A former chavrusa (study partner) of mine exercises a lot. But he complains to me that no matter what he does, not only isn’t he losing weight, he’s actually putting on. He would describe to me how he eats salad with supper and doesn’t really think he is overeating. Over and over again, for over a year I kept hearing the same story, and quite frankly, I was running out of room on the bench we shared.
Every time he would ask me why he was gaining, I would give the same answer; “You really should learn how to eat.” And every time he would give me a look and I would say, “Make an appointment with my dietician, and she will help you. Well, it took over a year, but he finally made that appointment and even did a follow-up visit to learn how to eat on Shabbos. And guess what? He is 15 kilo less today than he was.
My chavrusa needed to learn a few things that all made a very big difference. 1) How many calories or portions of food to eat a day and still lose weight. 2) What constitutes a portion of any given food and 3) How to be mindful with eating.
Any good dietician or nutritionist can help you figure out how much to eat per day, how often to eat, what a portion size is and how many unrefined carbs, proteins, and healthy fats one should eat a day. But the mindfulness which is needed to execute the program is a more difficult thing to conquer. What is mindfulness when it comes to eating and what can one do to acquire that skill?
I believe all of us eat mindlessly to one extent or another. Typical mindless eating might be eating while working on your computer, while reading a book or newspaper, eating food straight out of the package, eating while standing up, and not planning your meal and snack times.
According to Dr. Susan Abers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, mindful eating is not a diet. There are no menus or recipes. It is being more aware of your eating habits, the sensations you experience when you eat, and the thoughts and emotions that you have about food. It is more about how you eat than what you eat. She says there are five benefits to eating mindfully:
- It’s not a diet.
- Fad diets don’t work!
- It decreases stress, which in turn, reduces emotional eating
- It has been scientifically researched
- It heals a wide range of eating issues
- It helps you manage your weight without starving or restricting
Dr. Michelle May is an expert on mindful eating. She emphasizes something that I have used with my clients for more than 15 years. Always ask yourself “Am I hungry?” when you are about to eat something unplanned. If you are reaching into the pantry or fridge, just stop for a second, that is all it takes and ask yourself this key question; “Am I hungry?” By asking that question, you will stop yourself from eating thousands and thousands of calories per year. But once you master that, the second thing to do is find a distraction technique. This is something that Dr. Judith Beck feels is essential. Some of the things you might try to distract yourself from going back into your food pantry are:
- Read a book.
- Learn or go to a shiur
- Distance yourself from food.
- Get out of the house.
- Perform an act of chesed (i.e. bikur cholim)
- Listen to a tape.
- Do a jigsaw puzzle.
- Organize and clean your closet.
- Clean out your drawers.
- Go to the gym.
- Call a friend or family member to chat.
- Take a walk.
- Write and answer letters or e-mails.
- Take a bath or shower.
- Do a home-improvement project
- Work in the gardenThese techniques are also very useful for one of the most common reasons people eat—boredom. You can choose a few options from this list or you can come up with your own ideas. Whatever works for you is good.
My chavrusa mentioned two things that are important to remember. First, since he saw the dietician and learned how to eat, as long as he followed his plan (based on just NORMAL EATING), he is never hungry. Two, he doesn’t expect to lose weight quickly. And having patience is very important. Rapid weight loss means you are on a diet, and we know they have no great benefit for long-term weight loss. Registered dietician Maryann Jacobsen warns to watch for these signs that indicate a diet to lose weight quickly as opposed to normal eating with proper mindfulness:
- There’s no plan to keep weight off for the long run.
- You’re allowed only a few foods.
- You’re promised weight loss from a specific part of your body.
- You’re guaranteed to lose X pounds in X days
- You’re always hungry.
- You’re constantly running to the bathroom.
- You’re asked to invest in supplements, herbs, pills, or patches.
One of the other benefits of mindful eating is that you slow down. This allows you to digest better, eat less as you chew your food more and it will enhance the eating experience so that you really will enjoy your food more. You will feel full without feeling overfull. Hashem gave us food to enjoy. The berachot we make on food are birkot nehenin—blessings for receiving pleasure from what we are doing. So get more pleasure by eating mindfully. Lose weight too! (And then there will be more room on the bench for your chavrusa.) Mindful eating will “add hours to your days, days to your years, and years to your lives.”