AUSTIN, Texas —Michelle May never saw her mom eat a baked potato.
When she was a kid, everyone else at the table got one, but not her mom, a slender woman who was always on a diet to stay that way.
“I believed that when I grew up, I wouldn’t get to eat potatoes anymore, either.” It’s a story she tells in “Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat” ($19.95), a 2011 book I discovered last summer at a nutrition conference.
In her keynote speech at the event, May, a family-physician-turned-wellness-coach, explained that there are three types of eaters: restrictive eaters, like her mom, overeaters and instinctive eaters.
Most of us who have struggled with our weight (and feelings about food and eating) oscillate between the first two, either consuming every chance we get (and feeling bad about it) or eating by strict sets of predetermined rules (and feeling bad when we break them).
But it is that third category — instinctive eating — that May wants us to strive for, no matter if it’s New Year’s Day or any other day of the year when we feel trapped by what she calls the eat-repent-repeat cycle.
May asked the audience to think of someone we know who seems to have a healthy relationship with food.
I immediately thought about my mom, who struggled with compulsive overeating in her 20s and 30s and finally broke her yo-yo dieting habits.
I always thought of her as a mindful eater, whose key to success was reasonable portion sizes and a regular, consistent exercise regimen.
I rarely saw her eat seconds, but I never saw her miss a meal. She could eat one, maybe two cookies, and feel satisfied. She enjoyed cooking, but food was only one of the ways she showed us her love.
Instinctive eating helps us refocus on what food really is: fuel for our bodies.
Starting in our teen years, and increasingly earlier, unfortunately, we learn the latest (and ever-changing research) on “good” and “bad” food, drinks, eating habits and exercise.
We obsess about calories consumed. We learn how to calculate a small bag of fries into minutes on a Stairmaster.
But from birth, we learn something even harder to unlearn: eating habits and triggers.
Parents tell children to “clean their plates” without realizing that they are also teaching children to ignore the natural signals in their bodies that tell them they are full.
We eat because the clock says it’s time to eat. We fill our plates with too much food because the plates are large and that’s what everybody else is doing.
“We confuse thirst for hunger and food for love,” May said.
“We eat for every emotion in the book,” she said. “When a craving doesn’t come from hunger, eating will never satisfy it.”
Americans face unprecedented access to food and food advertising.
“It’s no wonder you feel like eating all the time,” May said.
We can’t eliminate the triggers, May says, but we can learn to recognize them and pause, which gives us time to think about how we really want to respond.
This “respond-sability” becomes the backbone of mindfulness.
“Mindful eating means you eat with intention and attention,” she said. It means setting a purpose for your meal and becoming aware of how you feel while you’re eating, she said.
It starts not with deciding what you should or shouldn’t eat, but with when, how and why.
“If you understand the why, the what doesn’t matter,” she said, pausing to acknowledge that that argument might not be popular at a nutrition conference.
Relearning how to listen to your body so you can determine whether it’s telling you to eat more protein, greens, grains, dairy, vegetables, fiber, vitamins and even specific minerals can take years, but you have to be paying attention to how you feel before, during and after eating to start that process.
And beware, May says: Your learned “needs” might not really be needs at all. The chemicals in, say, diet soda, have trained your body to “want” them, but those false needs are triggers you have to break, just like the emotional ones.
So what about all the specific diets that are out there now, like vegan, Paleo, gluten-free and macrobiotic? May doesn’t outright eschew them, but the key is making food choices based on what your body tells you it needs, not what someone else does.
Once you’ve figured out how to know when it’s actually time to eat and what kind of fuel your body is telling you it needs, then comes what can be the hardest part: Knowing when to stop.
“Satiety is your body’s signal that you’ve had enough,” she says. “Discomfort is not the goal.” We’ve been hearing for years that it takes more time than we realize for our stomachs to send the message to our brains that we’re full. But it’s not just about eating slowly to allow that memo to be delivered; we have to be focusing on the food and not something else, like the television or computer or a book or magazine.
Not paying attention to the act of eating is one of the biggest culprits in overeating, which then throws off your internal gauge.
The goal isn’t to eat “perfectly” or never “mess up,” May said. “If you fall off, don’t judge,” she says. “Just think, ‘Oh, isn’t that interesting,’ and pay attention to what went ‘wrong’ and why.”
Mindful eating tips
Don’t wait to eat until you are famished. Don’t wait to stop eating until you’re stuffed.
Eat without distractions. Focusing on the food will help you know when you’re really full. Appreciate the appearance, smells, textures and even sounds of the food.
If you’re not enjoying what you chose to eat, don’t eat it and choose something else.
Pause in the middle of the meal for at least two minutes and estimate how much more food you’ll need to feel comfortable.
Don’t be afraid to leave food on your plate. Many of us have been indoctrinated to “clean our plates,” but that’s disrespectful to what our bodies need.
Notice how you feel, both physically and emotionally, when you’ve decided you’ve had enough.