Mindful eating: the solution to fad dieting?

By Jasmine Kees and Natalie Pilato

We’ve all heard of Weight Watchers, clean eating, and the sugar-free diet. In fact, more than 50 per cent of women are on a fad diet at any given time, with the average American adult succumbing to the whispered promises of four each year.

Whether it is Skinny Me Tea, or the Fasting Diet, the majority of us recognise their futility, and fall into a period of self pity and binge eating, where the walk to and from the fridge is often our daily exercise.

This yoyo dieting rollercoaster leaves many women in an extremely fragile state. Australian research has shown that young women who diet at severe levels are 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder within the next six months.

eating disorder

Image curtesy of: Her Campus

So, are these crash diets causing eating disorders?

Dr. Rachel Dryer, senior lecturer in psychology at Charles Sturt University, has been studying eating disorders and body image for approximately seven years. She believes that there is a strong correlation between unhealthy eating habits and extreme dieting.

“I believe fad diets can lead to an obsession with food. I think initially women undertake these diets to lose weight. However, there are some women who will develop unhealthy eating habits and take fad diets to the extreme in pursuit of the thin-ideal,” said Dryer.

Dr. Michelle May is a retired family physician and author of the book series: Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat. She has been teaching mindful eating for many years and believes that it could be the answer to our society’s warped relationship with food and distorted body image.

But first, what really is mindful eating?

According to the Centre for Mindful Eating website, mindful eating is:

  • “Allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food selection and preparation by respecting your own inner wisdom.
  • “Using all your senses in choosing to eat food that is both satisfying to you and nourishing to your body.
  • “Acknowledging responses to food (likes, dislikes or neutral) without judgment.
  • “Becoming aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decisions to begin and end eating.”

Dr. May describes it as “a way of eating that brings us into the present moment so that we can listen to our body and make decisions.”

“Mindful eating at its simplest is eating with intention and attention, in other words purpose and awareness… The awareness allows us to respond, rather than habitually react,” said May.

Eating disorders affect 70 million men and women world wide, with the prevalence being more that twice as high in women. Research shows that the drive to be thin starts in elementary school, with 42 per cent of girls in grades one to three wanting to be thinner.

As a result of these frightening statistics, an anti-body shaming movement has captivated the Internet. Celebrities, bloggers, and other social media users are posting about positive body image and our distorted perceptions of beauty.

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Dr. May completely supports this movement and believes that as a society we have created an unrealistic physical representation of health.

“I am all for a weight neutral approach to health. In other words, when we focus on weight, we are focusing on an external measure that is not very accurate…It just doesn’t make any sense that we should all look a certain way,” said May.

In addition to the media’s representation of the ideal weight, size prejudice is a contributing factor to our body diversity intolerance. In fact, according to a Brown University study, weight is no longer just a physical description; it is used to indicate moral character.

“Being thin and/or muscular has become associated with being ‘hard-working, successful, popular, beautiful, strong, and self-disciplined.’ Being ‘fat’ is associated with being ‘lazy, ignorant, hated, ugly, weak, and lacking in will-power’… children as young as five have ascribed negative characteristics to silhouettes of fatter children,” said the study.

So, how can we minimise our obsession with weight?

Dr. Dryer believes that it will take a lot of effort and a variety of strategies to make a change in this area.

“There are many cultural aspects to how we relate to food and many factors that can influence disordered eating. There is no one particular approach. It will need to be a multifaceted approach addressing dietary/nutritional education, ways of coping emotionally, etc.,” said Dryer.

Mindful eating encourages us to acknowledge and use our choice point, the moment between thinking of doing something and actually undertaking that action. It sounds simple, but self-discipline is a concept that most humans struggle with.

Dr. May developed a model to help mindful eaters make decisions related to eating.

Mindful eating cycle

Image curtesy of: Am I Hungry

“The mindful eating cycle, which is actually a series of six decision points, really helps us focus on why we eat, when we eat, what we eat, how we eat, how much we eat and where we invest the energy.

