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The Fine Line Between Restriction and Mindfulness

Updated: Mar 8, 2019



Around seven or eight years ago, I picked up Thich Nhat Hanh's book Savor. I was still deeply entrenched in diet culture, constantly on the search for "the secret" - the diet or philosophy or plan that would make my struggles with food disappear. Once I found this mythical diet, I was sure that my "extra pounds" would melt away and I'd no longer need to think about eating ever again. I would magically become one of those people for whom eating/food was not a "thing." I'd eat what I wanted, when I was hungry, in the "right" amount. I'd stop when I was full, and it would all be effortless and I'd be slim and elegant. It never occurred to me that I could be fat and free from a preoccupation with food because at that time, I assumed all fat people must be bingers and overeaters. Plus, I wasn't open to the idea of being fat. I had a lot to learn.


Once I found this mythical diet, I was sure that my "extra pounds" would melt away and I'd no longer need to think about eating ever again. I would magically become one of those people for whom eating/food was not a "thing."

Savor promised that through the practice of Mindful Eating, we could "achieve the healthy weight and well-being we seek". So basically, I understood Mindful Eating to be a diet.* Sounded good to me! I dove in.


It didn't last long. Although I was a yoga instructor and teaching weekly, my meditation practice was sporadic and I really only had a few years of experience with it under my belt. My issues with Mindful Eating were:

  1. I found it to be VERY BORING. It took me forever to eat anything, and it just started to feel real tedious, real fast.

  2. At that time, I was absolutely in an "all or nothing" mindset when it came to "healthy" habits. I thought I needed to practice Mindful Eating at all times in order to be successful with it, and that just seemed impossible.

So out the window it went. Yet another disappointment and failure in the name of the war against my body.


Fast forward a few years, and I was introduced to the practice of Intuitive Eating. I began to practice this approach on my own, based on what I'd read about it. A year or two later, I discovered the Intuitive Eating Workbook by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole, and I dove into the 10 Principles. For the past few years, I've been working the Principles both on my own, and with the help of a therapist, and I've been practicing living a body positive lifestyle (with the help of the non-profit I work for and an incredible community.) I've also continued to teach yoga, which I've found to be an even better practice in mindfulness than practicing the asanas myself.


This healing doesn't happen in a straight line, but it's happening!

I've made a lot of progress. Although it's been a lot slower than what I'm used to (diet culture promises quick fixes and fast results), the milestones are more exciting than other "successes" I used to experience when it came to food. Whenever a diet was involved, the successes were always moments where I managed to avoid, to restrict, or limit (which were inevitably eventually followed by a binge). But with Intuitive Eating, the successes are deeper and point towards longevity; like being more tuned in to my hunger cues, and actually losing the desire to eat when I feel full, rather than making myself stop because I'm full. This healing doesn't happen in a straight line, but it's happening!


So a couple weeks ago, when a friend invited me to a Mindful Eating workshop with Andrea Lieberstein at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, it seemed like something I should try. In addition to getting some professional development, I was curious to know how Mindful Eating would sit with me now.


My biggest personal take away was the idea that I want to practice sitting with discomfort. At the first sign of hunger, or the first sign of anything that resembles hunger, I'm used to going for food. I have a fear of being hungry, which I've discovered is not uncommon. But practice with the Intuitive Eating hunger scale has helped me to become more in tune with my hunger and has helped me to realize that I don't have to be in such a hurry to eat. I've also learned that when I practice sitting for a while after I first notice my hunger, it actually leads to a more satisfying meal - as long as I don't wait too long.


Restricting is about denial, fear, and punishment, whereas sitting is about curiosity, patience, and thoughtfulness.

It's all about that space. The space between the thought of food, and the next action or thought. The task is to sit in that moment, rather than reaching to fill it right away with a solution (aka a cookie.)


I wasn't ready for this level of mindfulness when I was still engaged in diet culture. That pause between the hunger pang and the eating can be easily mistaken for restriction. Even now, I have to remind myself that that isn't what I'm doing. Restricting is about denial, fear, and punishment, whereas sitting is about curiosity, patience, and thoughtfulness.


I'm excited to continue exploring a Mindful Eating practice right now, given what I've learned since the last time I gave it a whirl. And this whole experience has served to illuminate just how nuanced all of this unlearning that we're doing is. The difference between restriction and sitting with the experience of hunger is subtle, and it's the kind of thing one can only see after a good amount of work has been done. These are the kinds of lessons I learn when I pay attention to the process of eating. And each new discovery is a glimpse at a life as one of those people for whom eating is not a THING.



*Whoever marketed Savor knows the Western reader. People in this country aren't interested in books about eating unless they peddle weight loss. I have to remind myself of this when I start to feel stabby towards a globally revered spiritual leader and peace activist. IT'S NOT THICH NHAT HANH'S FAULT.




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© 2020 by Naomi Finkelstein

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