mindful eating

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Analysis: Can Mindful Eating Really Help You Lose Weight Or Stop Binging?

(t-mizo/Flickr)

(t-mizo/Flickr)

Updated 1/23

By Jean Fain
Guest Contributor

Mindfulness is all the rage. But does mindful eating — paying very close attention to your food and to your body’s signs of true hunger and satiety — really help you lose weight or stop binging?

On the one hand, paying closer attention to how you eat and why seems like a no-brainer for improved health. But in fact, mindful eating is steeped in controversy — pitting doctors against nutritionists, parents against children, therapists against clients, even colleagues against one another.

Proponents of mindful eating (also known as intuitive eating) like nutrition researcher Linda Bacon and other advocates of “Health at Every Size” — a self-described political movement promoting healthy habits and self-acceptance, rather than diets — recite a lengthy list of benefits related to mindful eating.

Critics of mindful eating offer a number of negatives: some say such navel-gazing about food makes it unappetizing, while others say mindful eating is superficial and ineffective, even irresponsible when it supplants traditional treatments for life-threatening eating issues.

Still others, like many who posted comments on my recent NPR interview with Jean Kristeller, author of the book, “The Joy of Half a Cookie,” dismiss mindful eating as a joke. One example: “Yes, let’s add more dietary neurosis to the babel of nutritional advice. How about this: eat the whole cookie. Have two, even. Just eat cookies less often, and eat nutritious food as the rule rather than the exception.”

According to Dr. James Greenblatt, an eating disorder expert, chief medical officer of Walden Behavioral Care and the author of “Answers to Binge Eating,” mindful eating is not only pointless in some cases, it’s potentially dangerous.

“Mindful eating clearly has a place in our treatment plans,” Greenblatt explained in a recent email exchange. “But, as a sole intervention for some of our patients, it is like asking opiate abusers to utilize mindful heroin detox. Many eating disorders reflect a severe neurochemical abnormality that needs to be addressed with biological interventions first, before adding other psychotherapeutic strategies and mindfulness.”
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The Buffet Phenomenon: Researchers Find More Food Choices Linked To Fatter Mice

(Alpha/Flickr)

(Alpha/Flickr)

This is why I hate buffets: Too many food choices make my head spin. For weight control, I prefer the out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach — keep the oversized muffins and pepperoni pizzas out of the house altogether. Call me rigid, but it seems to work.

Apparently, mice have similar issues, according to a study published in the journal Endocrinology.

The study tried to tease out the relative importance of genetics vs. environment when it comes to obesity risk. So, baby mice born to mothers with a defined high-fat or low-fat diet were randomly assigned to one of three diet groups: either a high-fat diet, a low-fat diet or to an “eat what you want” diet in which they got to pick and choose among the various options.

Researchers from Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine report that:  “Offspring displayed negative outcomes of increased body weight, body fat, serum leptin, and blood glucose levels when given the choice diet compared with offspring on the [low-fat diet].”

This begs the question whether a child’s environment can indeed trump genetics when it comes to obesity.

The Virginia Tech news release quotes one of the study authors who wraps up the findings simply:

“We like variety,” said Deborah Good, an associate professor of human nutrition, foods, and exercise at Virginia Tech. “But when there is a choice, we eat more than when there is not any variety.”

Though the study was done using mice, it can help inform researchers of how human’s natural environment can affect food choices and ultimately a person’s weight. In a country where one-third of adults and 17 percent of children are obese, understanding the root causes of the problem is imperative.

One apparent upside found among mice in the choice group, according to the report: they had “improved energy expenditure” compared to the low-or high-fat diet groups. “Essentially,” the news release says, “the mice burned more energy as they wandered around and evaluated which food they were going to eat.”

This recalls the food and environment research of Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. A recent Psychology Today article on how we eat (and overeat) called, “Why Out of Sight is Really Out Of Mind,” discusses how we can slip into mindless eating in a world where food is everywhere. But there are ways to eat smarter, if you think about what you’re doing:

Wansink found that slim people approach an “all you can eat” buffet by “scouting out” what is available — “getting the lay of the land,” as it were — before they grab their plates and pile on food. They are also more likely to sit facing away from, and to choose a table farther away from a buffet; more likely to choose small plates; and, if eating Chinese food, eat with chopsticks.

Jean Fain, a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist who runs “mindful eating” training sessions, has offered some tips on how to curb excessive eating, particularly during the holidays, when tables are brimming with tempting sweets and heavy dishes loaded with nostalgia. In a December post, she wrote:

If you find yourself automatically reaching for another piece of pumpkin cheesecake, step back from the dessert table and ask yourself: “How do I feel? What do I need? Do I really want another piece of cheesecake?” If you do, by all means, enjoy. But if you feel full, better to interrupt the automatic urge for more. It’ll taste better when you’re hungry. What’s more, a short interruption can give you back control.

