For me, recovery from a life-threatening eating disorder has not come quickly or easily; eating problems are complex and extremely difficult to overcome. After all of this time in recovery (approximately seventeen years), I no longer believe that one can completely recover from a severe eating disorder. Even after all these years of recovery, I still have a little voice inside my head that tells me life would be perfect if only I was thinner or that I would be more successful in every area of my life if, somehow, I could change the way I look.
However, I do believe it’s possible to quiet the ‘voice’ of an eating disorder-the goal not being to completely eliminate the eating disorder-but instead, to do our best to take the proverbial steering wheel out of it’s hand, and start driving the car ourselves regardless of what it tells us to do.
I know and believe-from both personal and professional experience-that hope and healing are possible even from the most serious eating disorders. For many of my clients, one of the main reasons they cite for their eventual recovery was “having someone believe that I could do it”- as counselors, we can be that “someone” by offering hope to those who are suffering and may not be able to see the way out of their current situation.
In this article, I would like to share with you what I have found to be one of the most helpful tools in helping clients heal from problematic relationships with food and body image- Mindful Eating. But before we go there, I think it’s important to first understand what gets in the way of eating mindfully. Unless we address these, efforts to eat mindfully often fail miserably.
The following are the Five Major Roadblocks to Mindful Eating. I’ll give you a brief description of each one so that you can address these with clients before sharing Mindful Eating tools with them. When you ask clients questions about how they eat now, you’ll most likely find some of the blocks that need to be removed in order to allow them to have a more peaceful and conscious relationship to food in the long-term.
Who among us doesn’t “multitask” on a daily basis, especially while we are eating? I have noticed that in our North American culture, the preparation and consuming of food seems to be little more than an inconvenience in our stressed-out, busy lives. I find a helpful exercise is to ask clients to write a list of all the ways they distract themselves while eating so they can become aware of their ‘mindless eating’ patterns.
Eating Without Enjoyment
Recent surveys show that North Americans are eating more but enjoying it less. I believe that eating is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I find it helpful to ask clients to describe some things they can do to make day-to-day eating experiences more enjoyable.
Eating Things You Don’t Want
As adults, we may have become increasingly disconnected with our true food likes and dislikes, and will often eat things just because we think they are “good for us.” In therapy, I find it useful to help clients re-learn what foods they truly enjoy and those they’d rather avoid. This helps people tune into their bodies and what they are truly hungry for when they sit down to a meal.
Eating When You’re Not Hungry
I believe that so many of us eat when we’re not hungry because we’ve become so far removed from being tuned into our basic physiology. Unlike many animals, we eat for many other reasons besides our body’s signaling to us that it needs fuel. Helping clients to tune into when their bodies are truly hungry for food helps them to avoid the emotional eating pitfall.
For a lot of people, sneaking food is akin to having a secret lover-there is often a thrill in hiding out eating ‘forbidden’ foods. When we ask clients to eat in the presence of others, they often find healthier ways of finding excitement.
Eating mindfully means eating with awareness: Not awareness of what foods are on your plate, but rather awareness of the experience of eating. Mindful eating is being present, moment-to-moment, for each sensation that happens during eating, such as chewing, tasting and swallowing.
If you’ve ever practiced mindfulness in any way, you are familiar with how easily our minds wander. The same thing happens when we eat. When you begin to practice mindful eating, it is important to remember not to judge yourself when your mind drifts off. Instead, just keep returning to the awareness of the food in front of you: the smell, texture, taste, chew, bite or swallow. I’d like to end with what I have found to be the “top 10” strategies for mindful eating that you can share with clients:
- Only eat while sitting.
- Set a place at the table with a placemat, cutlery, napkin, and a glass.
- Eat away from your work area- in a lunchroom, restaurant, or outside.
- Eat with chopsticks- it will automatically slow you down.
- Take a few deep breaths before you eat to calm and center yourself.
- Chew each bite at least 30 times before swallowing
- Give thanks for your meal and appreciate that you have food to eat.
- If you are eating with others, avoid upsetting conversation over meals and instead, practise eating quietly and mindfully with others.
- Turn off the phone at mealtimes so you won’t be interrupted.
- Eat at the same time every day for each of your three meals and make sure it takes a minimum of 20 minutes to eat a meal.
Esther Kane, MSW, RCC, is a psychotherapist in private practise in Courtenay, B.C. and author of, “It’s Not About the Food: A Woman’s Guide To Making Peace with Food and Our Bodies” (www.endyoureatngdisorder.com).