By Leo Babauta

Recently, I held a Q&A on the forum on healthy eating, and had some great questions. Here are the answers I posted:

1. Jon asked: Not sure if you read the NYtimes article on the Biggest Loser Contestants. For those looking to lose weight and keep it off, the story can be somewhat discouraging. What is a Zen Habits way of thinking about the article and the doubts that might creep in? Thanks!

Leo: Excellent question! While this article has some valuable information, it’s important to maintain some perspective. This was a study of people who were very overweight who tried to lose weight very quickly. It’s valuable to know that this is not usually a sustainable weight loss method. But it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to keep off weight.

I’m just one of many examples of people who have lost weight and kept it off. For me, the key was small changes, and gradual change over time. This allowed me to change my habits, change my support structure and environment, change my methods of coping with things, change my tastes, change my strategies for social eating, change my identity. It isn’t something that can be done in a month or two, but rather you have to adapt over time.

What this means is you need to have a deeper motivation to stick to things, you have to make your steps exceedingly small, and you have to be willing to mess up and fail as you figure out what works for you.

But it is possible! Not necessarily easy, but we all knew that. You can do this, my friends.

2. Michal asked: I’m struggling with binge eating, especially of sweet foods. I did Overeaters Anonymous for some years, it did help me stop bingeing for three years out of seven. But it involved me identifying myself as powerless over my binging and as someone with an incurable eating disorder – a compulsive overeater that nothing would help. Without the structure of OA (and for me the structure was too much and took over my life) I am bingeing a lot, and I notice how my sense of identity is contributing to this: I still identify myself as someone who is a compulsive over eater and whom these practices won’t help as nothing can affect the scale of my problem. How do I change this identity?

Leo: I’m sorry to hear about your struggles. It’s good that you have noticed that your sense of identity is contributing to the struggles — you’re limited by your belief that your problem is too large.

Identity is changed gradually, in most cases. You can start by telling yourself that you’re going to be compassionate with yourself, see that you’re conflicted by your binge eating and have compassion for yourself, as you would with a friend. Beating yourself up doesn’t help the situation.

Next, I would find a way to change your environment, and see what your triggers for binge eating are. If the trigger is watching TV, eating in a certain place, eating carbs … can you remove the trigger for awhile? Can you find a different habit to do when the trigger happens, and have social support for doing that new habit?

But for this to work, you have to change your identity to someone who believes they are capable of change. You can say, “I was a compulsive overeater, but now I’m going to be someone who is making healthy changes.” And then go and validate that belief by taking action.

If you slip up, don’t let that revert you to the old identity. It’s simply a part of the learning process to slip up, and as a person making healthy changes, it’s not a problem if your changes include a few falls along the way.

3. Michal asked: I have tried many things – many types of meditation, many types of coaching or self help. I notice people who just let something really work for them. They just are positive and let it have permanent effect. I don’t. I think these folks have the key ingredient for change, just their belief that it wil work. I’d quite like to have this any ideas how I might get it? I just feel a core of inertia in me that does not want any change to happen in me, that weighs me down to this safe comfortable, heavy, inert place – even after a couple of years of being different. Your thoughts appreciated!

Leo: Michal, it does sound tough if you are resisting change … I would start by asking, why do you not want to change? You mentioned it’s a safe, comfortable place … what do you fear about change? What I’ve learned is that our minds tend to blow up these fears, so that they become overblown, but when we take those fears out into daylight, we can see that they’re not so bad. Just uncomfortable.

Learn to relish the thought of getting good at being in discomfort. It’s like people who train to swim in freezing cold water … they do it by starting with fairly cold water, and get used to that, then they make the water colder, and so on. Eventually they’re super tough! You can do this too, with your discomfort around change, around healthy eating, and so forth. This is an opportunity to learn, to grow, to improve your skills, and that is exciting!

Think of this as practice … it takes time but if you practice over and over, you can get good at it. Find the excitement and joy in getting good at something, and you’ll be more willing to face your fears and discomfort, and embrace the changes you know you want to make.

4. Helen asked: Finding it surprisingly difficult to mindfully eat at lunch time. Breakfast is more focused, as it is a shorter time. Dinner is with husband, which helps keep me mindful to eating, and what being said. Wonder if it might be helpful to set a timer for 10 mins, for a few weeks, then add on a minute each week? Helps the mind to focus when it knows it is only for 10 mins! Or, keep practicing mindful eating for whole of lunch. The mind can be playfully mischievously inventive at times! so wondered how you see it?

