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12 August 2020

Mindful-Eating Mastery: Learning From My Mistakes – Part 2

by James Anthony 0

In the first instalment of this series, which you can find here, I covered a variety of topics that were important in my journey from mind-less to mind-ful eating. Such topics included purposeful weight-gain; flexible vs. rigid dietary restraint; calorie tracking as a tool, as well as a checklist for when you should jump on or…

In the first instalment of this series, which you can find here, I covered a variety of topics that were important in my journey from mind-less to mind-ful eating. Such topics included purposeful weight-gain; flexible vs. rigid dietary restraint; calorie tracking as a tool, as well as a checklist for when you should jump on or off the tracking train.

Today I will continue building on the foundations from the first article, and we shall continue to explore the mistakes I made in my journey. Because remember the quote from the previous piece, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You will never live long enough to make them all yourself.”

So with that, let’s investigate a few more of my mistakes, all for the benefit of your education!

After I went from 72kgs to 82kgs in a 12-month timeframe, I left myself with more weight to lose than I should have, meaning I had to diet longer. This was my first mistake. The second was that I didn’t take a break at all during the diet; it was 16 weeks of straight tracking and I lost bodyweight at a fast rate of loss (which causes greater issues if you’re not overweight, to begin with). Lastly, and the thing that probably stuffed me around the most was the precision in which I tracked and the rigid nature of my eating choices for that length of time. I still ate foods that I really enjoyed but, in the end, I said no too many times to options that I also liked. To be fair, you need precision, but you also should have ranges to be precise between. This allows you to be able to adapt when offered invitation that would contribute to your social wellbeing.

I really have no doubt that I could have lost a similar amount of weight, in a similar amount of time, if I had been better prepared. I could have achieved this all without burning myself out mentally and physically. I pushed it too hard as a first-timer. Additionally, I made things even harder for myself, as letting go of that level of leanness is always hardest the first time. I had tasted a level of leanness that I would have been better off not knowing for a while longer. 

It was soon after my teary incident, that I called it quits, but the unpleasantness didn’t stop there. For the next 5-6 months, I tried to hold on to the majority of what should have been temporary fat loss. My settling point, or “happy weight”, is around 75-76kgs, but I was intent on hanging around 72-73kg. The 5% margin for error did grow larger, I did allow more calories, and I stopped weighing in daily, but getting rid of tracking all together wasn’t on the cards. I simply didn’t get off the train. I stuck one leg out onto foreign land and didn’t like the feel of it.

Here’s where I need to make clear the many indirect factors that influence decision making and ultimately why I didn’t stop; and maybe why I landed there in the first place.

I wasn’t sleeping well and I was nutrient deficient. This was evidenced by my energy levels and the fact that my thyroid grew, indicating I had picked up an iodine deficiency. If you want to feel brain dead, an iodine deficiency is the way to go! Of all the times I’ve messed with brain chemistry, this was likely to be the most damaging, although it wasn’t purposeful, nor fun. Surprisingly, I would have been hitting Iodine RDI’s, but maybe I just need more than the average human or maybe I sweat more of it out during exercise.

The deficiency, plus lack of sleep would explain why my keys were found in the fridge and why opening doors with the remote seemed like the right thing to do. Of course, I only realised this later down the track as I learnt more about deficiency symptomology. On top of this, I was alone for a lot of my spare time which meant decisions and the behaviours that followed weren’t challenged, leading to a 1-man echo chamber of confirmation bias with half a brain cell at my disposal. 

Under such conditions, to make studied and rational decisions would have been a miracle of sorts.  

Gradually, these influences were flipped on its head, and hence my thought processes became more and more coherent. I learnt more about the importance of sleep, leading to a ritualization of getting 8 hours per night, and a few mentors allowed me to step out of my 1 man thought bubble and learn a few things about decision making, health behaviour and importantly nutrition, that helped along the way. 

I bring this stage of development up because building a strong base to think clearly and rationally and adopting healthier lifestyle habits are the first steps towards graduating to mindful eating. 

If you want to become a mindful eater (soon to be defined), believe it or not, you’ve got to be able to think effectively. What really stabilises this possibility is having people around you who can think rationally and logically AND who have similar goals.

I’m not just talking about friends and family, although they are super important in this process. 

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Side note: The research on social influence is crystal clear, if you want to be healthy and lean, hanging other healthy and lean people around you is key. The same thing goes with thinking, learning, and even down to small details like the way you dress!

Who you listen to, say on the radio or podcasts, what you watch on TV and what you read plays a larger role than what you’d likely believe, and this is something you have more freedom to choose as well. 

Freedom with family? No. Friends? Kind of. What about books or other sources of information and influence? Yes, big yes. The key is to find avenues of learning that will better your nutritional IQ and thinking processes because they call count towards the identity you wish to create, which if you’re reading this, is to be an intelligent eater.

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Basically, what I’m saying is that your environment is (almost) everything. It’s the backbone that influences every decision you ever make, and fixing it, may be to greatest lesson towards behaviour change and indirectly, mindful eating.

I’m glad that I finally learned this lesson.

