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Opportunity vs. Obligation

Note: To learn more about the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating program, visit or the AIH page on my website.

Have you ever felt obligated to eat the food presented to you? Maybe it’s a family meal, or food you’ve already paid for, or even food that’s freely given to you so you feel like you’re supposed to eat it.

I’ve experienced all other varieties, but most recently it came up in the latter sense when I attended a work conference. The conference provided most of the meals, which meant that if I ate anything else during those times, I wouldn’t be reimbursed – it was on my own dime.

In earlier years of attending this conference (it’s one my company puts on most years), my approach to this was feeling obligated to eat the food provided. And, because I could only eat at certain times, I felt like I should eat a lot, so I wouldn’t get hungry in between. Besides, it was free, so why not indulge?

Maybe you can tell already where this falls down from a mindful eating perspective. In fact, if I look at this using the AIH? Mindful Eating cycle, it runs into a number of problems:

  • Why? – I ate to try to prevent getting hungry later

  • When? – When the food was available

  • What? – I chose from the options given, but with no input into those options

  • How? – Usually in a social setting, so I was paying more attention to other things, feeling somewhat stressed about the conference and my presentations, and also not necessarily enjoying what I ate

  • How much? – Enough to carry me through to the next chance to eat, and usually more than that

  • Where did my energy go? – Working at the conference, although sometimes it also went towards berating myself for overeating, or feeling sluggish or uncomfortable

In those earlier years, I also spent most of my free time (not that I had much) catching up on other work, leaving very little time for self-care, including any exercise or chance for being active or having any quiet time. As a result, I often came out of those few days having gained almost a pound a day, being thrown out of my routine, and generally not feeling well.

This year I decided to adopt a different mindset. Instead of feeling obligated to eat when and what was provided, I thought of it as an opportunity to try some new things, but to only try foods of interest, in the amounts that I chose. I also wanted to make more of an effort on practicing some good self-care habits.

This approach does require some preparation and planning, in the sense of bringing some snacks to have on-hand. But since I normally have snacks with me, it was only a matter of thinking about how much to bring and figure out how to pack it. Also, I realized that from a money perspective, I’m not spending more than I would at home, and I can even expense some of it.

More important, though, is to remember the payoff for doing this. Consider the difference in my approach to eating:

  • Why? – I ate to fuel my energy levels and keep them steady

  • When? – During breaks when I was hungry

  • What? – A choice off what I had and what was provided, which was particularly useful because some of the meals weren’t as good as prior years, so I was happy to have other options on-hand

  • How? – Still in a social setting, but trying to split my attention better between the food and the conversation

  • How much? – To the point of satisfaction, since I knew I had snacks to carry me over if I got hungry again before the next meal

  • Where did my energy go? – Working at the conference, but also towards getting out for some walks in the spring weather along the waterfront, and making some time for meditation and stretching

The result? I felt so much better and focused and present, I slept well, I wasn’t distracted by excessive hunger or feeling too full or sluggish or uncomfortable because of tight clothes, and when I got home I didn’t feel like I needed to spend days recovering.

It can sometimes be hard getting up the motivation to prepare the food, but when I start to think that way, I remember that my goal for the conference is not to be obligated to eat certain things, nor to be restricted as to when and what I can eat. I also remember that having choices means I will feel better, which aligns with my goal for eating in general, and I have an easier time when I do this during travel as well as at home. That all makes it completely worthwhile.

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