Mindful eating: a mentally healthy “diet”

Festive-themed+cookies+and+other+baked+goods+needlessly+cause+feelings+of+guilt+and+shame+thanks+to+unsustainable+yet+mainstream+dieting+advice.+

Gretchen Highberger

Festive-themed cookies and other baked goods needlessly cause feelings of guilt and shame thanks to unsustainable yet mainstream dieting advice.

Gretchen Highberger, Copy Editor

The holiday season inevitably brings a barrage of opinions regarding dieting and weight loss. Popular advice begins to encourage holiday-goers to count every calorie consumed in candy canes and cookies. In January, gyms become full of people admonishing themselves for “overindulging” over the holiday season and vowing to do better. 

However, this vicious cycle of holiday dieting not only takes the joy out of the season, but promotes unhealthy and unsustainable eating habits. Restricting the intake of certain foods, or setting strict “rules” around eating can cause feelings of guilt, anxiety and ultimately failure. While it is important to have eating and living habits that promote a healthy lifestyle, these habits must be sustainable and realistic.

Freshman Kaliee Wilson has learned to block out arbitrary and subjective societal pressures. “It is better to have a healthy relationship with food than consistently believing change needs to occur and not accepting the natural changes that occur in the body,” she said. “I have been pressured to watch what I eat by family members to both limit my eating and increase it, making comments like ‘she’s so skinny she should eat more’. And others tell me that if I eat a piece of cake it will impact my performance the next day,” she continued. 

As the holiday season is approaching, the usual mainstream dieting advice has increasingly been replaced with a technique called mindful eating. This term has become somewhat of a buzzword, garnering attention from the local to national level, yet the concept it draws from is far from trendy or new. 

Mindful eating, as the name implies, draws from Buddhist teachings about mindfulness, the practice of actively paying attention to the present moment curiously yet nonjudgmentally. Mindful eating, then, is the practice of eating intentionally, focusing on the food being consumed, as opposed to eating while distracted by social media, TV or a work call. 

Eliminating distractions helps focus the mind on “eating experiences, body-related sensations, and thoughts and feelings about food, with heightened awareness and without judgment,” according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. By taking small actions such as putting down the phone, taking smaller bites, and pausing to notice the texture, smell and other characteristics of the food being consumed, it becomes easier to notice hunger cues and finish a meal feeling satisfied.  

Senior Josh Thomas has discussed the psychology behind dieting in his classes. “When you pay close attention to what you’re eating and ask whether or not it’s helping to satisfy your body’s needs, you can end up making healthier choices,” he said. “It also makes the experience of eating generally more enjoyable, which can help disassociate eating from the negative connotation of being unhealthy.”

Developing (or maintaining) a healthy diet while still keeping a healthy relationship with food almost seems too good to be true. These benefits can be obtained as long as people keep in mind what mindful eating is, and what it is not. 

Mindful eating is not a diet in the popular sense of the word. The popular usage of the word “diet” invokes unpleasant images of fad-diet labels on grocery store shelves (Whole30! Adkins! Keto!), bland salads and calorie-tracking apps. However, a diet, according to Oxford Dictionary, is simply, “the food and drink that you eat and drink regularly.” Mindful eating does not promote the consumption of a certain group of foods, but rather aims to guide people to consume whatever food they wish in a healthy way. 

Contrary to how many companies market them, diets are not quick fixes, but changes made over time. “If you stop doing the habits you’re built, you stop getting the results,” continued Thomas. Fad diets also need to seem flashy and innovative so people will be convinced by and attracted to them, which doesn’t work because there is no substitute for a change in habits.” 

Replacing harmful fad dieting with a more holistic solution to holiday-season health declines benefits everyone, especially those who struggle with eating disorders or have struggled in the past. For people who have an eating disorder, the frequent exposure to unhealthy commentary about food around the holidays can cause a regression or deepen current episodes.

However, in order to avoid further perpetuating eating disorders, mindful eating cannot become misconstrued to be another restrictive fad diet. “I think the trend of more emphasis on mindful eating around the holidays is positive if used right. I think it could be changed to become unhealthy with people profiting off of things that claim to support mindful eating habits but just becoming another term for people who profit off of diet culture,” Wilson continued. 

As the holiday season approaches, people struggle to find a healthy relationship between physical and mental health. Mindful eating presents a balance between the two that can be sustained year-round.