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Ooey Gooey Butter Cake, Paula Deen and Mindful Eating

Talking about food and health touches us deeply. If Paula Deen's story caught your interest or bothered you, take a minute to pause and ask yourself why.
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In October, I had the pleasure of giving a lecture on mindful eating at 92Y on the upper east side of New York City. When they announced who was speaking immediately after me, there was a bit of chuckle by the crowd. Paul Deen, "the queen of butter," was up right after my lecture on mindful eating. I reminded everyone that it is perfectly "okay" to love Paula's ooey gooey butter cake as long as you eat it "mindfully." This is savoring and enjoying a small portion of cake without overeating it or using it to comfort and soothe yourself.

That evening, Paula was interviewed by the smart and insightful Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist in New York City. Dr. Saltz inquired about Paula Deen's early life before she was famous. What the audience learned from the interview is that Paula Deen, like the rest of us, is human. She has struggled with loss, grief, anxiety and relationship issues. Given her life's journey, she has been very resilient and seems to have used good old-fashioned hard work to help deal with her issues. It makes sense that food, which is a comfort to so many, would be a significant part of her life. For those who have difficulty coping with stress, food is so accessible and a temporary way to ease tension and pain. In the long run, finding methods to cope with stress in healthy ways, without calories, is key.

In a recent interview, Paul Deen indicated that her food is to be eaten in "moderation." Most people would generally agree with this. Although we know what this means intellectually, actually doing it is an entirely different story. I'll like to propose the term "mindful eating" which may help clarify.

Mindful eating goes beyond the notion of "moderation." Moderation takes an "eat this, don't eat that" ideology much like dieting. Diets are about cutting out certain foods. Mindful eating, in contrasts, teaches people to pay attention to how they eat. It is identifying mindless eating habits (like multitasking while you eat and eating when you aren't really hungry). It is also reducing comfort eating and eating foods that truly nourish you and feel good in your body. Doing these things can significant improve your health and well-being (according to a recent study about weight loss and mindful eating).

Paula has gotten a lot of criticism for working with a drug company to promote a diabetes drug. The hope expressed by advocacy groups is that this doesn't confuse people. Medication isn't the only option. For many people, healthy foods and exercise can make a significant difference. According to a recent article by Dr. David Katz in The Huffington Post, "moderate improvements of diet and activity can prevent Type 2 diabetes in nearly 60 percent of high-risk adults, and evidence that more fundamental improvements to lifestyle could prevent almost all of it -- and certainly more than 90 percent."

What was particularly interesting is the very strong reaction that this story generated. Talking about food and health touches us deeply. If this story caught your interest or bothered you, take a minute to pause and ask yourself why. What did Paula's story make you feel? Did it touch upon any of your own feelings about food or health struggles?

At the end of the day, I'm sure that many Americans can identify with the struggle to eat healthy, manage stress and avoid comfort eating when you truly love food. As a psychologist who works with many people who are diabetic, I can empathize with how difficult it can be to change your eating habits even when you want to and it is necessary for your health. I want to reassure you that it is possible. Please find a team of professionals that can help you move forward.

Best wishes on your journey toward mindful eating and living well!

For more by Dr. Susan Albers, click here.

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Dr. Susan Albers is a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic. She is the author of several books including 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, Eating Mindfully, But I Deserve This Chocolate, and Eat, Drink & Be Mindful.