Diets set you up to fail. You have to eat what you don’t like, avoid what makes you happy and continually track this dismal equation of calories-in and calories-out. Not only is this system hard to sustain, but after all that hard work you might still put on weight if you’re not getting the nutrition you need. There is a better way to manage your health, and it’s illustrated in neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt’s new book, Why Diets Make Us Fat: The Unintended Consequences of Our Obsession with Weight. Aamodt is a proponent of the ultimate anti-diet. If she had her way, we’d stop obsessing over ingredients, put down our gadgets and just eat, already.
Mindful or intuitive eating, as Aamodt defines it, is about being more aware of your needs at the table. This is not easy to do because it requires you to accept your feelings—and cravings—without judging them. The philosophy has its roots in Buddhist teaching, where concentrating on each morsel of food and its purpose is considered a form of meditation. This helps you sidestep the stress we’ve come to associate with eating and reduces the risk of overeating. Eventually, how you eat will be influenced by physical cues like hunger and not emotional ones. At that point if occasionally your body wants to swap a double cheese pizza for a green salad, you can enjoy every last greasy bite and move on—no harm done, no penance required at the gym later.
Dieting your way to fat
Aamodt’s theory that diets make us fat first gained traction with her popular 2014 TED talk. Dieting leads to weight gain because it’s stressful. Stress hormones act on fat cells, which then increases abdominal obesity. Visceral fat, i.e. the kind around your waist, is linked to a higher risk of everything from diabetes to breast cancer. Unlike the kind that makes your butt jiggle, this kind of fat gets in the way of proper organ function. For example, its overcrowding influence on the liver could make you insulin resistant and raise your cholesterol levels.
Then there’s the problem of binge-eating. Feelings of deprivation are usually the trigger for episodes of overeating. Ironically, when most of us overdo it at a meal, we try to compensate by ‘taking control’ and drastically restricting our calories at the next meal—thus sowing the seeds to keep this whole vicious cycle constantly in motion.
Tackling the hunger
In contrast, Aamodt describes mindful eating as eating with attention and joy, and without judgment. Anju Venkat of The Health Awareness Centre, Mumbai, agrees, “Dieting implies the idea of subtraction and denial—the removal of foods that we think cause weight gain or make us feel ill.” Mindful eating is a lifestyle that respects the importance of nourishing all aspects of a human being: physical, emotional and spiritual. Aamodt says that for her the most important benefit of mindfulness was that it made her relationship with food and her body more relaxed and comfortable. All that energy she spent worrying about and beating herself up over food was a valuable psychological resource that could be put to better use.
“The key is to pay attention to your body and how it actually feels, rather than to the stories in your head such as: ‘I ate that cake, so I’m a terrible person and will probably die young’,” explains Aamodt. Instead you need to focus on why you wanted that cake in that first place. Was it stress that led to the craving? Were you looking for comfort? Or did you genuinely feel like indulging in that piece of cake, with no subscript. Bringing awareness to your needs is the ultimate act of self-care, an act upon which mindful eating firmly rests.
Learning how to eat
You know mindful eating gets results when the celebrities are getting on-board. At the Austrian health clinic Viva Mayr, the one credited for the newly sculpted bodies of Alia Bhatt and Parineeti Chopra, Dr Harold Stossier’s program aims to re-educate visitors on how to eat. Tips include eating slowly, chewing each bite thoroughly and creating a healthy eating schedule. “But besides making you aware of what and how you’re eating, this exercise allows the body to transmit necessary information to the brain on how best to digest what’s being eaten,” explains Dr Stossier.
When you chew slowly, you allow the mouth enough time to inform the brain about your body’s digestive needs. If you swallow too quickly, the food might lodge itself in the intestine in a way that could slow down digestion. The bacteria that might develop as a result of this congestion can cause fermentation of carbohydrates and putrefaction of proteins—this is exactly as undesirable as it sounds. When you chew slowly, you enable chemical digestion to begin in the mouth and carry on smoothly through the system.
Aditi Gaur, founder of Sva health beverages and an ardent believer in mindful eating, stresses the importance of discovering how different foods react with your body. For instance, she found gluten and dairy left her feeling sluggish and bloated, warning signs she learned to recognise from her days training as a yoga teacher. “My choice to avoid gluten and dairy came entirely from my need to stay productive and alert after a meal. The purpose of food after all is to nourish and not to make us feel uncomfortable,” she explains. Gaur shares that during her yoga training she was taught to chew each bite 30 times, a practice that’s helped her avoid overeating. Another way to pre-empt overeating is to analyse your level of hunger and the emotions you’re carrying with you to the table before a meal. A burned-out mind needs rest, not bread.
The logic of mindful eating is simple: when you experience the food you’re eating without judgment and through all your senses you’re more likely to feel satiated and nourished. When each meal is a beautifully sensory experience, you won’t feel the need to compensate for it later. Aamodt says, “Eating mindfully made me lose a little weight and maintain it without any effort. Now I only think about food when I’m hungry and find it so much easier to resist food when I’m not.” That sounds like a pretty sweet deal.
Too busy to eat?
Here are a few ways to mindful-eat your way through a lunch at your desk.
- Take a few deep breaths and bring your focus to the food in front of you.
- Get away from all screens.
- Steer clear of any stress-inducing mealtime conversations.
- Eat slowly and enjoy what you’re eating. You will automatically stop when your stomach is full.
- Are you mindfully aware of a craving for brownie? Trust your body, and eat one without guilt. For today, the richer choice may actually be the healthier one for you.