Monday, April 30, 2012

Mindful Eating, when to and when not to

A well-respected and thoughtful fat acceptance blogger recently wrote about mindful eating. As part of what she said, she mentioned mindful eating, and how it is unrealistic for people to engage with every bite they put in their mouths. All eating is not for pleasure. Sometimes, it is purely utilitarian. In essence, sometimes, you just need to cram it in and fill your belly and move on. I like reading this woman's blog, even if I don't agree with 100% of the things she says. Of course, I could say that of many blogs and people. I'm sure no one agrees with all of what anyone else says. One of the reasons I like reading her blog is that she gives me food for thought through her perspective and this was one of those occasions.

I agree that not all eating can be mindful for everyone, nor should it necessarily be. That being said, I think that it's important to distinguish between the types of people who need to attend to the experience of eating and the types of people who do not. It's also important to think about the type of food being eaten and whether or not it, arguably, should be the type of thing to be eaten mindfully.

First, I'd like to address the latter of those two statements in the previous paragraph. There is food that is eaten for nutritional purposes and food that is eaten purely for pleasure. If you're gobbling down your lunch in an attempt to get something in your stomach before heading back to the grindstone, then you really don't have the time to enjoy it. That means that the chips, candy bar, cookie, etc. should be left in the lunch bag. What's the point of gobbling such things down when you can't take the time to enjoy them? They are, after all, empty calories.

Before I get any further, let me assert most definitively that I'm a big fan of empty calories. In fact, I've been criticized rather vociferously and personally attacked because I eat chocolate everyday and this is an indication of my eminent demise from heart disease, diabetes, and the moral decay that accompanies the consumption of food that exists purely for sensory pleasure. In no way am I saying, "don't eat empty calories." What I'm saying is, "don't eat empty calories unless you're going to enjoy eating them." If your eating is utilitarian and just meant to fill a hole, then fill it with nutritious food that you find palatable, not junk which is for the senses only. To me, eating chocolate in a hurry is like renting a DVD and "watching" it by scanning through the chapters and watching mere seconds of each one. You're getting almost nothing out of it for the investment.

Getting to my other point about the types of people who should and should not try hard to eat mindfully, there is a difference between people like me who have suffered from compulsive eating to the point of weighing nearly 400 lbs. and people who don't. I had (and possibly still have) a particular type of disorder in which I abuse food in order to fulfill psychological needs. I needed to learn how to stop doing that and I have to keep being mindful in order to not slip back into that way of living again. For me, mindful eating is a way to avoid compulsiveness. It's way of making sure that I eat for the right reasons because I'm at particular risk of eating for the wrong ones.

The question of how to distinguish is a tricky one because I can't speak for anyone but me. Well, I could, but then I'd be displaying a pretty hefty ego. That being said, I do believe that one of the hallmarks of compulsive eating is conceptualizing how much food you want to eat before you put it in your mouth and taste it and deciding you won't be satisfied unless you can have that amount. Compulsive eaters often want the whole bag or half a pizza or they aren't going to be satisfied. You're not looking at the sensory experience. You're certainly not thinking about satiety. In fact, you're likely to eat to the point of illness. The point of compulsive eating is to comfort, placate, or numb through volume and the very experience of consuming food. You're not tasting your food or filling your belly, but satisfying a deeper need for a particular type of experience based on desire and expectation. It has nothing to do with putting energy in your body or lighting up pleasure centers in your brain with sugary or salty delights.

Mindful eating is like a remedial experience for those who abuse food the way I did. Allowing ourselves to simply say, "it's okay to just keep cramming food in because food is utilitarian sometimes," opens the door to rationalizing a broad range of compulsive eating as utilitarian eating. And, make no mistake, compulsive eating isn't about nutrition or calories. You can eat heads of lettuce, bowls of fruit, or vats of beans and rice compulsively. Most people don't, but it's possible to get your comfort from anything. Lots of people successfully alter their lifestyle to a healthy one, but still keep the compulsive eating. They just lose weight by transferring the target to one which doesn't have an impact on their fat cells. That doesn't make it a mentally healthy thing to do. It just avoids the obvious consequences. It's what I did when I was in college and lost a tremendous amount of weight. And this way of transferring rarely works in the long run as the core psychological problems are left untreated.

So, I think that there are certainly people out there who don't need to work on mindful eating and that it's not something everyone "should" do. However, it's something I have to do and have to keep doing. I have a problem and if I find a way to rationalize compulsiveness, I will. Concentrating on what I'm eating and attending to the smell, taste, and texture is an exercise in mental health for me, but it's not an exercise everyone needs to do. However, I think it's irresponsible to offer up the notion that mindful eating is not always important without a deeper understanding and recognition of the fact that it is very, very important for some of us, especially those who are very fat and are the likely audience for a fat acceptance blog and are more likely to be compulsive eaters.


Arwenn said...

Wow...that really hit home. Somehow I forget the fact that mindful eating ISN'T an all or nothing proposition. I wasn't really paying attention to whether or not I was including treats in a logical place in my day. I can switch around and put the more "boring" items in my workday and save the ones I really like for my time at home and I bet I'll feel a lot more satisfied. Thanks for sharing your perspective and experiences - I think it is going to make a difference for me.

screaming fatgirl said...

Thank you for saying that, Arwenn. It means a lot to me to get that sort of feedback.

Little in life is "all or nothing", but that sort of thinking is so attractive to some of us (including me, but it's something I've been working on for a long time).

My best to you.

dlamb said...

I agree with Arwenn; very thought provoking post. One of the bloggers I follow addressed the issue of Intermittent Fasting. As I mentioned before, when I started reading from the beginning of the archives, up until my mid 20s, I ate once a day, in the evening. That worked very well for me. I cannot say that I NEVER ate during the day, but my routine was to eat at the end of the day.
I do not enjoy a great variety of food at all, but I can eat thousands of calories of the things that I DO eat. As I was reading your post I was considering that, since I've undergone a drastic change in how much and what I eat, sometimes I feel that I derive even less joy out of my food than I had in the past. Previously, I certainly did not eat mindfully. Not ever. But at least I enjoyed my food. Now I feel like I rarely like my food BUT the one thing I still tend to do is to save most of my calories for the evening. It seems that I am able to let go of the joy of eating but not having that full stomach feeling at least once a day, especially before bed, makes my life somewhat miserable.
Perhaps, having read your thoughts on the subject, I can incorporate some foods that I enjoy more than others, but eat those mindfully. That will be an entirely new experience for me. I tend to shovel it all it, get it over with and move on.

screaming fatgirl said...

I do wonder at times if our eating schedules are the culmination of our particular genetic history. Maybe your body and mind work best with one large meal at the end of the day because your ancestors lived in conditions that made that style work (such as a hunter society which had one big meal after a hunt and little otherwise to eat so there was need of long periods of not eating punctuated by feasts). Maybe mine survived better grazing in circumstances where food could be gathered frequently from scarce sources. In the former situation, not attending too much to the tastes of food is actually better as you have few options. In the latter, picking the sweetest, tastiest food is better as you optimize the calories per energy consumed.

This is pure speculation, but it would go some way toward explaining why we're all different in our habits and what works for each of us. Of course, it could just be personal chemistry and have nothing to do with evolution.

As someone who loves food a lot, I can't imagine not enjoying most of the food I eat. I don't worry that I'm "too invested" in food, but I am curious as to how some of us are invested in the sensory experience and others are not. One of my former bosses once told me that he was concerned that he did exactly as you say you do. That is, he would eat an apple, but he just crammed it in while not even tasting it. He just wanted to get it in him and done. I couldn't identify with the experience, but I can see how it would be so for some folks.