Furthermore, as my momentum towards a healthier lifestyle continued, the shackles of continuous tracking were finally broken. This transition was made easy by eating similar to what I had been, only without the app-based calculations. With the pressure of precision off my shoulders, allowing incremental additions to my overall diet was a non-issue, and after a month or so, I crept back up to 75. 

Soon after, it was as if tracking was a thing of the past; a past that, upon reflection, seemed so silly. Only the positives of tracking remained, the largest being the value of consistency, both in regard to applied effort towards a goal and food choice. The first part is obvious, but lived experience is the ingredient required to fully crystallise common wisdom. 

As for food choice, my diet was mostly the same when tracking, beyond the first 3-4 weeks of “tetrising” to see what worked best. Automation is an important trait I’ve maintained and one that I think everyone should implement to some degree because it spares mental energy. The last thing you want to do when dieting is to constantly have to think of what you’re going to eat next! It’s fatiguing and always leads to poor decisions. However, the higher the degree of automation, say for example if your diet the 90% the same every day, the more you’d want to be sure you’re covering micronutrient bases to avoid deficiency. (Not that I’m vouching for that level of consistency).

Another cool by-product that remained after ceasing tracking, was that I became a human calorie calculator. After having tracked a plethora of different foods for 9-10 months with high precision, I could estimate with a high degree of certainty how many calories a meal or individual food item contains. This has faded over time, but it was a neat trick when coaching nutrition.

Amongst these newfound skills after battering away at my physical, social and psychological health was the realisation that health is multifactorial, and that certain trades off, such as a loss of social connection often aren’t worth the price. It struck home that looking your best physically and being physically healthy, are rarely synonymous. This was graduation day for me, as I was accepted into the alumni of mindful eaters. Up until that point, I had the nutritional knowledge and experience, all that remained was a perceptual shift.

With that said, I want to talk about mindful eating, what it stands for, and how to obtain it or at least set the path. 

Defining Mindful Eating (Finally…)

Mindful eating is exactly how it sounds; you have to be mindful of your eating and mindful of the factors that influence eating choices. This basic definition, however, has A LOT to it. Mindful eating takes into consideration both the past and the future in order to make a rational decision in the present. This entails looking back to see the nutrient quality and caloric value and to the future to assess what’s next to come. This is where consistency can help spare a lot of the need for mindfulness. Chronic trackers will notice how this closely mirrors their way of eating, and in fact, mindful eaters may even break out the phone here and there, but there strategic — rather than reliant — use isn’t perceived as unhealthy and unnatural. 

Mindful eaters are calculated in their decisions, yet they know that pinpoint caloric accuracy is unnecessary and that ranged estimates within reasonable boundaries are just as effective. 

As I mentioned, health is multifactorial, so when it comes to making food choices, certain question spring to mind…

Have I been paying attention to social health? When’s the last time I had a meal with a friend or when the next time I plan to?

What about financial health? Am I spending too much? 

Have I had my favourite meal lately? Or have I been too strict on myself?

Am I physically health? Is fat loss necessary?

The key thought process underpinning all this is an understanding that fat tissue isn’t necessarily unhealthy, nor does any amount define you. This isn’t to say that you can’t aim to lose weight, or even that in some cases, fat loss is needed for long term health, but it doesn’t mean that all others should be cast aside in the process. Mindful eating also doesn’t exclude hard dieting; the two can co-exist. 

One thing I always say to my leaner clients who don’t carry excess body fat (which I observationally judge by waist to hip ratios), and who want to lose weight is “what’s your why?” and good reason must follow. If it doesn’t, I’ll redirect my focus towards psychological growth via a perception switch. In saying that, if they’ve proven they can diet in a healthy manner, I’m all for it. This is especially true of people who put a lot of effort into resistance training because to truly see gym progress, a certain level of leanness is typically required. 

Mindful eating is often and unfortunately termed intuitive eating. The intuitive aspect is based on hunger and fullness signals which are an odd guide, given people’s inability to distinguish between physiological hunger and psychological hunger (based on emotions such as boredom). Intuitions are nothing special either, they’re just a mix of experience and pattern recognition, both of which have been severely indoctrinated by the food marketing and environmental cues that we are currently riddled with. Intuitions are something to be suspicious of, not followed blindly.

But without knowing what intuitive eating really stands for, it could be easily misconstrued. Chinese whispers can recreate the humble beginnings involving hunger and fullness signal and make it about food choices with disastrous effect. Semantics matter…

Mindful eaters, based on tracking experience or knowledge regarding calories, understand when signals are and aren’t misaligned with their goals. The greater skill, however, is being able to differentiate between psychological hunger and genuine physical hunger. This is because they stop and think: Am I actually hungry? Or am I trying to fill an emotion? What’s bringing this emotion on? What else can I do instead? Out of 10, how hungry am I, and how long will this really last?

They would also use their knowledge about nutrition to make sure each meal is highly satiating to avoid such a crossroads in the first place. (On a side note: consistency with meal timing and composition will create hunger and fullness adaptation so that you’re hungry at those times, giving you better — but not ultimate — control of your hunger cues.) 

