Q. As a therapist specializing in eating issues, I’m well
aware of mindful eating’s many benefits. But for those who’ve never stopped and
savored a raisin, how do you define mindful eating and what advantages does it
have over dieting?
A. I define it as eating with attention and joy, without
judgment. That includes attention to hunger and fullness, to the experience of
eating and to its effects on our bodies. As we learn to clearly observe how food
tastes and how it makes us feel, we naturally start making more satisfying
choices. Mindful eating views food as an ally, while dieting treats it as an
enemy, leading to constant struggles between willpower and temptation. That's
one reason that the results of mindful eating look better in the long-term than
in the short-term, while dieting shows the opposite
Q. After three decades of trying and failing to lose the
same 10-15 pounds, you resolved to stop dieting and start eating mindfully. What
prompted that resolution?
A. I didn't exactly fail to lose those pounds. Instead I
succeeded one time too many. The main trouble with diets is that they work in
the short term, but they fail in the long term. As I started to look into the
research showing that almost all dieting is yo-yo dieting in practice, I
realized that my story was typical, a result of my brain working as it should to
protect me from starvation. Knowing that, it didn't make sense to keep doing the
same thing and expect different results. The resolution, which I made for New
Year's in 2010, was an experiment. I didn't know how well it would work, but I
knew that I needed to try something new because the old way was costing a lot of
energy and delivering little payoff.
Q. Judging from the firestorm your recent NY Times op-ed incited, not everyone is
ready to ditch dieting and their big weight-loss dreams. In fact, if Reddit
commenters are any indication, dieting is as popular as ever. So, I’m curious,
who are your ideal readers and how do you hope your book impacts
A. My strongest hope is that parents will read the book and
realize that expressing anxiety about children's bodies is not going to make
them thinner. Instead, it's likely to lead to weight gain and increase the risk
of eating disorders. The easiest place to break the cycle of diet obsession, I
think, is at that parent-child relationship, before a lifetime of weight cycling
has gotten started. The other class of readers I hope to reach is people like
me, who are tired of repeated dieting that isn't getting them anywhere and
looking for a better way.
Q. While you couldn’t be more clear that mindful eating
doesn’t guarantee weight loss, you can be sure that a good number of readers
will expect to lose weight doing as you’ve done -- eat mindfully without
restriction for six months to a year. What do you have to say to
A. Whether or not you hope to lose weight, the process of
learning to eat mindfully will go better if you don't make that a goal. Part of
the point of mindful eating is to loosen the grip of cognitive controls on your
food choices, so you can let the brain regulate hunger as it's done successfully
for hundreds of thousands of years. Try mindful eating for the benefits you can
count on, such as developing a good relationship with food or being able to
apply your willpower to being a better partner, parent, or worker instead of
using it up in repeated attempts to fit into smaller
Q. As of your 2013 Ted Talk, you’d lost 10 pounds. How goes
the weight maintenance?
A. I'm still wearing the blue dress I chose for that talk.
As long as my lifestyle is stable, my weight stays the same. Last year I had an
injury that stopped me from exercising for several months, and I gained five or
10 pounds. When I became active again, my weight dropped back to normal within a
month, without any particular effort.
Q. You say you can’t learn mindful eating from a book, and
I couldn’t agree with you more. How did you learn to eat mindfully and how do
you suggest readers do the same?
A. I learned on my own, without any previous training in
mindfulness. I started by deciding to pay attention to how my body felt before
and after eating for an entire year. It ended up taking me about six months to
learn how to eat mindfully. Early on, I had trouble figuring out whether I was
hungry, I think partly because I was invested in getting the "right" answer --
the one that agreed with my preconceptions about whether I should be hungry at
the moment. I also had trouble detecting fullness before I'd overeaten. With
time and attention, both hunger and fullness signals became stronger. Now I
automatically notice when it's time to stop eating, even if I'm deep in
conversation. Shaking off the guilt and learning to fully enjoy food was a
slower process, which has greatly enhanced my quality of
For people who don't feel comfortable learning on their
own, there are a variety of books and workshops that provide mindful eating
exercises. But no matter how you approach the experience, you can't skip the
exercises and expect to learn anything just by reading or listening. Mindful
eating requires experimenting -- "playing with your food," as Jean Kristeller says -- until
you learn what works for you and how it feels to eat according to hunger.
Q. How do you understand why mindful eating helped you stop
eating donuts, but not ice cream?
A. The simple answer is that I learned to taste my food.
When I was dieting, there was so much chatter in my head about "should" and
"must" and "don't" around food that it often drowned out the basic experience of
eating. Once I learned to pay less attention to those voices and more attention
to the physical sensations, I discovered that I didn't like some of the foods
I'd been using to cheat on my diet, like donuts or Doritos. But I still love
other treats, like ice cream and strawberry shortcake.
Yes, even the most mindful eater can gain weight as Aamodt
did when she got sidelined from exercise. Fortunately, mindful eating has taught
her to trust that, even if life throws her a curve ball and she gains a few
pounds, her weight generally takes care of itself. In my professional opinion,
that’s as good as it gets.
Labels: diet research, diets, Jean Fain, mindful eating, Sandra Aamodt