“As we become aware of each of those decision points, we’re able to respond to what’s happening in the environment mindfully, or what’s happening inside our own heads or physiologically, or emotionally, so we can make choices that are actually much more in alignment with what we want,” said May.

But how does that differ from the will power used in every other diet?

Marsha Hudnall, MS, RDN, CD, is the President and Co-owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run, a retreat for women that teaches the art of mindful eating. Hudnall believes that because mindful eating is based on intrinsic motivation, willpower is not a relevant term.

“We never call mindful eating a diet. It really is about intrinsic motivation, about really using your internal cues to guide you… They can be very physical, but they can also be psychological, in terms of what is it that I am using food for, or what kind of thinking patterns are effecting my choices?

“If you compare it to something like willpower, what you’re working from is the premise that there are foods that I should eat and there are foods that I shouldn’t eat, there’s a way I should eat there’s a way I shouldn’t eat,” said Hudnall.

She believes that this sort of strategy is not sustainable because dieters crave and obsess over certain foods, often as a result of not receiving adequate nutrients from their diet.

“There’s something about human nature, we want what we can’t have… So how mindful eating really works is it puts you in charge of deciding what it is that you want, it becomes your choice instead of something you are supposed to do, and that’s what willpower is about: what you’re supposed to do. It’s a very push pull kind of relationship,” said Hudnall.

Dr. May provides an example.

Shirley Kessel, a yoga therapist for eating disorder recovery and board member on the Centre For Mindful Eating, agrees with Hudnall. She says using willpower to control your food intake creates a negative relationship with food.

“The approach of mindfulness is a different approach than willpower… If you close your eyes and say that word to yourself a few times you might notice it has a negative connotation.

“So the problem with diets is that they’re restrictive and they cause you to use willpower as a way to cope with food. The practice of mindful eating is a more gentle touch, a more nonjudgmental way of evaluating your experience.”

Mindful eating proposes that if you commit your thoughts to what you are eating and why you are eating it, you may be less likely to engage in unhealthy eating behaviours.

So, could mindful eating be the modern solution to preventing eating disorders?

Dr. Dryer says that tackling the problem of eating disorders will also have to be a multifaceted strategy and that the effectiveness of mindful eating will firstly need to be demonstrated through research.

“No, this approach can only be regarded as one of the tools to addressing eating disorders. There are many causes to eating disorders and this disorder cannot purely be addressed with this approach,” said Dryer.

But it could be a start.

Hudnall believes that although it may not be the right approach for eating disorder rehabilitation, it may prevent people from developing an unhealthy relationship with food in the first place.

“I think it’s really a basic practice that’s going to help a person develop a healthier relationship with food and begin to understand how to feed their body in a way that truly supports their health,” said Hudnall.

Dr. May agrees and says that mindful eating could help to create a place between obsessing over calories and carbs, and obsessively over eating.

“Mindful eating helps us through very small changes to find that medium between those two extremes; where I can eat the foods that I love, but I’m also mindful of the effects of those foods on my body, I can exercise, not in order to burn calories but because it gives me energy and it makes me feel vital and function better in my life, I’m finding the way to do this that is sustainable but isn’t depriving and restrictive and punishing.

“Mindful eating is absolutely the best way to find that happy medium,” said May.

young girl body dysmorphia

Image curtesy of: http: Paradigm Malibus Adolescent Treatment Centre

Somewhere in the last century, between our rampage for success, money and power, we have become an appearance obsessed society that uses weight to indicate moral character.

We are exposed daily to unattainable bodies that we interpret as ideal, but the fact that we see these bodies as normal and aspire to achieve their perfection is where the problem lies.

It is causing distorted body image, low self-esteem, and creating a platform for various eating disorders that endanger our health.

There is a multitude of ways to attack this problem, and mindful eating may be one.

Anyone in need of support with eating disorders or body image concerns is encouraged to contact the Butterfly Foundation National Support Line on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673).