In The Paper Gown’s Food Diary, patients spend a week chronicling the diets they follow to help manage medical conditions.
This time: Claire, a U.K.-based writer in her early 40s, was diagnosed with major depressive disorder as a teenager.
Day 1: No progress (and very little food)
I wake up unsure of what or how I’m supposed to eat. It’s the first day of my mindful eating experiment. I say “experiment” because mindful eating is not a true diet. There are no rules, restrictions, calorie-counting or “forbidden” foods. As Lynn Rossy, a psychologist and author of The Mindfulness-Based Eating Solution, told me, “Mindful eating asks you to be guided by your own internal wisdom about what, why, when and how to eat.”
As I see it, mindful eating is about being aware. According to recent research, increased awareness can reduce emotional eating, which in turn can boost mental health by helping people learn new and healthier ways to handle their emotions. I’m hoping that eating mindfully will be good for my depression. Over the years, I’ve tried all sorts of treatments for depression, including various antidepressants, cognitive behavioral therapy and counseling. While I currently take medication, I still have dark days now and then. I’ve noticed that my eating habits influence my state of mind, so why not try improving my relationship with food?
I spend most of the day researching mindful eating and googling “how to be a mindful person.” As a result, I eat less than I normally would — only soup, a sandwich and some fruit — partly because I lose track of time and partly because I’m worried that I’m not “doing it right.”
I don’t think that’s the point.
Day 2: Granola is crunchy
I decide that I’m overcomplicating things and need to get back to basics. Rossy told me to be mindful before, during and after I eat.
On a normal morning, I’d wolf down a bowl of granola in two minutes flat before leaving to take my kids to school.
But today I sit in front of my breakfast and take few deep breaths before diving in. Apparently breathing prepares the body for proper digestion and gives you time to decide if you’re genuinely hungry or just looking to eat because food is available. My stomach is rumbling, so the answer is pretty clear.
I take my time chewing and swallowing each granola cluster, paying attention to how it tastes, sounds and feels in my mouth. It’s noisy, crunchy and gets stuck in my teeth.
A delayed Skype call for work and a busy evening mean lunch and dinner aren’t quite as mindful, but I feel like I have a better idea of what I’m actually trying to achieve.
Day 3: Spilled milk
I get up early for an unusually busy day. While eating my usual granola breakfast, I start making a shopping list. My personalized mindful eating plan includes preparing healthy meals ahead of time to keep myself from eating prepackaged food on the go. I remember that I shouldn’t be doing anything besides tasting and appreciating my granola, so I put the list aside and think of advice I was given by Susan Albers, psychologist and author of Eating Mindfully: “When you eat, just eat.”
Breakfast takes longer than it did yesterday because I’m doing something else Albers recommended: eating with my nondominant hand. Research suggests this can reduce mindless food intake by 30 percent.
I finish my granola, wipe up the milk my nondominant hand has spilled on the tablecloth and congratulate myself on sitting down for breakfast for the third day in a row.
Day 4: Uncomfortably full
I can already feel a change, albeit a subtle one, in my attitude toward food and mealtimes. For starters, I’m more aware of all the times I eat “mindlessly”: snacking while I watch TV, eating while I text or email and eating when I’m not actually hungry. Today, as I automatically head to the fridge after submitting a particularly hard work assignment, I realize that I eat when I’m bored, frustrated or looking for a distraction.
One aspect of mindful eating I’m struggling with is recognizing when I’m satiated — no longer hungry, but not quite full either. I was brought up to clean my plate, so stopping short of a full stomach will take time to get used to. But the seed is planted in my mind. Tonight, when I slump down on the sofa after having a large bowl of pasta for dinner, I feel uncomfortable, rather than satisfied.
Day 5: Cakes and kindness
I meet friends for lunch and worry if my mindful-eating efforts will make the occasion less enjoyable. But there’s no need to worry. When I tell the group what I’m doing, the response is unanimous: We’re all emotional eaters.
“I eat when I’m upset,” says one friend. “Cakes are my comfort.”
We share stories about finding comfort in cake while… eating cake. But that’s okay, because two key elements of mindful eating are flexibility and non-judgment. Albers reassured me that I can do things like “have the cake!” But she also advised me to enjoy it mindfully, so that I don’t go for a second slice.
I remind myself that mindful eating is not a diet plan, and that the goal is to be present and kind to myself and my body. So yeah, I eat the cake. Out of kindness, of course.
Day 6: Mental health checkup
I take some time to think about whether eating mindfully — or trying to — has affected my mental health. I think it has. I feel simultaneously energized and relaxed. Energized, I think, because I’m fueling my body with mainly wholesome, nutritious foods. And relaxed because I know I’m doing a good thing for my physical health, giving me one less thing to worry about.
I can see now that what Rossy said is true — mindful eating isn’t just about food. I recognize that I eat for so many reasons besides physical hunger, and I’m beginning to understand why.
Day 7: Looking ahead
I kick off the day by eating my granola with my nondominant hand (without spilling any of it, to boot) and declaring my home office a no-food zone. After breakfast, I plan and prepare healthy meals for the weekend: lots of veggies and rice to use in curry, chili, soups and salads.
At 1 p.m., I turn off my computer, make a salad and eat it in my garden, enjoying the fresh food and the silence. Later, following a series of work crises, I devour a grilled cheese before going to pick up my son from swim training. I don’t savor a single bite of it.
That’s okay. Mindful eating is an ongoing lifestyle, not an immediate transformation. And I do notice subtle differences in my mental health. Mainly, I feel more in control.
I’ve also stopped making my kids clean their plates. As a family, we’re going to eat dinner together, at the table, without screens, as often as possible. But I won’t beat myself up if that doesn’t happen every night, because I know it won’t. Life is busy, and as Rossy told me, mindfulness isn’t about rules.
Want to write your own Food Diary? Send a pitch to ThePaperGown@zocdoc.com.