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Weight Loss and Mindful Eating

Note: Let me state that I think it's up to each person to decide if she or he wants to lose weight, and why. But if you do, the questions become relevant.

Can mindful eating really help with weight loss? If you love sweet things, how can you say you'll eat what you love without going overboard and getting out of control?

The answers are yes and no, respectively. Of course the immediate follow-up question is - how does this work?

First, it’s important to remember the implicit assumptions in the questions: that diets, with their rules, restrictions, and deprivation, are the only way to lose weight - and that you will, in fact, lose weight on a diet. This is not the case. For most of us, you may initially lose some weight on a diet, but when you get tired of the deprivation, the rules go out the window and you end up back where you started, or somewhere worse. Additionally, the rules may make you so rebellious that you skip them altogether and go right to rebelling.

For example, in my younger years, it's true that I would make "healthy" choices (whatever I thought those were at the time) when I was around other people. For instance, if I had options of a salad and candy, I'd go for the salad, because that's what I was "supposed" to eat, and I wanted to avoid being judged for eating anything else.

But as soon as I was alone, more often than not I'd go for the candy. If I was in the early phase of a weight-loss attempt, I might be "virtuous" and hold back, but that never lasted long. In most cases, I not only went for the candy as soon as I could, I ended up eating more of it than I might have otherwise because I didn't know when I'd get it again, and because I hated the feeling of being told what to do. I did this even though as soon as I ate it all, I felt bad, both emotionally and physically.

So from my experience, diets were what made me go overboard on eating. Even worse, a lot of the time it wasn't even overboard on things I really enjoyed, just things that gave me a sugar rush and I thought I liked because they were on the forbidden list.

Contrast this with a mindful eating approach. In the same scenario, if I'm given the choice between salad and candy, things would likely play out very differently. For one thing, my choice would not be different depending on who else was in the room. Nor would it be based off what I feel like I should or shouldn't have.

Instead, I'd think about what I really wanted, and it would depend on more specifics of the options. What's in the salad? Is it a kind of candy I like, such as a handmade truffle with something gooey and tasty in the center, or is it something more generic? What am I in the mood for? And here's a crazy thought - what if I want some of each?

Being more mindful, if I do end up choosing the candy, I'm apt to enjoy it much more, because I'm focused on it and chose it based on my preference, not a reflexive desire to eat something I shouldn't have. I'm also much more likely to be satisfied with just one, rather than eating lots of them, because I want to feel good physically after eating.

I will say, though, that getting to this point doesn't happen overnight. It's a process. In the early days, it's entirely possible to go overboard on the things you've been avoiding, but it's not because of being mindful - it's more of a reaction to the earlier deprivation. It may take a while to get it out of your system and thought process that the food is forbidden, and you'll need to learn to trust yourself again. If you can stick with it, you're much less likely to get out of control around any kind of food. This may reduce how much you eat, and therefore help with losing weight. But it also might not - there are a lot of factors in weight. You are less likely, though, to go through weight cycling, losing and gaining and losing and gaining, and that will help from a health perspective, no matter your actual weight.

The key point, though, is that mindful eating is not incompatible with long-term, sustainable weight loss - but diets usually are. And I will say personally that when I made the decision not to do another diet, and to learn to just pay more attention to my eating, it was one of the best decisions of my life.

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