The most popular New Year’s resolution each year is to lose weight. We step on the scale, cringe and commit to spinach salads and Zumba classes. All throughout January, the gyms are packed. We pass on the pasta and choose celery sticks.
But sometime in late February, the elliptical machine we bought has transformed into an overpriced towel rack and we return to the fries who, like a scorned lover, nevertheless takes us back.
One of the problems with so many diet plans is the sense of denial. Time-and-time again, I have seen my most health-conscious friends look at the serving bowls at a dinner party with disappointment, helplessness and even judgment. Despite the gracious abundance, their eyes and barren plates say “there is nothing here for me.” Or, for others, like me, food is a celebration: there is so much we want and love and yet refuse.
Each year in my positive psychology class at North Carolina State University we do a unit on savoring. We look at the things people can do to deliberately enhance their enjoyment of an experience or activity. Students are then asked to go out and try them, to savor something and see if it makes a difference. Over the years, my students have savored chocolate and music, showers and sitting in a tree. One student even mindfully and gratefully enjoyed a meal of Yuengling and corn beef hash.
One year, one of my students, Olivia, reported that she had lost 30 pounds over the course of the semester, just by learning to savor.
She said that when she had tried and failed diets in the past, she was in a state of constant denial. The self-imposed austerity measures were all about self-control and will-power. It was like seeing how long she could hold her hand in a bucket of ice water. She could withstand it for a while, but eventually gave in. Somehow, it felt like a moral shortcoming if she did not have enough discipline to refuse the foods she loved.
I am not a dietitian. I do not have any medical training. People should talk with a professional about the food choices and strategies that would be healthy and effective for them.
However, one possibility to consider is changing our relationship with food.
By savoring, Olivia never had to turn down the things she loved. Rather, she ate them in small portions and took the time to really enjoy every bite. The “French paradox” is a well-studied observation that the French tend to eat foods higher in calories and saturated fat than do Americans, and spend more time at the table, and yet have much lower rates of obesity and related illnesses.
Rather than denying yourself the fried oysters or cheesecake, enjoy them even more. But in smaller portions. Make the experience holy and intimate.
When you are sitting down to eat, block out other distractions. Turn off your television or phone. Maybe even dim the lights. Limit the unnecessary stimulus so you can focus on, and enjoy, the food. Take in the aromas it offers, creating anticipation and turning off the mindless disregard that so often accompanies our habit of eating. Engage each of your senses. Feel the textures. Notice the warmth or coolness. Listen for the crack of the crème brûlée, and the bubble and tumble of water trickling into the glass. And involve your dearest friends and loved ones. Share a plate and celebrate the way food brings us together.
These strategies will not all work, all the time. But they are an opportunity for play. They are chances to savor and enjoy the foods you love, while also being attentive to your robust good health. When the hostess offers you something rich and creamy and sinfully good, you can accept without guilt, and with gratitude, and eat as if you were tasting the food for the first time.
Copyright © 2016, John Albert Doyle, Jr. All rights reserved.
Bryant, F. B., & Veroff, J. (2007). Savoring: a new model of positive experience. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Rozin, P., Fischler, C., Imada, S., Sarubin, A., & Wrzesniewski, A. (1999). Attitudes to Food and the Role of Food in Life in the U.S.A., Japan, Flemish Belgium and France: Possible Implications for the Diet–Health Debate. Appetite, 33, 163-180.
Abby and Ice Cream, Copyright © 2016, John Albert Doyle, Jr. All rights reserved
Chocolate-Coated Strawberries by Garry Knight/Flickr made available via a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.