Michelle May never saw her mum eat a baked potato.
When she was a kid, everyone else at the table got one, but not her mum, a slender woman who was always on a diet to stay that way.
"I believed that when I grew up, I wouldn't get to eat potatoes anymore, either."
It's a story she tells in "Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat", a 2011 book I discovered last summer at a nutrition conference hosted by the University of Texas that really helped put our modern dieting culture into perspective.
In her keynote speech at the event, May, a family-physician-turned-wellness-coach, explained that there are three types of eaters: restrictive eaters, like her mom, overeaters and instinctive eaters.
Most of us who have struggled with our weight (and feelings about food and eating) oscillate between the first two, either consuming every chance we get (and feeling bad about it) or eating by strict sets of pre-determined rules (and feeling bad when we break them).
But it is that third category - instinctive eating - that May wants us to strive for, no matter if it's New Year's Day or any other day of the year when we feel trapped by what she calls the eat-repent-repeat cycle.
During the Austin conference, May asked the audience to think of someone we know who seems to have a healthy relationship with food. I immediately thought about my mum, who struggled with compulsive overeating in her 20s and 30s and finally broke her yo-yo dieting habits by the time I was in elementary school.
I always thought of her as a mindful eater, whose key to success was reasonable portion sizes and a regular, consistent exercise regimen. I rarely saw her eat seconds, but I never saw her miss a meal. She was the kind of mum who could eat one, maybe two cookies, and feel satisfied. She enjoyed cooking, but food was only one of the ways she showed us her love. And most admirably, when I came home from college weighing 10 kilos more than when I left, she didn't lecture me for not practicing what she preached. She simply continued her practice.
Instinctive eating helps us refocus on what food really is: fuel for our bodies. Starting in our teen years, and increasingly earlier, unfortunately, we learn the latest (and ever-changing research) on "good" and "bad" food, drinks, eating habits and exercise. We obsess about calories consumed. We learn how to calculate a small bag of fries into minutes on a Stairmaster.
But from birth, we learn something even harder to unlearn: eating habits and triggers. Parents tell children to "clean their plates" without realising that they are also teaching children to ignore the natural signals in their bodies that tell them they are full. We eat because the clock says it's time to eat. We fill our plates with too much food because the plates are large and that's what everybody else is doing.
"We confuse thirst for hunger and food for love," May says. "We eat for every emotion in the book," she says. "When a craving doesn't come from hunger, eating will never satisfy it."
We face unprecedented access to food and food advertising. You can find ready-to-eat food at work, on the way home from work and at the grocery store, movie theatres and school functions, and food commercials and advertising bridge the gaps in between.
"It's no wonder you feel like eating all the time," May says. She uses the analogy of a gas station: we are surrounded by gas stations, but we don't pull up to every one, or even every other one, to put gas in the car. "You have to ask yourself, do you really have a need for fuel, or are you experiencing another trigger?"
But reading our internal fuel gauge isn't as easy as looking down at the dash. For many of us, we've forgotten what healthy hunger and satiety feel like. Maybe we let ourselves get too hungry and then overeat as compensation. Or maybe we eat a full meal even though we weren't really that hungry at the start.
We can't eliminate the triggers, May says, but we can learn to recognise them and pause, which gives us time to think about how we really want to respond. This "respond-sability" becomes the backbone of mindfulness. "Mindful eating means you eat with intention and attention," she says. It means setting a purpose for your meal and becoming aware of how you feel while you're eating, she says.
It starts not with deciding what you should or shouldn't eat, but with when, how and why. "If you understand the why, the what doesn't matter," she said, pausing to acknowledge that that argument might not be popular at a nutrition conference.
She compared restrictive eating to painting by numbers. "That's someone else's work that you are just filling in." The key to figuring out what to eat is balancing what you want (mental) with what you need (physical) and what you have (environmental).
Re-learning how to listen to your body so you can determine whether it's telling you to eat more protein, greens, grains, dairy, vegetables, fibre, vitamins and even specific minerals can take years, but you have to be paying attention to how you feel before, during and after eating to start that process.
And beware, May says: your learned "needs" might not really be needs at all. The chemicals in, say, diet soda, have trained your body to "want" them, but those false needs are triggers you have to break, just like the emotional ones.
So what about all the specific diets that are out there now, like vegan, Paleo, gluten-free and macrobiotic? May doesn't outright eschew them, but the key is making food choices based on what your body tells you it needs, not what someone else does. "Some foods don't work for some people, but they need to pay enough attention to how they feel to take it out," she says.
Once you've figured out how to know when it's actually time to eat and what kind of fuel your body is telling you it needs, then comes what can be the hardest part: knowing when to stop. "Satiety is your body's signal that you've had enough," she says. "Discomfort is not the goal."
We've been hearing for years that it takes more time than we realise for our stomachs to send the message to our brains that we're full. But it's not just about eating slowly to allow that memo to be delivered; we have to be focussing on the food and not something else, like the television or computer or a book or magazine.
Not paying attention to the act of eating is one of the biggest culprits in overeating, which then throws off your internal gauge. The goal isn't to eat "perfectly" or never "mess up," May says. "If you fall off, don't judge," she says. "Just think, 'Oh, isn't that interesting,' and pay attention to what went 'wrong' and why."
The whole point of all of this, May says, is to free yourself from feelings of deprivation and guilt so you can better be in charge of so many aspects of your life, not just what's for dinner.
Eating food should be enjoyable, but it shouldn't be your only source of pleasure. Instead of thinking of your "on" and "off" days as a yo-yo, which is either hurtling toward the ground or moving upward only to wind itself up tightly, May likes to think of the goal as a pendulum swinging back and forth. That pendulum can swing from one very high extreme to the other, but it also can find a gentle, less drastic arc with far less distance between "high" and "low" points.
Then comes the fun part: using the fuel you've put in your body. Americans' relationship with exercise is almost as unhealthy as it is with food. Physical activity has become either the punishment for overeating or the way to "earn" the right to eat whatever you want.
It's the "penance" part of that eat-repent-repeat cycle. "We forget that the purpose of eating is to fuel a vibrant life," May says. "People who are instinctive eaters use that fuel to live active lives." You're unlikely to find them peddling away for hours at a time on a stationary bike or counting sit-ups.
They find activities that are just that: active. Walking, running and swimming, yes, but "exercise" disguised as hobbies and acts of discovery: gardening, dancing, roughhousing with kids, grandkids or dogs, hiking on a greenbelt or sightseeing by foot or bicycle in a new part of town, playing tennis or disc golf, doing yoga.
Using your body in a way that doesn't feel like punishment allows you to rediscover one of the most joyful parts about being human.
You know what else can bring joy? Getting to eat a baked potato with everyone else at the table.
- Which of the three types of eaters do you think you are?
- Austin American Statesman