Author: Angela Bewick, CHNC
The Power of Mindful Eating
- Can we dismantle “diet culture” through our mindful eating practice?
- How do our biases impact our practice?
- How can we use mindfulness to counter the obstacles of our biases?
- How do professionals in the mindful eating space do this?
- Are there ways in which we can deepen our relationship with ourselves so that we are motivated to take care of ourselves in the best ways possible?
I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s and my personal story about body image was shaped largely by my family’s biases. It was also influenced by the overwhelming media messaging of what beauty and health looked like. I know I’m not alone in this - this is how we are conditioned: not recognizing the belief is there until we examine it.
I grew up with the notion that thinness equals health, a misleading idea born out of the monumentally profit-driven diet industry. For me, mindful eating brought this awareness to the fore.
I know firsthand the power of food as medicine; I have resolved many personal health issues through changing what and how I ate. Mindful eating opened the door to questioning some of these deep-seated yet mostly unhelpful beliefs, and allowed me to examine their roots.
When I began to do that work towards true acceptance and understanding of what actually is here now, I was ready to wield the tools of mindful eating to dismantle the house of “diet culture” that had been unwittingly constructed in my subconscious. I was able to uncover what lay beyond the limiting beliefs of our cultural notions around body image and view things through a lens of self-compassion and loving curiosity.
And boy, did that feel a hell of a lot better than the alternative.
Mindful Eating in Practice
When we consider how to bring mindfulness into our lives, whether in a professional setting or in our own personal lives, we can get bogged down with the huge amount of information around food and mindfulness. It is helpful to find techniques that work with our lifestyle and personalities amongst the myriad options that are out there.
In my own nutrition practice, I have always been interested in finding ways of empowering clients to listen more deeply to their own inner knowledge. The obstacle was overcoming the conditioning of the culture and its biases. I must confess, my own biases were a hindrance too! I wanted to reach out to fellow mindful eating practitioners and find out what they were doing to overcome their clients and their own preconceived notions of what “success” looked like to them.
I talked with mindful eating practitioners and TCME Board Members Lynn Rossy and Narmin Virani about how they manage their clients’ and their own assumptions around body image.
Lynn Rossy is a health psychologist, author and yoga teacher with over twenty years’ experience working with clients in mindful eating. She developed Eat for Life in 2007, a ten-week program which helps participants gain a deeper and more mindful relationship with food and their bodies.
Narmin Virani is a Registered Dietitian and researcher who has been in practice for nearly twenty years. She has worked with clients in the cardiac wellness and mindfulness medicine fields as well as weight management and bariatrics, before shifting to a weight-inclusive approach to health. She learned a great deal about the importance of mindful eating and its vital role in health.
For both Rossy and Virani, addressing the misconceived notion of ‘smaller body equals healthy body’ means pointing to the research. “(It) shows the lack of correlation between health and weight” says Rossy. “For instance, there was a 2016 study of 40,000 adults in the United States that compared people's BMIs with specific measures of health and found that nearly half of those classified as overweight and about a quarter of those classified as obese were metabolically healthy.”
“On the other hand,” Rossy continues, “31% of those with a ‘normal’ body mass index were metabolically unhealthy. So, weight is just not a good indicator of health. Unfortunately, most doctors are not taught this and tell anyone in the ‘overweight’ and ‘obese’ categories to go on a diet that just puts them at greater risk for being unhealthy.”
Moving from Knowledge to Wisdom
Sharing this type of research with clients helps them understand that real health goes far beyond the scale. Rossy goes deeper with clients, looking at what their desires are really pointing to. She asks her clients: “What does being in a smaller body mean to you?” Whether it’s access to greater mobility or the belief that having a smaller body will make them more worthy of love, Rossy seeks to find creative solutions to foundational issues.
It was the research and working directly with clients that compelled Virani to re-examine her own thoughts around body size and health: “I used to have this bias in the past until I worked at a bariatric center for 7 years and saw that most people in bigger bodies were much healthier before the surgery than after, and that most were barely eating adequate food, even before surgery, which convinced me that weight does not have much to do with calories consumed/expended.”
Years of experience have given both Rossy and Virani a deeper understanding of the trappings of our culturally conditioned thoughts - which is precisely why mindfulness is a skill that we must continually practice. It takes time to learn to not just become aware of our biases, but to also take judgment out of the stories we tell ourselves and each other in order to see things as they really are.
One of the most significant gifts we can give ourselves around mindfulness is the ability to deepen our relationships with our bodies. This is truly the basis of mindful eating. When we love and respect something, we are motivated to care for it.
I know many people who think that they are incapable of loving kindness towards themselves, yet care deeply for their children, pets and dear friends. Self-compassion is possible for those same folks; after all, if we can direct that loving energy towards other living things, it is absolutely possible to direct it towards ourselves as well!
Our conditioning and past experiences can make it a process that needs practice, but as I said at the beginning of this article, the rewards of the practice sure beat the alternative.
Practical Ways to Fall into Loving Kindness With Ourselves
Develop awareness of your present habits – both helpful and limiting habits that support or deplete your ability to accomplish full body health.
Learn how you learn best! Do you learn best through kinesthetic methods (by doing something active)? By listening (podcasts, interviews, lectures)? By reading? Journalling? In a group setting? Alone? If you’re not sure – look at your past - especially when you were a child - and see how you came to learn the things you excel at. You can also try methods you haven’t used very often to challenge your brain and gain a better understanding of yourself and the ways which best support your learning. Embrace curiosity.
As Lynn notes - shifting your perspective “away from viewing their bodies as ornamental and to a view of the body's instrumental value and function” can allow you to de-program some of the lingering hangover from diet culture and embrace what is here now and all the amazing things your body CAN do, rather than focusing only on what you’d like to change.
The body is always in the present moment and hunger cues can be understood as not simply rooted in the need for food. Learning what the cues can mean, learning what your body is saying/asking for are important practices in developing awareness and strategies for addressing needs directly. (See Linn Thorstensson’s wonderful webinar Exploring the many facets of hunger. If you are a TCME member, you can access this webinar for free in the TCME library.)
Be patient with yourself (and others.) We all know change doesn’t happen overnight; it is never too late or too little when it comes to improving your relationship with yourself.
Angela Bewick, CHNC and writer. She’s been coaching people in the field of personal health since 2009. She is a graduate of the University of Calgary (BFA,) The Canadian School of Natural Nutrition (CHNC,) and a member of the Center for Mindful Eating since 2012. In 2005, she began a formal meditation practice in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and, in 2019 completed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. In 2021 she published her children’s book, Bob, The Apple. She offers one-on-one consultations, teaches cooking classes and speaks publicly promoting optimal health strategies. She aims to teach others how to align ourselves with our own inner nature so that we can learn to connect more deeply with others and create a world rooted in loving kindness.
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