Like many Americans, I have struggled with weight much of my adult life. In my case, a desk job and a tendency to eat under stress have made it easier to add a few pounds than to maintain my weight in any given year. Starting in February, however, I tried two new things to slim down. I learned a few mindfulness techniques for dealing with stressful situations and then I began making almost all my meals at home. I'm rather pleased with the results, as measured on my bathroom scale: I lost about a pound a week for 12 weeks. But more importantly, I've softened my approach to life, food and work. I think I may have even broken my decades-old habit of scarfing down chocolate chip cookies on deadline.
Surprisingly, this latest weight loss journey felt easier than have past experiences. Before, whenever I decided to shed some pounds, I focused primarily on how much I ate and how much I exercised—a straightforward, thermodynamically sound method that works, although it gets increasingly difficult with each passing decade. This time around, I pushed the nutrition and exercise portions of the endeavor temporarily to the side while I tackled the stress management bit head on.
Truth to tell, I thought I was doing okay with nutrition—cookies and, well okay, the occasional pizza binge notwithstanding. The past four years with Weight Watchers (one of a couple of options with good long-term track records) has taught me how to consume less and choose healthier foods. And once the weather started to get warmer, I naturally started getting more exercise just by being outdoors. So, I could afford to postpone any further changes in those departments for a bit.
That's how I found myself one winter's day at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in western Massachusetts—one of dozens of yoga retreat centers around the country. With the encouragement of my spouse (this is why married couples live longer), I had signed up for their Integrative Weight Loss program.
I was pleasantly surprised that their nutritional lectures featured solid biochemical and neuroendocrine studies with appropriate caveats about what was scientific consensus and what was still conjecture. The real eye-opener, for me, however, was the mindfulness technique that one of the instructors taught for dealing with stress, anxiety and other unpleasant emotions.
The concept of mindfulness comes to us from the realm of meditation—a practice that is more commonly associated with Buddhism, although it has a few roots in Western religion and culture as well. The idea is to be aware of what's going on in your internal life—emotions, thoughts and physical sensations—without rendering a judgment (positive or negative) about what you are observing. At the same time you are supposed to focus on something—like your own breath or the process of chewing and tasting your food—to help keep yourself from wandering off on any mental tangents.
The big secret about mindfulness, of course, is that this kind of focused awareness is virtually impossible to sustain for very long. That's why it's called a practice. You are constantly practicing—losing your focus, realizing that you've wandered off somewhere and bringing your attention back to your breath or the process of eating as the case may be.
In addition to meditating, I also learned how to eat mindfully. I'm a shoveler from way back—often absentmindedly eating at my desk or while reading emails or the news. While at Kripalu I learned to eat more slowly and deliberately.
And when I got home, I kept up my new mindful eating practice to the point that I don't multi-task at the table anymore—not even to listen to the radio. I didn't change the amount of food I ate, but I found that it satisfied me more than before—when I wasn't paying that much attention to my meals. And indeed the more I eat mindfully, the more I find myself satisfied with smaller quantities of food.
As revelatory as mindful eating was, adopting a mindful approach to deadline pressure turned out to be transformative. My mindfulness guides at Kripalu had encouraged me to turn towards uncomfortable emotions—the fear of not finishing in time or of not being clear enough in what I wrote—instead of trying to suppress them. The idea was to develop a kind of detached curiosity about what stress feels like to me.
Easier said than done. But back at the office I dutifully attempted a series of steps—referred to by the ungainly acronym BRFWA (for Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch and Allow)—in response to the first work crisis. I took three deep breaths, then I scanned my body to see if I was holding tension in any muscles—like my jaw or shoulders—that I could relax. The third step was to name and feel the feelings without creating a story about why they were there. Watching all this happen meant noticing the internal struggle without judgment. Then I allowed the stress to build and wane. After 20 minutes, I realized I had outlasted the anxiety without reaching for either cookies or candies and I proceeded to meet my deadline.
The other part of my mindfulness journey involves preparing most of my food at home and making plants—particularly vegetables, fruits and legumes—a much larger part of my diet. I'm not following any particular food guru other than Michael Pollan's very common-sensical advice to "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
More specifically, I use a variation of the US nutritional guidelines found at choosemyplate.gov and avoid such easily digested foods as white rice, bread and pasta. I strive to fill at least half my plate with greens, fruits and vegetables; up to a quarter of the plate may contain starchy vegetables or whole grains and a quarter of the plate consists of protein—often a combination of beans, full-fat yogurt and meat or fish.
This menu seems to work the best for my physiology. What I eat satisfies my desire for tasty food and doesn't leave me craving for more than I need. I have noticed that even sensations of hunger feel different now—somehow more manageable. Alas, cookies no longer fit on my plate—they still trigger a tendency in me to overeat.
And yes, I have strayed from my mindfulness and home-cooking path a few times since February. But I keep climbing back onto the path. That's why it's called a practice.