I was so amused with this ad in the window of an ice cream parlor during my recent vacation. It is interesting to me how we can be so "health-conscious" in America, yet continue to struggle with increasing waistlines. While buzz words such as natural, organic, whole wheat, low fat, gluten free, non-GMO are intended to guide the health-conscious consumer to simple healthy solutions, it seems we just continue to eat more - not less. Brian Wansink and Pierre Chandon from Cornell University have researched this paradox and describe a "health-halo" effect when foods are labeled in this way. Their research indicates that consumers underestimate how much they are eating and end up increasing their overall calorie consumption. See article here.
This phenomenon is hardly new in our culture. I can vividly recall the “Snack Well” era which is another great example of this health halo effect. Back in the late 80’s, eliminating fat in foods was the solution to America’s increasing waist line. Therefore, non-fat foods such as Snack Well cookies, Entenmanns pastries, and a slew of nonfat versions of cheese, salad dressings, etc. filled the grocery
stores. Misguided consumers believed that if you eliminated fat in food, you would lose weight and be healthy. When that didn't work, carbohydrates was suggested as the culprit for our health problems. Today, branding foods to help guide the consumer to healthy food options, (foods like the new “Satisfries- a low fat, less calorie fast food option) seem to continue to confuse consumers.
When an individual is trying to manage their weight and health outcomes, it is vital to recognize that "eating healthier" doesn't necessarily mean that an individual has created a caloric deficit that prevents weight gain or result in weight loss. Instead, staying aware of portions and internal cues versus judging food - not as "good" or "bad" or an opportunity to "indulge" - can help reduce mindless eating.
Remember, eating doesn't need to be so difficult.
“Shhhh!” My dad would say, as we ate our lunch and listened to the Paul Harvey radio show at exactly 12:15 pm. My family ritualistically surrounded the dinner table for meals in our small, quaint kitchen in Nebraska. Although we would listen intently to the Paul Harvey news at lunch, there were no other distractions at meals. No talking on the phone – of course there were no cell phones at the
time. In fact, there weren’t even cordless phones. We didn’t have a television in our kitchen. I don’t
believe anyone did back then. We ate whatever my mom prepared, whether that was grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup or good ‘ole Hamburger Helper. And, we were thankful for the food and this time to set apart the busyness of everyone’s day for a meal. My experience eating mindfully began before "mindful eating" was even defined in our culture. Growing up eating meals at the dinner table with my family introduced many of these eating behaviors, now considered hallmarks of following a mindful eating food plan.
My relationship with eating and food didn't stay that easy, unfortunately. External cues from society that normalizes dieting, “eating on the run", and "good" vs "bad" foods slowly decreased these mindful eating skills as I ventured off to college and “the working world”. Lunch was often running to get a large frozen yogurt and popcorn (because these were “nonfat”and good for you – the trend of the late 80’s) and eating at my desk while working on the computer. Evening meals became
eating something convenient in front of the television. I couldn’t understand how I continued to gain weight. I thought I was trying to“eat right” but clearly wasn’t paying attention to my eating. Eating
continued to become so chaotic, cycling between restricting and over-eating; struggling with persistent weight gain; and, continuing to erode away my pleasure with food.
I began to obsess about what to do? So, I began to exercise more and “eat better”. This was also the time I decided to go back to school and study nutrition. I thought that would help with this frustration with food. Well, I did get that Master’s degree in Nutrition, and discovered many
interesting things that I enjoy about physiology, food and nutrition. But, not even an advanced education in nutrition could have changed my relationship with “how” I was eating.
I fondly remembered back to that time when I could eat food, enjoy eating and not worry about my weight. Was that even possible anymore?
As my own family started to grow, I began to plan for and insist on having family meals. My husband and I sitting at the table with a 2-year old and a baby wasn’t the “Normal Rockwell” painting I remembered back from that dinner table in Nebraska. But, we stuck with it. Eating began to be more focused on “how” we were eating instead of “what” we were eating. Of course, I
continued to try and provide good nutrition for our family at the meals. But, it really wasn’t about the food. I began to notice that I looked forward to planning, shopping, and preparing a meal that would be presented at our table. We were thankful for the meal and setting apart the busyness of the day for each meal. And…unintentionally, my weight dropped back to the point I was at before all the chaotic eating.
Fast forward about 15 years through a divorce; being a single parent; stress of a job; taking care of adolescents; and the list goes on, to the present day. A mindful eating plan has not included any specific foods or recipes. It has not been about a diet. It has not been about grazing or having to eat at a specific time. For me, eating mindfully has been a practice of staying aware of my body and taking time to eat consistently. Whether having a family meal (that I continued to insist on even as a single parent with a 7-year old and 4-year old); or, a meal alone, eating at the table without distractions and staying aware of the sensations and pleasures of the food, has been the cornerstone of my eating plan. I have challenged judgment about food, and instead eat what I enjoy at meals, not what is the latest food or diet trend. Being a nutritionist, I enjoy preparing a variety of food with balanced nutrition in mind at each meal. But, if you asked anyone in my family, they would tell you there are no “forbidden foods” and “it’s just normal to have a family meal at the
Recently, we had a young guest over for our evening meal. The table was set, as it is at every evening. We began our meal with our usual centering of prayer. As we talked about the day, enjoying our food together (with no cell phones or TV allowed), our guest commented in
amazement about how different this meal was from her experience at home. She added that “it was very strange to sit at the table and eat.” Later in the meal, she continued to explain how “there is so much noise at her house during meals” and “eating here is so pleasant.” Truly the joy of
Val Schonberg is a Registered, Licensed Dietitian who specializes in weight management, sports nutrition, disease