Soon after writing one of my more popular posts, A Mind Full of Chocolate, which introduces the concept of mindful eating, I came across a new and very important book that applies mindfulness and other progressive methods to the issue of weight management. Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: How to Break Your Eat-Repent- Repeat Cycle by Michelle May, M.D. is a fresh look at an old problem.
As an evangelist for fine chocolate and a Certified Fitness Nutritionist, I have a sort-of moral obligation to provide people some tools to eat reasonably, right? The way I look at it, maintaining a healthy relationship with food, including chocolate, is what enables you to enjoy good food for the rest of your life without worry. There’s no need to pretend you don’t love food or to distance yourself from food – that would be unnatural. Maintaining a healthy balance is what’s important and that’s why it’s so refreshing to find a book that helps people achieve that balance in a natural, but not necessarily effortless way.
It would be unfair to call this a diet book since it really does usher in a new way of thinking about eating – a more holistic approach. But let’s recall the diet books of the past. There was the obvious low-carb craze in which, if I could exaggerate a bit, you starve yourself almost completely of carbs in the first phase until your body switches into a new biochemical state so that you start to smell and feel strange and then you add a few carbs back in the second phase until you feel somewhat normal again. You get to eat loads of meat and fat. Don’t worry, it’s complicated and unintuitive, but it works. Right. Or how about, let’s eat grape fruit for 2 weeks or…peaches, or whatever until you are entirely fed up with that food and don’t feel like eating much. All such approaches are a form of calorie restriction – creating a rigid set of rules around what you can and can’t eat so in the end, you simply eat less. Less, that is, until you can’t take it anymore and go back to whatever you were doing before you started the diet. And that was working, right?
Contrast that to Dr. May’s approach: you learn to become more aware of your body and your emotions – gaining insight to why you eat and how you feel during each part of the eating cycle. You ask yourself the simple question: “am I hungry” and based upon this, make conscious decisions about what to do next while fully awake. By awake, I mean mindful of your feelings and the physical state of your body (physical feelings of hunger or fatigue, for instance). She also explains how to put mindful eating to work so you enjoy food more and feel more satisfied with each meal. This all might sound a little touch-feely, but Dr. May brings it all down to earth with practical, tangible methods. She outlines many common scenarios and offers strategies for dealing with each one. For instance, how do you deal with the sugar craving that might come with the afternoon slump or how do you recognize and respond to certain emotional triggers.
There’s also a rating scale to help you conceptualize the stages of hunger from 1 to 10. It seems to me that this and other skills outlined in the book are easy enough to learn and apply so they can become habit and a seamless part of one’s life. No complex rules, just concepts and skills that allow you to be in charge of your eating. However, there is plenty of factual nutritional information including guidance on balancing certain types of nutrients, but it’s all kept pretty light rather than textbook-like. I think if you are going to eat mindfully and intelligently, you need a basic dose of nutritional knowledge to back you up. The book equips you with what you need to know so you maintain a healthy balance.
But lack of rules doesn’t mean lack of guidance. There are plenty of specifics in this book, it’s just up to you to decide what applies to you and what to use in each situation. Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat helps you through many common scenarios such as how to resolve emotional eating, how to stop using exercise as a punishment (“if I eat this, I will need to do an extra 20 minutes on the treadmill”) and, of course, how to make nutritionally sound choices.
I sometimes wonder if some people are afraid they might finally find the solution that actually works. What if you ask the question “am I hungry” and don’t like the answer? In an unexpected twist, Dr. May says it’s still all up to you what you do. Even if you are not truly hungry, you might still decide to eat. As long as you are aware of what you are doing an why, it’s OK. It’s better than mindless, impulsive eating. It’s just part of the path of being more aware of the reasons for eating and what it’s doing for you. The assumption is that eventually you will make healthier choices more often because you are more aware of what you are eating and why. Even better, you can still have an affectionate, but healthy relationship with food.
Trying hard find something wrong with this book, I dove deep into the later chapters where there are series of recipes, expecting to find bland or dumbed-down concoctions. What I found instead was that the recipes were created with the help Dr. May’s husband, a professional spa chef. After I got beyond my fixation with the chocolate chip cloud cookies and bittersweet chocolate souffles, I found some tasty, but straightforward recipes: roasted roots, southwestern stew and olive tapenade. The recipes strike a good balance between easy preparation and excitement.
In short, it’s all about you – not about some one-size fits all set of rules – it’s about how you feel, your reasons for eating, your situation, your relationship with food. In the end, I think this is the start of a paradigm shift where we will see more approaches like this that integrate a holistic and flexible approach including mindfulness. Readers would be well served to read this book and ride the front of that wave.
Disclosures: I was given an Advanced Reviewers Copy of this book for free. I am not compensated in any way if you buy the book or click on any of the links in this post.