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A Delicious Way to Improve Disordered Eating

Although bipolar disorder can complicate eating, mindfulness can help.

Key points

  • Mood swings can impact the nature of food consumption.
  • Psychotropic medications may affect metabolism.
  • Mindful eating can have a beneficial effect on one’s relationship with food.

I once wrote that it’s practically impossible to have a normal relationship with food if you have bipolar disorder. My vacillating moods are always reflected in my appetite. When I’m manic, I’m so busy changing the world that I don’t have time to slow down and eat. Whatever I’m doing is far more important than the needs of my body, so I can go days without even thinking of food. And my mouth is usually occupied with talking, talking, talking—when is there an opportunity to chew on anything but the profundity of my thoughts?

When I’m depressed, on the other hand, time slows way down and my body slows along with it. I’m like a big, lumbering bear preparing to go into hibernation; I consume calories as if my life depended on it. There isn’t enough food in the entire world to fill up the vast empty void inside me. Eating numbs me and stops me from feeling, and feeling is so horrible I prefer not to do it at all. So I try my best to keep up a constant rhythm of food to fork to mouth—within that small space and inexorable routine, I feel I can survive.

Then there are my bipolar meds, so many of which cause inexplicable weight gain. I once gained 40 pounds in a month and, panicking, starved myself into clinical malnutrition trying to get it off. Nothing worked but stopping the drug, which plunged me back into depression. I live in terror of that happening again, because I know that the antipsychotics and antidepressants I have to take to keep me stable have notorious weight gain profiles. My psychiatrist addresses this by prescribing psychostimulants, which supposedly counter that risk. But of course, they have side effects of their own, for which I need to take other drugs. It’s a nasty, vicious circle and my body pays the price.

But there’s a slim ray of sunshine that cuts through this otherwise gloomy picture. I hesitate to call it by name, or even to call it hope. I’m so frustrated by the seeming intransigence of my mind about this subject, that hope seems like a dangerous indulgence. Still, I want to believe, so I’ll take the chance. The answer I’ve found is simply this: mindfulness.

Being mindful means being aware and curious, really taking in what you’re experiencing in the present moment, without judgment. If you eat mindfully, you’re acutely conscious of the flavor, the texture, and the sensation of whatever you place in your mouth. It isn’t a passive activity; it’s a communion with the nourishment you’re giving your body. As psychologist Joseph B. Nelson describes it, “The purpose of mindful eating is not to lose weight, although it is highly likely that those who adopt this style of eating will lose weight. The intention is to help individuals savor the moment and the food and encourage their full presence for the eating experience.” Harvard Medical School recommends that for the best results, mindful eaters should be attentive to the color, mouth feel, aroma, and even sounds that different foods make; take small bites; chew thoroughly; and eat slowly, with as few distractions as possible.

In the past, when I shoveled food in while depressed, I didn’t care what I was putting in my body (usually carbs, and lots of them). When I was manic, I didn’t notice that I was ignoring my basic nutritional needs to the point of emaciation. Either way, I wasn’t taking care of this precious vessel I’d been given. I treated it as collateral damage—it would have to suffer through my moods along with me.

I don’t have the luxury of mistreating my body anymore; I’m at the age where it fights back.

So tonight I tried to eat mindfully, and I can almost recite to you, bite by bite, the poetry of what I ate. Sure, it was just a simple chicken and rice dish, but every forkful warmed my mouth; every swallow soothed my hunger. I inhaled the rising steam from my plate—there were hints of saffron, and a teasing of turmeric. I examined my food as I was eating it, wondering by what twisted channels of chance this particular meal had become my dinner. It tasted so good, I confess I even licked my fingers when I was done: one last, little tingle of salt on my tongue.

I’ve had many dinners in five-star restaurants that I can barely remember, and that left me hungry for more—not for food necessarily, but for sensual delight. Tonight I treated my senses with the full respect and attention they deserve; I was grateful for their input, and in exchange, they left me feeling satisfied. True, I’m neither floridly manic nor brutally depressed at this moment, so I haven’t put mindful eating to its ultimate test. But I have faith in the simplicity of its promise: eat wisely, and you will be nourished.