Enter any bookstore, turn on the television, or flip through a magazine -- without a doubt you will be faced with shelves of diet books, commercials with celebrities touting unbelievable weight loss results or an advertisement for the latest fat-melting pill. If these are the images that come to mind when you hear the word diet, you're certainly not alone.
The weight loss industry has done an incredible job ingraining its message into our collective consciousness -- so well that anywhere from 50 million to 100 million Americans are dieting each year. And though we are facing an alarming obesity epidemic, is this industry helping us, or are they actually hurting us?
Though the intention to "get us to a healthier weight" is a noble one, remember that this industry is a business -- and it is one that profits off of our excess pounds. One review reported that there are over 1,000 published weight-loss diets, with more appearing in the lay literature and the media on a regular basis. When one popular method or fad "fails," there's always another ready for the media spotlight. Furthermore, the evidence behind these programs is often shaky or nonexistent. The Federal Trade Commission says that roughly 15 percent of weight loss ads contain false claims or false information. And those magic weight-loss promising pills? Supplements are far less strictly regulated than most food and drugs, leaving potentially dangerous items to stay on the market until consumer complaints push for review.
For the individual, dieting is much more than the physical process of trying to lose weight. All of the prescribed program steps, food restrictions, and allowances take a physical and emotional toll. "Good" foods, "bad" foods, "cheat days," and "results" become a normal part of our vocabulary. We obsess over the numbers on a scale, blame ourselves and question our willpower when we fall off the prescribed regimen. Even though studies show that the rate at which people initially lose weight was not linked to their success in keeping the weight off, we often feel guilt, shame, or sadness when we bounce back to our starting weight -- or worse -- gain more. The key to success is a routine that is satisfactory enough for an individual to integrate it fully into their everyday living, yet not even the most popular of these regimens truly deliver.
It's time to shift our attention away from the diet craze and back to what really matters -- truly enjoying our food. It is possible to prevent weight gain, attain and maintain a healthy weight, and lead a more satisfying life through mindful eating and mindful living. The essence is to be more mindful from moment to moment about the way we live, with increased awareness of our relationship with the foods and drinks we consume, and how they affect our body, our feelings, and our thoughts. Furthermore, we need to be alert as to how external cues and our surroundings shape our consumption and lifestyle behaviors. This means that we begin to focus not only on what we eat, but also why we eat, how we eat, and a gain a greater understanding of why we eat what we eat. We also cultivate awareness of what reinforces our unhealthy habits, as well as what deters us from, or motivates us in maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Though still in its infancy, research on mindful eating is on the rise. In fact, a recent literature review that looked into mindfulness-based interventions targeting obesity-related eating behaviors found promising results for individuals struggling with binge eating (characterized by consumption of large amounts of food and loss of control over eating), emotional eating (eating in response to emotional arousal), and external eating (eating in response to external food-related cues, such as the sight and smell of food, as well as the power of advertising that lures us to make food and beverage choices that compromise our health).
The growing evidence-base for mindful eating is certainly encouraging, though there is no need to wait for proof or validity before engaging in the practice. Mindful eating is not a diet. There are no specific calorie amounts to be calculated, and there are no strict patterns to which you need to adhere. It is not about deprivation -- it's about making good choices that nourish your body and your mind. You already have all the tools to begin, and all it takes is some practice. Tools like the "7 Habits of a Mindful Eater" are helpful guidelines, though they are by no means a regimen. Rather than a diet which can be more difficult to adhere to once the initial interest wears, mindful eating becomes a habit that is more rewarding, enduring, and pleasurable over time. You are not only helping yourself by engaging in an enjoyable way to attain a healthy weight and maintain your health, you also appreciate the contributions from nature and mankind that made your food possible. By truly focusing on your meal -- enjoying every bite without overindulging -- you may even realize how blessed you are to have the option of delicious and nutritious food, knowing that over 870 million people globally suffer from hunger on a daily basis. Embracing this mindful awareness and inevitably, a more plant-based diet, you even give yourself the opportunity to contribute to food sustainability. Just imagine the potential effect on worldwide food availability and security if all those dieting in the U.S. alone made the switch to eating mindfully!
So regardless as to whether you're currently dieting, thinking about dieting, or not dieting, I invite you to give this simple exercise a try: At your next meal, begin by taking a breath and checking to see how hungry you are. Choose some foods that are both nourishing and appetizing. Then, without calculating calories or specific amounts, simply take a reasonable portion that you think may satisfy your hunger. As you sit down to eat, move yourself away from distractions. Focus on each bite, how each tastes different from the one before it, reflecting on how each bite is nourishing you. Smile, knowing that without strict measurement or stress, you have access to this enjoyable moment for yourself, whenever you eat mindfully.