Leo: I absolutely support your idea of setting a timer for 10 minutes at lunch. In fact, I recommend starting with just 5 mindful minutes.

Whenever you’re struggling with a habit, making it smaller or easier is always a good idea. You’re not in a sprint, you’re in a marathon. Do whatever it takes to stick to the habit.

Lastly … it’s a good idea to be aware of your mind’s resistance … what is it resisting? Is there discomfort that it wants to avoid? Is it rationalizing? Listen and try to understand it.

5. Helen asked: Question re mini snacks… I have breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, supper. Occasionally, say just for example, an hour before lunch or dinner, I might feel hungry. From a healthy eating perspective, wonder whether it’s better to have another very small snack or wait till lunch/dinner? Similar applies if about to do something “brain” important. This morning, it was 11/2 hours since breakfast, and had important call. Lunch was going to be in about 45mins, so was getting tadge hungry. Is it a healthy eating thing to have mini snack in those instances? There are some views of having breaks of no eating, to allow digestive process. Any thoughts? Thanks.

Leo: Great question … unfortunately, there isn’t a right answer. I’m going to offer two ideas:

  1. There’s nothing wrong with being hungry. Our minds have been conditioned to not want to be hungry, even fear hunger … but you might try just going hungry and seeing that you’re perfectly OK, that you’re probably not going to faint or even function at a lower brain level. If you’re about to pass out, that’s different, but I doubt that would happen for most people (excluding diabetics or health conditions like that).

  2. A small snack of a fruit is perfectly fine. I like apples!

6. Marianne asked: I find it hardest to be mindful after dinner, late at night, when I’m fatigued. Not only that–the idea of having one, which leads to another, and another….can’t have just one! Why do we associate sweets with after dinner anyway? When we’re already full? What insidious mind invented the concept of dessert? It’s like a perfect storm: fatigue, a habit, a social custom, readily available sweets.

Leo: I love that you’re very aware of your triggers and the behavior that follows them — you are tired after dinner, there are sweets around, and so you eat sweets. Awareness of triggers is the important first step.

If possible, I recommend removing yourself from the triggers. Is it possible to not have desserts in the house? If not, can you go somewhere right after dinner to have a rest, and avoid your family as they eat sweets? You’ll need to talk to them about both of these ideas. Find a different evening ritual that helps you unwind, like having herbal tea or taking a bath.

If you can’t remove yourself from the triggers, you’ll need strong social support to help you form a new healthy habit for those triggers. For example, eat some fruit or have a green smoothie after dinner, while others have dessert. But set a social challenge where you have to pay $200 if you eat dessert after dinner, and you know you won’t mess up!

The highest-level challenge is sitting there with your urge to eat dessert, and meditating on it, instead of acting on the urge. It’s not easy, so I don’t recommend it, but you can just turn toward the urge and explore it with curiosity, compassion, openness. Just investigate, without acting.

7. Rob asked: What would be some good strategies/ideas for avoiding the pitfalls of coming in from work/activities exhausted and hungry, and then being tempted or minded to go for the easy/unhealthy food? I’m trying to ensure the fridge has some healthy snack food, but this is still an issue for me. In these situations I have an aversion to spending time cooking, and feel like I need a quick energy boost. I already have a habit of eating 2 pieces of fruit each morning so I don’t want to eat more fruit in the evening.

Leo: So your trigger is coming home exhausted and hungry … and your conditioned response is to go for easy/unhealthy food. Again, it’s great that you’re aware of this!

There are several possible strategies:

  1. Get rid of the unhealthy food so you only have healthy options.
  2. Remove yourself from the trigger for awhile … meaning don’t come home exhausted and hungry. Perhaps you make sure you’re less tired (rest more?), or you bring snacks with you to work so you’re not hungry, or you stop for a smoothie on your way home so you don’t arrive home hungry.
  3. Be aware that your trigger is happening (you’re coming home hungry and tired) and have a very specific new habit that you’re going to do instead of your old conditioned behavior (let’s say eat some nuts and dried fruit, or drink a smoothie). Create some social support (ask your spouse for accountability, for example) so that you stick to this new habit for that trigger.

Doing all of this consciously, instead of just letting your conditioned responses happen, is the key.