Eating out, for a mindful eater, is also mostly a non-problem because they can choose to strategically overconsume on that occasion and subsequently strategically eat less the following day (or the day prior), thanks to the mapping of one’s diet across the time continuum. They could also choose wisely and do not breach the broad boundaries they have placed on themselves.

These ways of thinking take time to engrain. Just like you can slowly build harmful neural circuitry over time, you can only slowly manufacture the mindful variety as well. 

The best way to do this, I have found with clients, is to do a dedicated maintenance phase (4-8 months) with the aim off-putting as much effort into maintaining as one would into dieting. This is appropriate for those who don’t need to lose or gain weight but are currently stuck on the tracking treadmill. 

It entails building a semi-consistent diet (or “framework”), still weighing in each morning, giving yourself a 2kg window for your weight to shift between and putting the mindfulness mantra into practice. In the meantime, you’ll focus on psychological health by developing a hobby for your leisure time and social health by setting 1-2 days each week to eat out with friends if you don’t already do these things.

To give you a better idea of consistency, I’m going to give you a closer insight into my current diet below. However, because I am always either bulking (80% of the time) or dieting (20% of the time), we will have to presume that maintenance would be somewhere in the middle. I’m presenting it this way because it will help illustrate how to diet or bulk without tracking.

On a typical week, I would eat this 5 out of 7 days. On other days, someone else might cook me a meal or I might eat out with a friend. When eating out, I’ll opt for high protein and low-moderate calorie meals when dieting and mod-high calorie meals when bulking. When cutting, I’ll deduct from the least nutritious items but everything else will stay the same. I can basically shift my diet from 1500-3500 calories whilst keeping food choice mostly the same. It’s because this shift is so large that even when eating outside the diet I outlined above, say going over or under by 300 calories, still equates to a very large deficit per day. I also weigh in consistently, get 3-4 days’ worth of feedback and adjust depending on the phase.

If you can’t maintain such consistency in exactly what you eat every day, you can break it down further. Pick a number of meals a day that works well for you and your schedule and stick to it. Keep meal timing similar as well because that will give you better control of hunger a fullness cues. Eat lean protein with each meal, something nutrient-dense like fruit, veg or whole grains and adjust the least nutritious items. This is what I mean by keeping a framework.

You may be able to have daily consistency in your breakfast and lunch but not with dinners which is a common position for many a client. However, if you keep dinners the same over the week, it doesn’t matter. If dinner is always different, just go for high protein – moderate calorie servings as a default. When aiming to maintain, 200 calories either way for one meal will not translate to significance on the scale. Weigh in, observe and if you creep towards your weight boundary on either side, then adjust.

I can be very consistent in exactly what I eat because I don’t have kids and I make my own meals. You don’t need to have the same thing every day, but the basic framework should stay similar.

Consistency, whether that be day to day or week to week is doable for anyone, and if you choose not to be consistent, you’ll need to adjust your expectations. You’ll still be able to maintain health and weight; it just becomes slightly harder to make an effective next decision. Decisions have to made anyway, for better or worse, and people make bad decisions in a rush, making some form of automation valuable. 

Now to finish my storyline…

It was around this transition period that I had signed up to do a nutritional course. I wanted to learn something, and of course, the only thing within the realm of coaching that interested me was nutrition. Not surprising, given the year that preceded. It was part this, and part career move, given that no one at JPS had nutritional credentials (at that point).

Learning about nutrition in greater depth, as well as how to coach it certainly supplemented my current eating protocols, but prior experience did the bulk of the work.

It was only when I bulked again, and then completed a 2-3-week mini cut all without tracking did I realise the ease at which I could manipulate my body composition. 

After my first weight loss intervention, I would have considered myself as someone who didn’t qualify to do bodybuilding completions safely, but this was due to the misuse of valid tools and an incoherent mindset. Now I would qualify with flying colours, however, since shifting towards a more health-centric approach to dieting and life in general, I don’t see competing as a likely goal in the near future. But to each their own. 

Would I say yes to the donut now? Well that depends; but the answer will be yes, the majority of the time. 

After reading this, I hope it’s easier for you to conceive of how you can manipulate your body composition and how many of these tools (both app and mind based) are at your disposal. Not everything I went through was completely necessary, so to summarise, I’m going to lay out how you can fast track your way to mindful eating.

Summary

  1. Spend some time tracking, be smart about it; learn and then practice without it. This goes for almost anyone. Come back to it here and there if you need it.
  2. Once again, learning the sheer basics of nutrition are vital in this process. A coach is super valuable in this regard. 
  3. Weigh in frequently and properly. 
  4. Be consistent. This actually creates more freedom to think clearly. If your consistent, scale weight is the only metric you need. Then, when all is consistent, let time do its thing.
  5. Develop some realistic boundaries in your eating, in terms of number of meals, eating window, and if you go over, no stress, return to it the next day.
  6. Surround yourself with people who have similar goals and interests. 
  7. Consider the health trades offs for dieting. What’s your why? Search for hidden motives in the process. 

And that’s it! 

Thanks for reading.

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