eating out of hunger, celebration or to fill emotional void? The problem with most diets is that you spend way too much time thinking about food when you're not eating. Mindfulness insists that you consider the food while you eat it.

I was thinking about this yesterday after reading Gluten-Free Girl's very raw, deeply personal post. She's a local Seattle-based gluten-free food blogger with a tremendous and loyal following who just published her second book. I've used her site to search for recipes and enjoyed reading her profess joyful eating even while on a restricted diet. Then I came across this week's post, in which she reveals her struggle with weight, something she'd been hiding from her readers. She confesses to using food to suppress the pain of recent years: her baby daughter's illness, her mother's battle with breast cancer and her own decision to take Tamoxifen prophylactically, ending any chance of having more children. She is a food writer married to a chef. Food is her career and her livelihood and now it is her biggest challenge.

Earlier this week I was at the gym, flipping through this month's Journal of the American Dietetic Association (my elliptical machine reading), which features original research entitled, "Dietary, Weight, and Psychological Changes among Patients with Obesity, 8 Years after Gastric Bypass." What is striking about the follow up study is that while more than half of the patients were successful in maintaining significant weight loss eight years after surgery, their eating behaviors and psychological states remained largely unchanged. Despite losing more than 50% of their body weight, patients showed no significant improvement in depression and anxiety levels and more than half the patients reported binge eating or night eating within the past month. The authors concluded, "Although the operation itself leads to drastic changes in the volume of food consumed, it does not resolve difficulties faced by the patients..."

Changing the size of your stomach does not rewire the brain to perceive food or body image differently. That takes work and it will look different for every person. One approach might be mindfulness. Countless books are devoted to this approach. Gluten-free Girl has embraced this idea and outlines her plan, "I'm still going to be eating great food. I'm just going to try to do this more mindfully."

The first part of this weekend's Mind-Body class focused on mindfulness, which is why I chose to address it now. But what was emphasized most was to enter meditation and contemplative studies with a smile on our hearts. Cultivating an ability to accept and smile and laugh at what we find is what makes this an effective practice for creating a healthy relationship with food. Eat mindfully. Even if you're eating Cheetos.


  1. Thanks Finkle! You really did a great job of expressing something that I see as a huge problem in our communities- the failure to truly love your food when you have it, to be thankful for it, and to resist from eating way too much way too often. I appreciate your candidness and your approach to talking about food in a "spiritual" way, the arena in which "mindfulness" usually comes up. Check out my friend's online magazine from Boulder, Elephant Journal, all about "living the mindful life".
    Oh, and P.S- Miss ya!!!

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful post. It made me think of the conversation in class about Dr. Oz and his mechanical relationship with food. I do find that I am the happiest with what I am eating, really no matter what it may be, when I am focused on the taste and feeling of eating that food...oh how I wish I could always be that mindful.