This is the second post in a two-part blog about mindful eating at college. If you missed part 1 you can find it here.
Learning to eat mindfully is a key step in repairing the relationship between your mind and body and trusting your body to guide your eating choices. However, it’s important to point out that not every college student is ready to fully embark upon a mindful eating approach. Individuals who’ve struggled with an eating disorder may require a period of more structure, meal plans and guidance from a professional dietitian in order to help their bodies return to a place of health and re-establish trust in feelings of hunger and fullness.
When you, with input from your treatment team, feel ready to move towards mindful eating one helpful resource is Mindful Eating 101 by Dr. Susan Albers. In the first part of her book, Dr. Albers differentiates between mindful eating and mindless eating and outlines the seven main habits of mindful eaters which we reviewed in part 1 of this post. In this follow-up, we take a look at some of the specific strategies that Dr. Albers offers to help make mindful eating a reality on a college campus.
First, it is important to pay attention to the language that you use, as language can ultimately shape your behaviors. For example, imagine trying on a pair of pants in a department store fitting room and noticing that they feel too tight. You might think “I am so fat.” If this carries a negative connotation for you it may lead you to deny yourself of proper nutrition in order to try to lose some weight and avoid the negative feelings. Alternatively, you might think “This brand really sizes their pants in a funky way,” which may instead lead you to try on a bigger size or even try to find pants from a different designer. It’s the same situation, with two very different results. Imagine how one’s self-esteem would be affected in both scenarios. In the first scenario, you can see how someone might start to feel badly about themselves and their body, perhaps even leaving the store without purchasing anything (or buying pants that don’t fit but vowing to fit into them by a specific date). In the second scenario, the person has not been personally affected, will likely maintain positive self-esteem and will most likely go on to buy a great pair of pants that they feel good wearing. Starting today, be mindful of your speech to others and to yourself. Be aware of the language that might lead to unhealthy choices and try to use more affirming statements.
Similarly, avoid using the word “fat” to describe what is actually an emotion. Have you ever heard someone say that they are having a fat day? The person is most likely actually having a frustating day, an angry day or a sad day. Think about the difference in how someone might cope if they label their feelings as fat versus sad. Someone who is sad might reach out to others for support, while someone who is labeling themselves as fat may come up with a new unhealthy diet plan. It is so important to identify the true emotion so that you can more accurately address it. Think about it this way…if your best friend came up to you and said she was feeling sad you would probably not tell her to go try a new diet or hit the gym for an extra 2 hours. Most likely you would comfort her, listen to her and maybe offer to take her somewhere to cheer her up. After you identify your own emotions, try being compassionate towards yourself and comforting yourself as you would a best friend in a similar situation.
Once you have started paying attention to your language and emotions surrounding food and weight, you may be ready to work on practicing mindful eating. Here are some tips from Dr. Albers’ book.
Get out of your rut: Sometimes we follow routines so mindlessly that we don’t stop to consider that there is an alternative to the same foods that we eat every day. Instead of automatically reaching for that oatmeal packet, consider what you might actually like to eat for breakfast and prepare that instead. You might want to try the dining hall instead of packing your lunch or vice versa to add some instant variety to your eating patterns.
Commit to mindfully eating one bite of your food during each meal. Try to savor the food using all of your 5 senses to really be present and in the moment.Its no secret, college can be pretty chaotic and stressful. But one mindful bite per meal sounds like a pretty reasonable goal, right?
Rate your hunger level. Before you eat, try to gauge just how hungry you are. Let this guide you in making choices about what you put on your plate. Pay attention to how you are feeling physically while you are eating so that you can stop when you are satisfied and not when you are either too full or still hungry. This is especially helpful when confronting the dining hall buffet; ask yourself what you are actually craving so that you have a specific meal in mind instead of mindlessly grabbing food because it looks good.
Be Flexible: If you’ve ever struggled with an eating disorder or fallen victim to fad diets, you may have adopted some very persistent thoughts that tell you to avoid certain foods. Unfortunately, when you follow rigid rules about eating, it becomes very hard to eat mindfully. Notice your thoughts about food without judgment, and try not to let them influence the food choices that you make or how you feel about yourself for eating them. Be flexible at each meal and eat what you are truly hungry for, stopping when you are full.
Don’t skip meals. Ever. It’s as simple as that. By skipping meals, you are setting yourself up to overeat or to make impulsive food choices. Dieting and skipping meals also lowers your metabolism. Your body does not operate well without consistent energy, so it is very important to offer yourself balanced, consistent meals throughout every day.
Accept your emotions: It’s completely normal to experience a full range of feelings, from sadness to anger to joy. Emotions are temporary states that help to give you information about the situation that you are in. Some people try to act on their eating disorder symptoms as a way to avoid emotions, but this is not a healthy or successful strategy and often makes a situation much worse.
Create a safe environment. Do you notice that you tend to eat mindlessly in the same places or at the same times everyday? Maybe you frequent the vending machine outside your Calculus class. If you are hungry, then eating that snack is a healthy response to your body’s signal. But if you tend not to be hungry at that time, think about whether you are eating purely because you’re bored, frustrated or overwhelmed by the math class or simply out of habit? Consider some alternatives. Focus on allowing extra time for a very fulfilling and enjoyable breakfast just before your class so you’ll be better able to pay attention and less likely to turn to food for distraction or coping purposes.
Be wary of alcohol. It’s no secret that drinking alcohol impairs your judgment. Sometimes people will eat more when they are drinking because they are not able to clearly follow their body’s signals. Others may be tempted to restrict to compensate for the calories from alcohol and find themselves even more impaired because there is no food to help their body process the alcohol. If you are of age and choose to drink, drink responsibly and in moderation.
Plan for the holidays and breaks. Special occasions such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s seem to lead to an even more intense emphasis on eating and weight for those who are already struggling. For some college students, the trips home will be extra stressful because of the family culture around food, meals and social gatherings. Plan ahead – try to predict what might be triggering for you during the holidays and put support in place that will help you continue to eat in a mindful way. More tips for holiday eating and recovery can be found here.
Find a friend. How many diets have recommended that you find a friend to go on the diet with so that you can have someone to keep you accountable? Instead of spiraling down the diet hole with a buddy, why not apply the same social technique but with a positive focus? Find a friend who is also interested in learning about mindful eating and encourage each other to practice these skills together.
Use your treatment team. If you are working on recovery from an eating disorder or from negative body image concerns, it is important to work with a trained professional who can help guide you through the process. The members of your treatment team are well-versed in mindful eating and can help you to set goals for achieving positive change, while also being able to point out obstacles that are posing a challenge to achieving your goals.
Whether you eat most frequently in your college dining hall, at a restaurant, or in your own dorm room or apartment, there is no secret formula for exactly what you are supposed to eat and how. The trick is simple: if you can work towards trusting your body and eating mindfully, your body will get just the right nutrition that it needs and your weight will naturally reach its healthy set point. Your body is very smart and knows what it wants and needs at any given moment. Pay attention, follow its cues, and you may find that you suddenly have more physical and emotional energy than you have experienced in quite a long time.
If you are interested in learning more about mindful eating, visit Dr. Albers’ website, www.eatingmindfully.com for further tips and information.
If you are worried that you have an eating disorder and would like to find out about your treatment options, please call us at (410) 938-5252 or visit us on the web at www.eatingdisorder.org
Written by Jennifer Moran, PsyD., College Liaison at The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt; Originally published on 10/11/11
Photo Credit: freedigitalphotos.net / lemonade