Mindful Eating is an Amazing Journey!

By Michelle May, M.D.

Tour du Mont BlancDo you have a bucket list trip? My husband and I just returned from ours—the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB for those who go)—eleven days of hiking through France, Italy, and Switzerland as we circumnavigated Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps. It was even more challenging than I expected and more gorgeous than I anticipated!

When you hike an average of ten miles a day, you have a lot of time to think—preferably not about your knees! It occurred to me that this incredible adventure was a lot like a mindful eating journey (I like metaphors). Here are my take-aways and how they apply to healing your relationship with food. (Even if hiking isn’t your thing, you can probably think about something else you’ve done and learned from that’s similar.)

Reading about it is nice, but there’s nothing like doing it.

I saw a 30 second video on Facebook and that was enough to trigger an internet search for more information about the TMB. Before our trip, I enjoyed reading about it and looking at photos, but I couldn’t comprehend what an amazing experience it would be until I actually did it!

Mindful eating application: Reading a tweet, an article, or even a book are good ways to pique your interest and give you a taste for mindful eating, but there is nothing like participating in a workshop, a retreat, or a learning community. (I wrote Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat to be a comprehensive self-help guide but even if you’re going it alone, it’s the day-to-day practice and learning that makes all the difference!)

TMB-mapYou need a guide, or at least a detailed map.

There were plenty of times when the trail was well-marked and others were hiking in the same direction. It was when we met a fork in the road, or rocks obscured the path, that having an experience guide or a detailed map was essential. Our expert Alpine Treks guide not only led the way, he sometimes took us off the beaten path to discover trails and scenery we would have missed on our own.

Mindful eating application: Some of the concepts are simple and easy to apply but knowing what to do when inevitable challenges come up makes all the difference. In Am I Hungry?, our map is the Mindful Eating Cycle and the specific skills that go with each decision point. This detailed map guides you through this entirely new thought process and teaches you how to navigate the many obstacles that arise in our complicated relationships with food. In addition, you may have a trained facilitator, coach, instructor, or therapist to guide you.

Training: You can’t get there from here.

We hike regularly in the South Mountain Preserve in Phoenix near our home, one of the largest city parks in the world, but that wasn’t nearly enough to prepare us for six to eight hours of hiking every day (and 390 floors one day!). Despite that, the hiking felt a little easier each day due to the natural on-the-trail-training that occurs as you hike day after day.

Mindful eating application: Mindful eating is unlike any diet or program you’ve tried before. At first, it’s tempting to apply diet-thinking to this process (I should only eat when I’m hungry; I must stop when I’m full), but you soon realize that only drives the eat-repent-repeat cycle. And unlike dieting, which typically gets progressively harder, mindful eating because more natural with practice.

Sorry; there are no shortcuts.

There is a tunnel under Mt. Blanc that links Chamonix, France (our starting point) and Courmayeur, Italy (our midway point and rest day). It is 11.6 km (7.2 miles) in length and takes 17 minutes to drive through. But that’s not the point.

Mindful eating application: Mindful eating is sometimes co-opted to promote weight loss or turned into a series of rules (chew each bite 32 times; never eat in front of the TV), but that completely misses the point. Mindful eating is an inside-out approach that rebuilds trust in your own wisdom and ability to make decisions in each moment, no matter what shows up.

Be present.

It is easy to focus on the future (How many miles today? How high are we climbing? When is lunch?), but the journey unfolds moment by moment. By focusing on what’s ahead instead of what’s now, you don’t experience the hike, you just anticipate it.

Mindful eating application: This is probably the most important difference between everything you’ve done in the past and your mindful eating journey: Most diets and programs are outcomes-oriented (How well did I follow the rules? How much weight did I lose this week?), whereas mindful eating is process-oriented (What am I noticing? What am I learning?). Instead of compliance, you cultivate curiosity.

Go at your own pace.

Go-at-your-own-pace

For most of the trip, our group included seven hikers (and a guide), two who were always at the front of the pack and two of us at the back. That doesn’t mean some of us were hiking “better,” just differently. Some of our fellow hikers had hiked Kilimanjaro and learned the phrase “Pole pole” (pronounced pol-ay) from their guides: Slowly, slowly. Take your time, pause for rest, take pictures of the wildflowers, enjoy the journey. At the end of the day, we all ended up in the same place.

Mindful eating application: Some people “get” mindful eating quickly, while others take a little longer. There is no right way to “do” it! Go at your own pace and try not to judge or compare yourself to others.

Trust the process.

I found it interesting that our guides never really told us what to expect each day (except the weather, so we’d know what to wear). We just started out and allowed the journey to unfold naturally. On the really challenging days, we didn’t waste time worrying about the climb ahead; instead we were continuously surprised and amazed by the incredible rewards at the top of each long ascent.

Mindful eating application: People often worry about whether they are doing it “right” and when (or whether) it will all come together. I just say, “Trust the process” because we’ve watched it fall into place for countless participants over the last 19 years. You are doing fine, and as long as you are observing and learning, you are doing it!

Discomfort is part of the process.

TMB-Day7-One-step-at-a-timeThe last half of our first day of hiking was an incredibly long, steep downhill walk. I had worried about the uphill climbs, but I didn’t anticipate the pressure the downhills would place on my 55-year old knees. By the end of that day, I was concerned that my dream trip was over. The guide assured me that this was a common problem since it was a completely new experience for the body. I bought an elastic knee support, applied topical creams, took ibuprofen, relied on my poles, and by day 4, my knees were fine. I was so glad I didn’t give up!

Mindful eating application: Mindfulness guides you to become more aware of your unexamined thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and actions. I’m not going to lie—this is new so it may feel uncomfortable. It is understandable that you might be tempted to give up and return to the familiar: Habitual mindless and emotional eating and compensatory dieting. However, mindfulness also guides you to notice the discomfort and feel curious about it, rather than trying to push it away. In place of judgment and immediate gratification, you learn to feel compassion for yourself as you practice new self-care behaviors.

Enjoy the process!

Best-nectarine-everWow! The scenery, the food, the company, the food, the beer, the food… Between the challenges, this adventure was just so much fun! I ate the best nectarine I’ve ever had after hiking eight miles up a steady incline, and each evening was a community meal perfect for sharing our experiences from the day and our pasts (not unlike our Mindful Eating Retreat meals!).

Mindful eating application: This one is pretty obvious – food just tastes better when you eat it mindfully. What might not be as obvious is how delicious and satisfying that food is when there is no guilt or punishment coming! Eat what you love, love what you eat!

You will be forever changed!

We began our hike in Chamonix, France, and eleven days and 110 miles later, we concluded our tour in Chamonix. I was in the same place, but I was not the same person.

Mindful eating application: This grand adventure brings with it challenges and incredible new discoveries. Most tell us that they didn’t expect the process to change them so profoundly. As they notice their relationship with food evolve, they naturally begin to apply the concepts to other aspects of their lives. Many say, “I realize now that it was really never about the food.”

And it was never about the hike either.

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