An interview with Michelle May, MD, founder of Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training
Dr. Michelle May, is a mindful eating expert and former family physician who founded the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs. An award-winning author of the Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat book series, she has helped people move from awareness to action when it comes to practicing mindful eating and snacking. Follow her on Twitter @EatWhatYouLove.
Michelle May (MM): For me it was a perfect accident. I am a family physician by training and practiced family medicine for 16 years. During my time as a physician, I kept hearing stories from my patients about yo-yo dieting that were similar to my personal experiences. It wasn’t that my patients and I didn’t know what we should be doing. But I realized that implementing lifestyle behaviors for the long run didn’t seem to be working for them or for me.
About 17 years ago, I came across the concept of mindful eating and began to practice it for myself. Through that I saw an amazing transformation in my relationship with food and became inspired to share my experience with other people. I realized that fixing our issues around eating is far more than just counting calories, points or exchanges. It goes much deeper than that.
MM: At a very high and simple level, mindful eating is about eating with intention and attention. I developed a Mindful Eating Cycle model that helps you become aware of why you’re eating, when you feel like eating, what you eat, how you eat, how much you eat, and then where you invest the energy that you’ve consumed.
Unlike dieting, which is a predetermined list of rules to follow, mindful eating is completely flexible and allows a person to make moment to moment decisions in any situation and in any environment. It gives them the skills, tools and, more importantly, the trust in themselves to make decisions about their food choices.
Mindful eating is a perfect solution to navigate one’s way through the abundant food environment that we have today. It doesn’t require the environment to change. Instead, mindful eating requires us to make conscious inside-outside decisions about the food we’re eating. As adults we need to be able make mindful decisions for ourselves – no matter what is going on or what food is available to us in our surrounding environment.
MM: A lot of what we’re seeing now is this promotion of good food / bad food thinking. People are being told “don’t eat these foods they’re bad; eat these foods they’re good.” But labeling food as being good or being bad actually backfires in the long run.
In reality, we love some of these foods that others have deemed “bad.” So when we choose those foods, it can diminish the pleasure we might otherwise get from eating them. That in turn increases the potential for guilt. And guilt is a powerful trigger for overeating. As a result, you end up eating too much food and feeling miserable afterwards.
So ironically, when foods are labeled as “good” or “bad,” I feel it actually causes more overeating. And it definitely creates a lot more obsession with food.
Another challenge is with portion sizes. If you aren’t hungry when you start eating, how will you know when to stop? Ideally, you want to eat foods you enjoy and that give you pleasure when you’re hungry—but in an amount that leaves you feeling great and not tired or bloated. Going back to what mindful eating is, one possible intention is to feel better when you’re done eating than you did when you started. This is especially important when choosing a mid-afternoon snack to give you energy through the rest of afternoon. If you overeat a mid-afternoon snack, you’re going to have less energy, not more.
I don’t believe we should use nutrition information to make people feel guilty or deprive them of the food they love. Some people may want that information for decision-making, but it shouldn’t be the sole deciding factor on what type of snack is right for them at a particular time.
Ultimately, the reason for a balanced diet is to have enough energy to live your amazing, vibrant life—not to be proud at the end of the day that you only consumed “X” number of calories or that you didn’t consume a particular food group or nutrient.
MM: Mindful snacking isn’t about having a list of rules that you need to follow. The key is to teach people to pause whenever they notice that they feel like eating, to be curious about that feeling and then make a conscious decision about whether or not to eat.
When we’re mindless, we have no choice but to react—in other words, we tend to “re-act” out past behaviors on autopilot. So as a first step, the most important action is to simply pause when you feel like eating and notice whether you’re hungry or not.
However, growing distractions in our daily lives can have an impact when people try to practice mindful eating. Especially in western cultures, where we’ve been programmed to believe multitasking means you’re really productive and can get lots of things done at the same time. But if one of those things happens to be eating, you’re more likely to be on autopilot while consuming a snack. You won’t be aware of how good—or maybe not so good—it tastes, how satisfied you’re feeling, and how full you’re getting.
MM: I believe some people see mindful eating as another fad or a way to lose weight. And it’s not. Mindful eating is actually an ancient practice and can have profound applications in helping us navigate our abundant food environment.
Mindful eating is about making a decision at that moment, and then making the next decision and then the next. Losing weight is about judging our past behaviors and trying to somehow change the future. This can lead people to all or nothing thinking. For example, “I’ve already blown my diet. I won’t lose weight this week anyway, so I might as well keep eating.” Mindful eating is more about the decision-making process. For example, “I may have overeaten but that doesn’t mean I’ve blown it and should just keep eating. It just means I’ll wait until I get hungry again, and when I do, I’ll make my next decision about what I’ll eat and how much.”
When you take a moment to pause and ask yourself why you are eating, you have an opportunity to figure out what you truly need. When you’re hungry, food is a pleasurable way to provide fuel. At the same time, food cannot be the answer to all questions nor the solution to all problems.
It all boils down to eating with intention and attention: to feel better when you’re done eating than you did when you started. That simple concept can really address so many of the problems people get into with food.
MM: Beyond just providing the fuel we need through the day, eating is a really wonderful and readily accessible way to add pleasure to our lives. I don’t think there is any reason to be apologetic about enjoying the food you eat.
For a company like Mondelez, I encourage you to avoid using marketing that equates eating chocolate or cookies with sin or with guilt. Teaching people that enjoying a cookie or a piece of chocolate is a guilty pleasure I feel backfires in the long run. It’s about taking a more balanced approach to eating and showing that people are making mindful decisions when they choose a snack. Once people become more mindful, they can learn to eat those foods in moderation and with enjoyment.
It doesn’t serve anybody well to reinforce the belief that certain foods are indulgent and certain foods are healthy. It is simply about making a choice on which snack to have. It’s about choices – not about being “bad today” so you’ll indulge, then tomorrow you’ll be good. It’s about looking at all of the options available and determining what you want to eat and what your body needs at that point in time
Calorie information may be helpful but as you practice mindful snacking and become more conscious of hunger and satiety, you’ll begin to know what an appropriate snack size is for you at any given time. Calorie and nutrition information should be a tool—not a weapon or a religion! It’s a tool that can help people make conscious decisions on how they want to fuel and nourish their body.
When a company promotes mindful enjoyment of all foods, it helps reinforce how important it is to be aware of the decisions you’re making around eating. That can go a long way to help decrease mindless snacking. Being mindful when you choose a snack can play an important role in providing fuel when you need it while adding pleasure and enjoyment.