Tele-Coach: How An Eating Therapist Learned To Love Skype

By Jean Fain
Guest contributor

“How’d you do with your eating since last we met?” I recently asked members of my group on food issues.

“I’m really struggling,” said Heidi, a 27-year-old entrepreneur from Boston. “When I get overly full, that self-critical voice takes over. All I can think is ‘Screw it! I’ll start fresh tomorrow.’ I don’t know how not to let my eating spiral into overeating.”

Author Jean Fain while Skyping (courtesy).

Author Jean Fain while Skyping (courtesy).

Lydia, a 45 year-old minister from Akron, jumped in: “Instead of believing that self-critical voice, I’ve been telling myself: ‘That’s not what I believe.'”

“Did you hear that?” I asked Heidi. “Next time you start thinking ‘Screw it,’ you might try ‘That’s not what I believe’ or another of Lydia’s inspired responses.”

Heidi and Lydia (not their real names) are talking face to face, but not in person. Thanks to recent telecommunications advances, the 650 miles between the two are no barrier to participating in my eight-week group on using self-compassion for eating issues. Nor is a six-hour time difference. Last week, one participant Skyped in from her Lisbon hotel room.

Yes, I’ve jumped on the telemedicine bandwagon. I’m just discovering what hospitals, home health agencies and other major health organizations have been touting as the most cost-effective alternative to traditional face-to-face medicine since castor oil.

Clients with food and body image issues generally feel a lot less self-conscious attending a group remotely than up close and personal.

I knew about the telemedicine or “telehealth” trend, using technology to remotely deliver health-care services and information. But I’d never seriously considered joining the high-tech trendsetters. For decades, I’ve been happily providing individual and group therapy the old-fashioned way, and there are major legal questions about virtual psychotherapy, particularly across state lines.

According to Marlene M. Maheu, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Telemental Health Institute, “It’s the wild west. Clinicians are making up their own rules and disregarding those they agreed to follow when they got their licenses, and the consumers are at risk. They really don’t know who’s the right person to go to.”

Then, three things converged:

• Sixty-five members of The Center for Mindful Eating from around the world enthusiastically participated in my teleconference on The Self-Compassion Diet.
• My clients started complaining about sitting in traffic during the interminable reconstruction of Route 2 in Concord, Mass.
• One client couldn’t say enough about her Skype sessions with Los Angeles nutritionist and mindful eating author, Evelyn Tribole.

So I asked myself: “Why not Skype with clients?” Well, because telemedicine has real downsides. Besides the fuzzy legal regulations, I had at least three other concerns: Continue reading

A Kinder, Gentler, No-Diet Way To Start The Year

Therapist and author Jean Fain

Right around now, all the people who resolved to start the year with a diet are beginning to hit the “I’m starving!” crux point. And by all indications — including a cover story in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about the superhuman effort needed to keep weight off — the vast majority are doomed to fail in this New Year’s effort. Jean Fain, a writer and Harvard-affiliated therapist, says there’s a better way, and spells it out in her book, “The Self-Compassion Diet.

I’d been wanting to speak with Jean for months, and this finally seemed like the moment. So what, I asked her, would she tell all the dieters who are just about to fall off the wagon?

Most diets demand that dieters stick to the program no matter what. Even if you’re starving, you’re supposed to keep eating those tiny unpalatable portions, and even if you’re going on vacation, you’re supposed to stick to the carbs, the points and the calories. It’s not a compassionate approach, it is not effective, and it’s absolutely no fun.

So rather than starving yourself thin and cranky, how about treating yourself with self- compassion? And by that, I mean treating yourself like a friend or a loved one, with care and concern, because when you do that, you’re more apt to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full — as well as rest when you’re tired and move when you feel energized. And when you do that, you lose weight naturally and you’re much more likely to keep it off.

“People don’t fail diets, diets fail people.’

That New York Times piece was really striking: Tara Parker-Pope, whom I consider the most prominent health journalist in America, effectively comes out of the closet as someone who’s significantly overweight and just can’t keep off the pounds. What would you say to someone like her, who clearly has a genetic propensity toward obesity?

We come in all sizes as human beings, and we’re not all going to be equally slim and beautiful, and that’s fine because that’s just the way it is. But given whatever our genetic predisposition is, when you force yourself to eat this and not that, or you discipline yourself to stick to some kind of low-calorie diet, more often than not you get trapped in a vicious cycle of under-eating and over-indulging. Continue reading