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Mindful eating

November 7, 2008

Again, this post deals with calories, weight loss and food.

First I feel it is very necessary to sing the praises of intuitive eating. If you’re not familiar with this approach, you can read about it here.

Intuitive eating was absolutely invaluable when it came to ‘legalizing’ those foods I had once completely banished from my house. I couldn’t bake because I wasn’t to be trusted around baked goods. I couldn’t order packages of Liz Lovely cookies because I would eat them all in a week and then feel terrible *and* have no cookies. I saw complete avoidance of these foods as the only option. Don’t get me wrong, I could have a cookie or a brownie, but only when I could go out and buy just one. This was less problematic when I lived in Atlanta and had easy access to all sorts of vegan goodies. Here, it involves an hour long drive which would make it completely ridiculous to just buy one treat.

So I took the advice in this book and filled my kitchen to the brim with all kinds of formerly forbidden foods. It was honestly terrifying at first, but eventually it worked and those foods ceased haunting me with their very presence. I now keep ‘bad’ foods in the house with no problem. In fact, I recently had to toss two packages of Liz Lovely cookies because I hadn’t eaten them and they’d gone all stale. (Note: from now on put expensive, delicious vegan cookies in the freezer.)

There are other parts of the general intuitive eating philosophy that I think are great. And truly, I would recommend reading up on it regardless of your goals (getting healthier, healing your relationship with food, losing weight etc…)

Do you sense the big but coming your way? Yeah yeah, I’m fairly predictable.

But I don’t think honoring one’s hunger is necessarily at odds with watching your caloric intake. And I don’t believe that simply listening to your internal cues will put everyone at the most appropriate weight for themselves.

Really, how I approach food has a lot in common with intuitive eating – just some tweaks here and there.

Satiety:

Here’s what I believe; trying to exert willpower over your hunger is the best strategy so long as your goal is to be miserable, always be an inch away from bingeing and to end up gaining weight. (See what I did there? You don’t want those things. I’m so awesome.)

However, satiety can be ‘manipulated’ if you want to eat at a small calorie-deficit every day. This is because fullness isn’t totally based on eating a certain number of calories. It is influenced by a number of factors both physiological and psychological. And if you understand a bit about how it works, you can stay satisfied.

Foodwise, protein, fat and fiber contribute the most to satiety. The actual bulk of the food you eat does as well, I believe, although to a lesser extent.

In terms of how I might apply this to what I eat, I make sure that each of my meals contains fiber, a good amount of protein and healthy fats. This helps keep me satisfied between meals and can help me reach the same level of satiety with slightly less calories*.

What about the psychology of satiety? An interesting book to read about this is “Mindless Eating.” The author details hundreds of experiments done which show how plate size, serving size, how much total food is available etc… can all change how much people eat by a fairly impressive margin all without affecting their self-reported satiety.

Now, I’m not about to go on the old tiny plate diet, but understanding the ways I can unconsciously overeat has helped me make small adjustments which, again, can allow me to eat slightly less without feeling deprived.

So what’s the point of all of this? Am I trying to sell the attrice diet (burn fat while you exercise and eat slightly less than before!….ok, I’m gonna have to talk to marketing about that line.)? No.

One of the problems I had while trying to eat intuitively was the feeling that I spent a ton of time thinking about what I wanted to eat while trying not to think about what I wanted to eat. Like, I was trying to get in touch with some inner eater who, if allowed to take charge, was going to eat a nutritionally complete and well balanced diet. Except my inner eater sometimes wanted food that made me physically feel gross and sometimes my inner eater didn’t want breakfast even though it would leave me tired and ravenous by lunch.

Now I balance that inner voice with what I know. I know that eating a bowl of lentil and sweet potato soup with half a sandwich will fill me up as much a whole sandwich with fries on the side. I know that if I order a small popcorn at the movies (and allow myself the knowledge that if I finish it and want more, I can have more) I’ll eat less popcorn than if I get a large and that I won’t even notice.

Mindful eating is about honoring my hunger and using my brain to make choices that will help me lose weight without those feelings of deprivation that are part of so many people’s attempts to lose weight.

*This is such an important point that I kind of feel like I should say it in bold and all caps. For your sake, I will refrain, but keep in mind that I’m talking about a gradual and small decrease in calories over time. So if an average meal for me was once 700 calories, I’m talking about dropping that by 100 calories at most per meal.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. April D permalink
    November 7, 2008 11:51 pm

    Well written. I like reading about trying to balance the “inner eater” and what the mind knows; it is giving me “food” for thought! Thanks! 😀

  2. meerkat permalink
    November 8, 2008 12:46 am

    I don’t think these serving-size-reducing tricks are going to work for me unless I just start taking part of my food and throwing it in the trash. Most prepackaged foods that I eat come in a particular size and can’t really be subdivided in a practical way. Lunch at restaurants I go to already comes in “just right” and “not quite enough” sizes. When I cook for myself, I always end up making too much, because halves of many vegetables will not keep in the fridge until I want them again, and I would like more than one vegetable per meal. (I am choosing the small ones.)

