Our summer intern, Angela Wheeler, a junior at Minnesota State University majoring in Dietetics, interviewed Marsha Hudnall, president and co-owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run, a women’s weight management retreat in Vermont that pioneered the non-diet approach to healthy weights. Green Mountain was founded 40 years ago to help women stop dieting and learn how to truly take care of themselves to reach and maintain their natural healthy weights. Mindful eating has been a core component of the program for over 25 years.
Simply hearing the word “diet” can conjure up powerful feelings, most of them unpleasant. Feelings of deprivation, frustration and guilt when carefully laid plans inevitably do not go as intended are common. Yet, amid all this negativity, the immense popularity of dieting continues. Whether it’s Atkins, South Beach or the paleo diet, there are seemingly endless options to choose from. If you’re the average American, you probably have heard of or tried at least one or two, if not more.
Here’s the truth about diets: When they’re undertaken for weight loss, they don’t work, at least not for the average person. Weight-loss diets focus on short-term success instead of a long-term lifestyle change. They often leave followers feeling deprived because of their numerous restrictions. Many people are also left feeling guilty when they are unable to abide by a diet’s rules. One of the biggest pitfalls of diets is they often focus on fast weight loss instead of finding your own personal healthy weight. The good news is there’s a solution, and it’s called mindful eating.
The Center for Mindful Eating (TCME) is an international not-for-profit forum that promotes the practice of mindful eating. Its website defines mindful eating as “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.” TCME does not promote mindful eating as a weight-loss tool but instead recognizes how the practice can help people find and maintain their healthy weight by teaching them how to tune in to their body. TCME board member Marsha Hudnall, MS, RDN, CD, has an extensive background in mindful eating and healthy weight management.
Hudnall is president and co-owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run, a women’s weight management retreat that pioneered the non-diet approach to healthy weights. Mindful eating has been at the core of Green Mountain’s approach since it opened. Hudnall also serves on the board of directors for the Binge Eating Disorder Association and is an accomplished speaker and writer on the impact of dieting on eating behaviors. She shared her insight and wisdom regarding the mindful eating approach to a healthy weight and why diets usually end with little to no success.
The Problem with Weight Loss Diets
“The basic problem with weight-loss diets is that the rules are completely divorced from an individual’s experience,” Hudnall said.
She explains that diets often dictate how, when and what a person should eat, even though their needs, feelings and desires might contradict such rigid rules. So while people may be able to follow a diet for a certain length of time, they usually can’t maintain it in the long term. They often end up going from one extreme to another in a rebound effect, gaining back any weight they lost and sometimes even more.
“Weight management is much more than calories in versus calories out,” Hudnall said. “When dieting, a person tries to live by artificial rules that are based on that concept, but it’s too simplistic. The bottom line is that the rules usually don’t match a person’s physical or psychological needs.”
The Promise of Mindful Eating
Our needs concerning food come from the fact that we need food to live. As a result, our bodies have developed a system to ensure that we get enough to support survival.
The natural physiological response to getting too hungry, which is what often happens with dieting, is that a person is attracted to richer foods and tends to eat more quickly. The result is that we often pass the point at which we feel as if we’ve had enough to eat before we realize it. If we have been on and off diets, the typical response is to also feel guilty that we’ve eaten richer foods – which typically aren’t allowed on a diet – and that we’ve eaten “too much.” This sets off a downward spiral of thinking that can lead to repeated dieting and overeating that causes a person to gain weight instead of lose it.
“With mindful eating, we instead use the body as a guide to when, what and how much to eat. When it’s supported, the body is very capable of telling you what you really need to be well,” Hudnall said. “When we’re well and healthy, our bodies gravitate to their natural place. There’s no need to chase after weight loss. It happens na
turally if it’s what a person’s body needs to be healthy.”
Hudnall noted that the body’s natural point of balance is particular to each individual. In today’s society, however, weight bias runs rampant. Weight bias is negative preconceived notions of larger-bodied people that don’t necessarily have any basis in reality.
“You can’t look at a person and tell anything about them because of their size,” Hudnall explained. “Harsh judgments about a person based on their size often drive them to repeated dieting, even when they’ve failed time and time again. This doesn’t support good health.”
Start with Acceptance
Acceptance is commonly considered one of the key attitudes of mindfulness. In the area of weight management, it particularly applies because, according to Hudnall, it’s about supporting yourself in living a happy, healthy life, not getting in your own way with negative attitudes about yourself.
Acceptance can be a tough concept to master when there is considerable pressure to conform to others’ standards, particularly when it comes to weight. But people can move toward acceptance by starting to use their own thoughts, feelings and experiences as a guide to discovering what feels best to them. When it comes to eating, that’s what mindful eating is all about.
Mindful Eating for Healthy Weights
Mindful eating is not a set of strict rules. There is no list of “good” or “bad” foods directing what you can and cannot eat. It is not a “quick fix” or “fast solution.” Mindful eating involves learning to accept your body and appreciating it for what it is and the incredible things it can do. It is taking care of your body in a healthful way by listening to what it needs. It is a lifestyle change that can turn anxiety toward food back into pleasure, the way it is supposed to be. Mindful eating is granting yourself permission to eat what your body truly wants and needs.
“What is it you really do want? The way to find out is to let yourself have what you think you want and then observe how you feel,” Hudnall said.
Because mindful eating is a mind and body experience, you may be surprised to discover you don’t enjoy some foods as much as you previously had thought, typically the foods that are considered off limits for healthy eating. However, the power to eat what you want can be a terrifying thought for people who have repeatedly tried weight-loss diets. Hudnall has often encountered similar feelings while working with participants at Green Mountain. In addition, frequent dieters are often out of touch with their bodies and need to get reacquainted with their internal cues that guide eating. At Green Mountain, participants are encouraged to eat regularly as they learn to interpret and trust their body’s cues again. Well-balanced meals are also key since they provide important nutrients that support balance in the body and guide our appetite regulatory system.
“A mindful eating approach is not an approach to weight loss, it’s an approach to health,” Hudnall said when asked why mindful eating is a more successful way to achieve a healthy weight. She explained that mindful eating is also a key part in moving away from obsessions around eating and weight to live a full life that is focused on what’s really meaningful to a person instead of how many calories she has eaten or a number on a scale.
Hudnall also explained that emotional overeating, which is a typical problem faced by people who struggle with their weight, often arises out of dieting. Other people may have developed a habit of turning to food to cope with emotions for other reasons. But for all, mindful eating can help them become more aware of when they are overusing food for emotional reasons, which is the first step in changing that habit.
Enjoying Food and Life Again
Following a weight-loss diet is typically not pleasant, and most people are ready to end the experience as soon as possible. On the other hand, mindful eating can be very pleasurable and may easily become a lifelong commitment because it’s a way of eating that can include foods that people enjoy and make them feel well at the same time. When using mindful practices, you can step away from the dinner table after having a pleasing meal and still feel good about your decisions.
“Pleasure is really important and food is one of the greatest pleasures of life, so let’s find out how to truly enjoy it on all levels,” Hudnall said.
It’s time to stop dieting and start living again. Instead of letting others’ perceptions of what health should look like influence your decisions, practice acceptance and learn to be happy with all that you are. The mindful eating approach to weight management can help you listen to your body and begin to enjoy food again. Take back one of life’s simple pleasures and eat what you want, in a mindful way.
Join Marsha Hudnall this month for her "Finding Your Healthy Weight" teleconference, August 19th.