I recently read a book called The Last Hillwalker: A Sideways Look at Forty Years in Britain’s Mountains by John D. Burns, and this passage caught my attention.
“We’ve also learned to break this big beast down, to set our sights on the top of the next hill, the floor of the next valley. The whole walk is too big to contemplate; let’s just make it to that farmhouse, to the next road, across the next field, over the next stile.” (p. 48)
When I read this, I realized that while this idea of breaking down the “big beast” was written about hiking, it also applies to mindful eating.
Why Break Down Mindful Eating?
When I first started thinking about changing my eating patterns, I was nearly paralyzed by the thought of doing something a new way “forever.”
I was twenty-four – how could I possibly commit to eating differently for the rest of my life? What about holidays? How would I manage when I had to travel for work and would eat out a lot? What about when I visited friends?
It was so much to think about that I was tempted to give up before I even got started.
That’s when I realized that I couldn’t think of it that way. Similar to a big hike, instead of focusing on getting to the top of the mountain, I needed to break things down into smaller, manageable chunks.
I couldn’t try to focus on what I’d be doing five or ten years from now, or even five months from now. I could only focus on what I needed to do today, or maybe tomorrow.
That way, I didn’t feel completely overwhelmed by the long-term focus, and I could start making changes.
How to Break Down Mindful Eating
The next question was, how to break it down? Even saying I would eat mindfully for one day felt like too much, so I started smaller.
First was making sure I had some different foods available. Maybe I didn’t need to have a big bag of Doritos around. If I wanted something crunchy and salty, maybe I could try pretzels.
And if plain vegetables didn’t appeal, perhaps I could try different kinds of hummus, or getting a steamer basket so I could steam veggies. Or maybe I’d give vegetable soups a try – and it was okay if they weren’t homemade.
Then, I decided to focus on one meal to start with. For me, that was dinner. With some different food choices, I could experiment and think about what I really wanted and what satisfied me.
I also thought more about if I was truly hungry before eating dinner. I’d been eating as soon as I got home, but was I hungry then, or just stressed from work? Did I use dinner as a transition out of work into my time at home, and if so, could I do something instead to make that transition?
Finally, once I started eating when I was hungry, I could focus on how much I ate. Did I eat more than I needed to satisfy my hunger? Did I need to clean my plate, or could I leave something behind? What if I served myself less to begin with?
I also didn’t tell myself that I had to get this down “perfectly,” or that I had to do it every day. And I never told myself I couldn’t have sweets, just that I could see how much I wanted instead of eating them on auto-pilot.
I’d try to think about these things each day, but sometimes I didn’t. Or sometimes I thought about them a little but didn’t act on them. And that was okay. I did the best I could.
Eventually, paying attention to my hunger and fullness signals, as well as what foods appealed to me, became more habitual, and I could apply that to other meals and snacks.
This is when the difference between mindful eating and mountain climbing became clear. When you’re climbing a mountain, you do have an endpoint, but that’s not the case with eating. You’ll always need something to eat.
In some ways this is helpful. If you don’t think about “getting off” of mindful eating, that takes some of the pressure off. If you didn’t eat mindfully one day, or as mindfully as you’d like, that’s okay. There’s always tomorrow.
Still, that “forever” idea can be daunting, which is why I’ve never thought of it that way. It’s just something I’m doing as I can, day by day, and it’s now become such a part of my life that I can’t imagine going back to eating the way I did before.
Find the Path that Works for You
Of course, my experience of breaking down mindful eating is just one example. You might find that you want to approach it differently. You might also want to go more slowly in making changes, or more quickly.
The real key is to find a path that works for you and to remember that it’s not a race. If you pay attention to what your body is telling you, and your individual needs, you can get into a rhythm that’s sustainable instead of something you can’t wait to finish.