    My “inner eater” also hates breakfast, but I think she is also my “inner sleeper” going “MOAR!!!” She won’t eat anything at breakfast time unless it is a sweet pastry, a Luna bar, or miso soup. So she gets a Luna bar and I survive first period class.

  3. November 8, 2008 1:50 am

    Just to play devil’s advocate a little, I think it’s mentioned in Rethinking Thin that a lot of those old dieting tricks like eating more fiber or filling up on low-calorie liquids are not really shown on average to have much effect on the amount of food people eat. If they work for you (and getting the right balance of protein, fat, and high-quality carbohydrates does seem important both for keeping me satiated and for not feeling weird and “out of whack”) then great, but I know you are interested in the science behind this stuff so I thought I would mention that if you are interested in looking into it.

    I haven’t looked into it myself because I do find some of these tactics for selecting food to be useful for me (the fiber one not so much, but soup does seem to fill me up effectively) so I’m more just tossing it out there for discussion.

    (I know Rethinking Thin is the go-to FA reference so obviously draw your own conclusions as to the studies she cites if you are interested in doing so, but at the same time I don’t think the frequency with which it is referred to means that it can be totally dismissed out of hand as a good reference.)

  4. November 8, 2008 3:36 pm

    Meerkat, I also cannot roll out of bed and eat. I put it down to three years total spent with morning sickness. I have a soda (in the summer) or hot tea (in the winter) and I read my email, and if I am up somewhere around six or seven, after an hour, I can eat a meal. But it must contain bread, and protein, and not a lot of fructose… I tend to eat a deli sandwich, actually. I want my big meal of the day at lunchtime, since I have to take an afternoon rest anyway. Then I eat my veggies (the ones I can eat without my gut revolting) at dinner in perhaps a salad or light stir-fry. If I stay up til all hours and need to eat a late supper, I am content with just a few chips and salsa, or a homemade doughnut.

    It is absolutely strange, but it seems to work for me to keep my head clear and my stomach from taking over my thinking either with hunger or satiety.

  5. Entangled permalink
    November 8, 2008 6:29 pm

    Here’s what I believe; trying to exert willpower over your hunger is the best strategy so long as your goal is to be miserable, always be an inch away from bingeing and to end up gaining weight.

    If this is truly your internal attitude, then it seems like you are someone who can think about reducing calories and attempting to lose weight without it becoming obsessive, self-hating, and ultimately ineffective.

    I am not one of those people. The second I even think the word calorie, I immediately feel a sense of self-loathing and a desire to eat less. This despite the fact that I have generally healthy habits and inherited my parents’ muscular but fairly small builds and large appetites.

    However, the idea that satiety can be manipulated in other ways and thus one can eat less? I guess there are people for whom that can work, but I am not one of them. Example: today’s lunch. A whole head of wilted escarole and a couple chicken sausage. Two minutes after eating? Stuffed, thanks to the fiber. Twenty minutes? Ravenous again because while it takes up space, it’s not much food.

    Sometimes I’m convinced my body is an extreme case, but in my experience, intuitive eating has made the difference between eating enough to live well and eating too little but STILL feeling lousy about it. The latter did not cause me to lose weight, though it did make me kind of bloated.

    Like I said, maybe I’m an outlier both physically and mentally, and you DO seem to have a good attitude. It seems like the habits matter to you as much if not more than the weight. Maybe there’s a middle ground in there, but only for some people. If that’s the case, I wish you luck as it sounds like you may be one of them.

  6. julie permalink
    November 8, 2008 6:30 pm

    Hi Attrice

    I’m doing more or less exactly what you’re doing. Including eating breakfast when I don’t feel like it so I don’t hit the wall at 10 am. I still don’t keep potato chips or ice cream in the house, but I can walk 2 blocks to get them if I really want them. These seem to be the only two foods I can’t comfortably keep around. Sometimes I just feel like eating, and if I have chips, I’d eat them, but if I don’t, I’ll eat some salty cashews and a carrot, and be just as content. If I get stressed out, I go to kickboxing, and work it out. After my dieting and bingeing and “fat is bad and never eat ANY, you’re too fat” kind of childhood, I really enjoy my new eating habits.

  7. November 9, 2008 12:37 am

    Spacedcowgirl,

    I flipped through my copy of “Rethinking thin” but didn’t see the information you were talking about – I only looked at the book for a few minutes though so I probably just wasn’t looking in the right place.

