Look Around and Look Within

The Science and Art of Human Behavior

Do you eat for ‘entertainment’ or what?

To know about something you must experiment with it.

The other day I heard a nutritionist say ‘eating is not a form of entertainment' to which my friend decried, ‘what? Are you kidding me?'. My friend calls herself a ‘foodie' - she loves eating in new restaurants, exploring the sensory experiences of food, and savoring the tastes and smells of the culinary experience. Food for me is really not entertainment; it's a form of nourishment and sustenance. I eat to keep my body healthy; of course, I love to ‘eat out' with friends but that's because of the social experience more than the food itself. I am not a ‘foodie'.

I have nothing against foodies - I love the way they gush with enthusiasm over a new restaurant - I do that too when I hear of a new ‘vegan' restaurant that friends of mine who eat fish or meat will actually enjoy. This post isn't about being a ‘foodie' or not but rather about "what is your relationship to food?"

Mine has changed dramatically over my life span. Now I eat to fuel my body - with as healthy a fare as possible - but at one time my relationship to food was not so healthy. I suffered from bulimia - an eating disorder characterized by binging and purging when I was 15 to 22 years old. I gradually stopped the binging but replaced it with constant dieting, excessive exercise, and work. Over time (and with the help of therapy, meditation, and yoga) I began to relate differently to my ‘self' and the body I associate with it. My relationship changed from an unconscious self-loathing to conscious self-compassion. It was this shift that resulted in my new relationship to food.

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Instead of eating when I was upset, angry, or wanting to avoid a problem, I learned to catch early signs of such emotions and delve into the source, that usually diminishes their intensity rapidly. Food no longer plays a part in how I resolve such emotions. And I also try not to eat too mindlessly - while watching television or doing something else - but rather, I try to pay paying attention to the experience of eating with open curiosity.

This sort of orientation toward eating is mindfulness and recent studies of mindfulness and weight loss support that it is a good thing to do. In a study conducted at Indiana State University, researchers found that adding mindfulness to a weight loss program led to about 5 pounds more weight loss at the four-month mark compared to others on the weight loss program without mindfulness. Yet the finding was only evident for those participants who continued the mindfulness practice all four months (if you stopped early, there was no weight difference). The weight loss was largely attributed to an increase in exercise and a reduction in binging. In another study of people who were frequent bingers, a mindfulness program cut rates of binging by half. This early research suggests adding mindfulness to a weight loss regime may really help anyone interested in losing weight or getting healthier, and that it may be a helpful component in treating eating disorders.

Mindfulness certainly helped me see how I relate to myself (and body). Over time, I developed a much more positive relationship. Rather than being hypercritical of my ‘self', I learned to have as much self compassion as I have compassion for others. This lesson to be on equal footing with the rest of the world can take a while to learn for many of us. When you begin to really see yourself as of equal value to others, you no longer place yourself second in all you do. Sometimes you care for yourself before the child or husband or friend in need. It's a matter of balance to remember to care for yourself as much as you care for others.

When it comes to food, how you treat your body (and yourself) is easy to examine - it's right out there for observation. Do you constantly overeat or eat unhealthy foods? Or go on restrictive diets or excessive exercise regimes? These behaviors may signal a less than ideal relationship with yourself and your body. With attending to what and how you eat with an open curiosity you may begin to see your relationship with food more clearly.

I know a monk in a pretty strict sect of Buddhism where they eat one meal per day (before noon) gathered from the donations of laypeople to the monastery. They don't pick and choose what they will eat, what is donated is the meal of the day. And once lunch is done, there is no more till the next day. As I think of how this monk relates to food, I'm sure he is challenged by hunger and questions ‘why am I doing this?' - at least in the beginning of his training period. But it is only by challenging yourself - to look honestly at how you relate to food - that you can begin to explore with an open curiosity the roots of the relationship and perhaps see its change (if the relationship is harmful in some way).

Right now I've given up coffee (something I absolutely love) but also a drink that was making me shaky and leading to difficulties with sleep. It's been 2 weeks since my last cup of coffee and I can say my body feels much calmer and I am definitely sleeping longer. I may go back to my caffeine fix again but for now I'm exploring what it's like without it. This simple experiment reminds me of the teachings from Gandhi's autobiography, The story of my experiments with Truth.

To know about something you must experiment with it. To understand your relationship with food, you must challenge, examine, and explore it with an honest and open curiosity. Perhaps if we all examine how we relate to food we can gradually shift from harmful to healthier relationships. In that change, I'm guessing there will be more food to go around to feed the billions of people on the planet that can't even imagine food as a source of entertainment.

Susan L. Smalley, Ph.D., is a professor and behavior geneticist at UCLA Semel Institute and Founding Director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).

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