Among the dramas generated by the pandemic and lockdown, we can include the drama of fat. Yes, and with fat, I do mean the act of gaining weight, and getting bigger in physical size.
With gyms and sports centers still closed, many have taken their exercise regimes to the streets, or have begun personal challenges. We constantly are seeing futile attempts at breaking electronically-issued goals suggested by fitness apps dedicated to running or speed-walking.
The "enemy" has become food, something that simultaneously comforts and demoralizes us, something that tends to our psychological needs and at the same time, makes us feel defeated.
In this pandemic year, many have discovered what it means to eat three meals a day, to grocery shop, to cook what’s been purchased. All these actions are actually positive experiences because they’re pro-active: whenever we are able to choose and have options, we know that in the end, we’re experiencing freedom.
But then, why do we inevitably experience feelings of guilt when associated with food and our dietary habits? Why, in the midst of such a delicate historic time in Italy and the world, have we decided that instead of being our ally and comfort, food is our enemy?
These are questions I posited to Giovanna Fungi, psychologist and psychotherapist, as well as a Mindfulness practitioner and MB-Eat trainer.
- Giovanna, let's get started. Can you explain Mindful Eating for those who might not know?
Mindful eating is about eating with awareness, bringing the principles of mindfulness into everyday eating behaviors. In this case, it is not about working on a clinical level, but to improve our experiences as they relate to food. We do this through small behaviors during which full attention is given to sensory elements, and ensuring that we immerse ourselves in “taste.”
Mindful eating reminds us, for instance, that a person who eats or drinks voraciously cannot simply be defined as greedy, because they’re never fully present within their tasting experience.
However, let's take a step back, and give a definition of mindfulness borrowing directly from Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) path: mindfulness is the process of paying attention in a particular way: intentionally, in a non-judgmental way, to the flow of experience in the present, moment by moment.”
Some skepticism about these practices arises from those thinking that relaxation techniques are based in mystical or religious practices. Mindfulness is a secular practice where we open our minds to sensations and feelings emerging from our plane of awareness. Moment moment by moment, during mindfulness, we create space for emotions, thoughts, sensations (both pleasant and unpleasant), and we discover benefits that emerge when you welcome sensations and not repress them. In this case, the interaction is focused on nutritional and food-related sensations.”
- Is creating space for and welcoming food healthily a strenuous undertaking?
The tiring relationship with food is a major contemporary issue affecting men and women alike. We're not just talking about diseases like anorexia, bulimia, or eating disorder-based phenomena like binge eating. Included in the modern issues related to food are emotional hunger, people who eat at night, the feelings of anxiety accompanying everything we ingest. Overall, the topic is applicable to all behaviors that increase our stress.
- Speaking of stress, the health emergency we’re experiencing has changed our lifestyles and as a result, the way we feed ourselves. What have been the changes you've observed as a psychologist and psychotherapist?
During the first lockdown, I noted creative, positive approaches to food: having the time to prepare things for yourself and your loved ones created euphoria. This led to healthy, balanced eating, which falls naturally into the ambit of Mindful Eating.
Today, thanks to the effects of the pandemic, we’ve all experienced first-hand disrupted rhythms, an absence of daily structure, and increased, forced sedentariness. Because circumstances also demand enforced isolation, the Istituto Superiore di Sanità has noted an increased level of criticality in daily life.
Things appear to have worsened with the second-wave lockdown, taking form in the sensation known as Pandemic fatigue (as identified by the WHO). During this second wave, a feeling of change was replaced by constant uncertainty, stagnation, and a mental immobility that continues to affect us both physically as well as emotionally.
A self-critical attitude can be an additional risk factor in the management of stress, including stress related to overeating, or problems with food and body image. Proper nutrition has declined in the face of new feelings of emotional emptiness and uncertainty stemming from today’s dire health and economic problem.
These malaises are added into a socio-cultural landscape strongly accentuated by the presence of vitamin supplements. Available at every pharmacy and para-pharmacy (shops specialized in supplements and natural health remedies), supplements answer all needs: one to sleep, one to gain weight, one to lose weight, one for mood improvement, and so forth.
This is what Mindful Eating does: Mindful Eating doesn’t promise a cure for these ailments because it's not a medicine. Mindful eating does promote improvement in our eating behaviors and our relationships with food. Mindful Eating works on making us aware of the conditioning we undergo everyday, and attempts to loosen the rigidity of the social rules we feel compelled to follow.
- Is it accurate to refer to a collective protocol we follow in Mindful Eating?
When the notion of protocols enter into Mindful Eating, we’re taking the lead in following specific programs created from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. This technique includes a defined number of meetings, and a set program of exercises and principles to follow in order to maximize the program’s benefits for the general populace.
In looking at specific techniques, one particularly important protocol to follow is the MB-EAT protocol, developed by Jan Kristeller and Kabat Zinn in 1999.
This tenet was developed to help us carefully heed individual body signals and messages by training ourselves to distinguish between the sensations of fullness and satiety, appetite, and other needs that can lead to eating. This technique also helps us recognize the external influences that affect our way of eating, such as advertising, what our parents taught us, and all the rules on healthy eating that feel like they box us in.
The Kristeller and Zinn technique additionally helps reduce the emotional charge we place on our bodies and on food. Following this technique, we are more likely to implement choices into our eating routines instead of blindly following rules dictated by unseen food judges: I must eat slowly vs. savor by slowing down, or I must eat less vs. savoring meals avoids compulsive behavior and slows me down.”
Keep in mind this philosophy isn’t intended as a weight control method but rather leading us to a more conscious approach to the way we eat, and regarding our emotions/thoughts/judgments related to eating.
We work on the origin of food and our consumption of it, but also on our feelings of gratitude for the food we receive. For this reason, I find it fundamental to work together in a group.”
- Giovanna, give me some examples to understand better….
The course includes nine meetings during which specific mindfulness exercises and principles are approached. The exercises include The exercise of the 5 chips, the Pretzel exercise, the Practice of Raisins (also present in MBSR).
The goal of each exercise is to eat something, even just a potato chip, in a conscious way, to have your entire being present during the act of eating. The idea is to help you awaken during the act of eating, to focus specific attention on the act of eating and how your thoughts, feelings, and emotions respond to eating.
Each meeting presents its own theme, ranging from awareness of so-called binge eating triggers, to themes of non-judgment and forgiveness. Another meeting is specifically dedicated to a conscious exploration of food shopping, a context where harmonious or anxious attitudes towards food are clearly evident.
We use meditation to achieve this awareness, and by paying attention to what happens inside our bodies and minds, we’re able to visualize our needs. through meditation, we can imagine the food we see with our eyes, we can see its size and shape, we can feel the food with our tactile senses, and we can imagine the sensorial feel of this food we’re about to eat.
We need to learn to put the food in our mouths and not our problems - they are the things that we can’t digest.” As Thich Nhat Hanh aptly explained: "Don't put anything else in your mouth, like your plans, your worries, your fears, just put the carrot. And when you chew, you chew only the carrot, not your projects or your ideas. You are able to live in the present moment, in the here and now. It's simple, but you need some training to enjoy the piece of carrot."