    So while I can’t address the studies that Kolata sites, I will say that one thing I’ve seen in a lot of studies is researchers using very low calorie diets which include relatively high amounts of protein/fiber/fat/whatever. I don’t believe any amount of satiety-promoting foods can make up for a caloric-deficit that is too high.

    I should probably just read “Rethinking Thin” again. I read it when it first came out, but it was definitely a case of my really wanting to be convinced by the book. I’m kind of interested to read it now and see what I think.

  8. November 9, 2008 9:50 am

    Entangled,

    You are not an outlier, for what that’s worth (there’s nothing wrong with being one! We are what we are).

    Even though this may not have been your intent, what you’ve said here contains what I was trying to get at regarding the difference attitude makes to diet success or failure:

    If this is truly your internal attitude, then it seems like you are someone who can think about reducing calories and attempting to lose weight without it becoming obsessive, self-hating, and ultimately ineffective.

    The theory is that attitude to dieting is the difference between failure and success and that is why some or many fat people fail at long term weight loss is their bad self hating attitudes.

    The bit I highlighted within the quote, is how I think it is. This is how the fight our bodies put up against dieting, comes to the surface; as those negative feelings, not the other way around. The failure is not caused by the attitude, but a sujective reflection of the fight that is going on inside.

    Being fat is all about people diagnosing symptom as cause; if fat people are down, that’s our laziness, if our appetites have become unbalanced, that’s our greed, if we feel bad because logic dictates that lowering calories and eating healthy should make us happy and slimmer and we fall down on either one, again, it’s our fault.
    It is always something we are doing wrong, it’s got to be because if it isn’t, then it’s dieting.

    In essence, it’s got to be one or the other, I don’t see any middle ground on that one.

  9. Entangled permalink
    November 10, 2008 1:08 am

    Wriggles,

    I think we’re saying similar things, but I’m not quite sure. I do agree with you that being fat is often seen as the cause of everything when oftentimes it’s something else that’s causing it. That people’s behaviors are extrapolated from how they look and a cause and effect and blame are always assumed.

    I also don’t want to assign my experiences to others. Like I mentioned, the very word “calorie” if said with reverence threatens to derail my mostly very healthy relationship with food and my body. I agree with you completely that restriction can easily lead to more restriction and to binging as the body tries to replace what’s missing. That what’s attributed to lack of willpower is actually a physiological response.

    I do think that undereating and losing weight have a tendency to be unhealthily addictive, but I don’t want to ascribe my experience to everyone else. When I think of myself as an extreme outlier, I think more about how my body seems to be living proof against the calories are everything line of thinking and carbohydrate paranoia. Which is pretty awesome as I tend to think both those things are loads of bs. (but at the same time, I think people would discount this if eating the food my body all-out demands every day left me a larger size. which kind of seriously galls me, as I don’t think anyone should be expected to undernourish themselves to fit into any mold)

  10. November 10, 2008 10:43 am

    Entangled,

    You’ve hit the nail on the head:

    That what’s attributed to lack of willpower is actually a physiological response.

    I would also add that what is attributed to ‘negative attitude’ toward weight loss, and it’s maintenance, are emotions directly and indirectly provoked by that physiological response. It’s like cutting your finger and judging yourself harshly because you feel the pain.

    Without wishing to seem arrogant, I just want to encourage people not to feel that their inadequacy is responsible for their dieting failures, when it is obviously due to the effects provoked by the diet itself.

    I can understand the thinking that if you water it down you can succeed-incidentally, scientists should have done that experiment if they gave a damn about anything more than propaganda- I wouldn’t go so far as to say it can’t have any effects, but I do feel that those potential effects aren’t likely to make much if any difference, as many of us have already experienced a more positive attitude towards eating and weight loss, and we still seem to be fat.

    It was this, more than stringent diet club type diet that has convinced me that the wasting calories approach is a huge waste of time and effort-as well as an insult to the intelligence- even if it did work.

    Fat people want to lose weight, I don’t have any more of a problem with that, than I do with slender people who want to gain weight.

    What’s needed is a way that doesn’t provoke the body’s defences against weight loss, it is clear that this is possible as change often brings unplanned weight loss as a side effect, going or coming off medication, gaining or losing a job, moving house etc so it is potentially possible.
    It’s the job of scientists, to figure it out, it doesn’t strike me as impossible, but it seems they are more interested in pursuing that which provokes the body into fighting off people’s exertions; the question is why?

    When you observe a ‘naturally’ slim person, it’s clear that it is the body that is regulating their weight and eating, mainly without their direction. It does a brilliant job, so why is such a huge effort to persuade us to substitute it for that which costs a huge amount of time and energy, and rarely if ever works? What’s the point of all this unhappiness, why don’t we even attempt to solve it like any other problem, why have we stopped at a place that is clearly inadequate?

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