Jean Fain is the author of http://www.jeanfain.com/newsletters.html. She had an opportunity to interview neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt about her ideas on the downside of dieting. Ms. Aamodt has a Ted Talk and a NYT editorial piece about mindful eating.
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 pattern.
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 them?
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 them?
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 pants.
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 life.
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.