For people who have tried every diet that’s grabbed national attention, lost a few pounds and often gained back a few extra, the perspective in the book Why Diets Make Us Fat could bring a sigh of relief.
That easing of guilt about every bite could actually lead to long-term weight loss and better health.
Author and neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt sheds light on why it’s important to consider how the mind affects the body in relation to eating. The stress of dieting can spark stress hormones that create fat cells, Aamodt said in an interview on NPR. The other potentially negative result of dieting is that restricting food intake and being hungry can lead to binge eating.
Aamodt suggests mindful eating as a replacement for the often discouraging failure of diets.
Mindfulness is paying attention to the moment, taking a break from ruminating over the past or worrying about the future. When it comes to eating, that means paying attention to your food by turning off the cell phone, TV or computer.
Mindful eating focuses on the taste, colors and aromas of food as you eat, as well as the atmosphere surrounding you.
The concept of mindful eating is not new. It’s been part of the growing body of medical and psychological research proving that mindfulness can have positive results in a wide range of physical and mental health problems, from high blood pressure to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Stress is the overall factor that ties together many common ailments, says Jeffrey Greeson, an assistant professor in the College of Science and Mathematics at Rowan University in New Jersey, in an article on “Mindfulness and Physical Disease.” Stress is related to diseases ranging from high blood pressure to chronic pain.
In reviewing current scientific research, Greeson finds that “...mindfulness training is associated with better psychological well-being, coping and quality of life.”
Greeson concludes that the effect of mindfulness alone on disease is not yet proven by wide research. But he finds that studies do show mindfulness has a positive effect when part of overall disease management and self-care.
Aamodt’s book comes from her own experience beginning as a teenager who tried to live up to the cultural view of being “thin” as the measure of beauty and acceptance. After 30 years of yo-yo dieting and coming close to developing eating disorders, her work in neuroscience led her to accept the known concept of a “set point.” That’s a range of 10 to 15 pounds the brain will help the body maintain to prevent starvation.
Her weight issue wasn’t within the range of overweight or obesity considered dangerous. But she found what works for her health - mindful eating to reduce stress about food and a long-term weight loss of 10 pounds.
Aamodt’s main advice isn’t on specific types of food, but on learning mindful eating in order to develop a healthy relationship with food. Her most important recommendation is to “stop focusing on weight and start concentrating on regular exercise, good food choices and stress reduction.”
Here are some suggestions from Harvard Medical School on how to make mindful eating a routine part of your relationship with food.
Fain, Jean, “A Neuroscientist Tackles Why Diets Make Us Fat,” NPR, June 7, 2016
Aamodt, Sandra, “Why Diets Make Us Fat,” TED Talk, Jan. 28, 2014
Greeson, Jeffrey M. “Mindfulness and Physical Disease: A Concise Review,” Current Opinions in Psychology, August 2019
Harvard Women’s Health Watch, “8 Steps to Mindful Eating,” Harvard Medical School, January 2016