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Following your heart and eat free
(HK Edition)
Updated: 2009-09-19 08:08

Following your heart and eat free

Steven Hawkes, health sciences professor at an American university, used to eat ice cream, candies, chips, steak and all kinds of junk food purely on impulse.

In 1989, he applied for a job at North Carolina State University. Since no institution would hire someone weighing 210 pounds to a position teaching students how to be healthy, he started counting calories, lost weight, and got the job. The pounds soon came back.

His weight fluctuated for several years. He had trouble keeping to a diet. Finally, instead of fighting his snacking habits and feeling guilty every time he ate something "bad", he allowed himself to eat whatever and however much he wanted, with the condition that he would eat only when he was truly hungry. To his surprise, he started losing weight slowly and steadily. Exercise helped, too. Eventually, he lost some 50 pounds, and has stayed at a reasonable weight ever since.

He published a study in the American Journal of Health Education to show that students who were "intuitive eaters" weighed less and had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease than other students. He concluded that "encouraging dietary restraint creates more problems. I hope intuitive eating will be adopted at a national level."

The joy of mindful eating

Following your heart and eat free

Professor Hawkes is a shining example of green living by eating with one's heart rather than the head. Instead of being bound by dietary rules about the good, the bad and the ugly, and knowledge regarding nutrients, calories and toxicity, "intuitive eaters" follow their internal cues to eat the foods their bodies are hungry for.

When introduced to intuitive eating, people often panic. "If there are no rules, I'll eat all day long." In the short run, some people do eat more. But there is a rule: one eats mindfully. That amounts to consciously being aware of the present moment, of hunger and fullness, of your body and what it truly needs and wants. You re-learn to differentiate between hunger and other eating cues such as painful emotions, boredom, or tiredness, and to eat without shame, guilt, or fear. You re-learn to nourish your body and spirit without food and food is not what is called for.

Although this approach has been used mainly for weight loss, intuitive eating is in reality a general philosophy for eating the natural way. This alternative dietary approach is based on the premise that (a) each human being has individual food preferences and hunger signals, (b) that the best way to eat is to become attuned to those signals, and (c) most of us are unaware of our body's needs, so we have to re-learn by training ourselves to do so.

Why are we quite blind to what is good for us in the first place? The reasons are

1. Diet fads: We are constantly told by researchers, diet gurus, talk show hosts, magazines, celebrities and friends what we should eat. These messages are not all trust-worthy, but they definitely are confusing.

2. Functional insensitivity: The large amount of damaged fats, sugar, processed foods, and chemicals in our daily foods impair our body's ability to sense what is good for us.

3. Lack of care: We do not have the time and energy to attune to our body and respond accordingly. We are eating too hastily with our minds absent.

4. Stress: Chronic stress can destabilize blood sugar levels resulting in increased cravings and a constant need to eat. Conversely, stress sometimes throws the nervous system the other way. Under "fight or flight" conditions, our body switches from the parasympathetic system to the sympathetic nervous system, flooding the system with adrenaline or cortisol and shutting down the desire to digest food.

How to eat with your heart

In simple terms, it is all about switching off the "auto" and operating in "manual" mode once more.

1. Mindful meals. Eat slowly, quietly, and respectfully. Chew well, and savor each bit thankfully.

2. Eat only when hungry. Stop when you are full. Notice the impulse when there are snack foods lying around and ask your body if you are really hungry.

3. Detoxification. After getting rid of the harmful chemicals and negative energy signals in the body, unhealthy eating urges subside, and at the same time, you will connect much better with the body and spirit.

4. Pay attention to how different foods make you feel. What foods leave you satisfied? What foods give you energy? What foods make you tired or unable to concentrate? What foods make you anxious or edgy vs. calm and content? What foods make you bloated and uncomfortable?

5. Adapt your lifestyle so that you can listen to your body. After a bit of mindful eating, you will start to be able to distinguish which kind of eating impulses are physical ones, and which ones are psychological ones resulting from stress or other unfulfilled needs. The habit of mindful eating therefore becomes a barometer to your overall health - when you find it difficult to eat mindfully, it may be that you need to address other areas of your life so that you can eat peacefully.

E-mail: Simon@SimonChau.hk

(HK Edition 09/19/2009 page3)