Sister On!

Mindful Eating with Dr. Michelle May (Episode 29)

March 23, 2022 Rebecca & Natalie Davey Season 1 Episode 29
Sister On!
Mindful Eating with Dr. Michelle May (Episode 29)
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Does our relationship with food need reframing? We had a talk with Dr. Michelle May, a former family physician who struggled with disordered eating, about what it means to eat mindfully and how we can cultivate healthier ways of thinking about food. We got into identifying self-care habits that can make us feel better, how to actually change our habits in a way that is lasting, and the origin of our culture's unhealthy attitudes toward food.

Michelle May is the founder of Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She’s the author of the Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat book series that teaches mindful eating to help individuals resolve mindless and emotional eating and senseless yo-yo dieting to live the vibrant life they crave. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Articles of Michelle's that we mentioned during the episode:
Take Your Life Back from Food: 5 Ways to Reclaim Your Time and Energy
The Differences Between Goals and Intentions

This week in particular, we'd love to hear from you about your feelings around conscious eating. Do you love it? Do you hate it? Is it realistic? Is this something you've struggled with? Tacos are always going to be hard and there’s just no doing that consciously? We love hearing from our listeners! Leave us a voice message, write to the show email, or send us a DM on any of our socials.

You can find our transcripts and more information for all our episodes here. If our conversations support you in your own reframing practice, please consider a donation on our Patreon. Subscribe to the Sister On! Newsletter. Follow us on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube too.

Rebecca
The person I most like to be analytical and self-deprecating with is my sister. She can take it. She tells me to reframe. Everyone could benefit from a conversation with her. She’s who I go to when I need to dissect the hard topics that I wake up obsessing about. I’ll ask tons of questions and she’ll sister us through, via text or wine or coffee — all useful vices, since the Davey sisters are a strong cup of coffee. So come here if you can relate or need some sistering yourself. There’ll be lots of laughter and a whole lot of reframing as we work our way through some of life’s big and small stuff together. 

Rebecca
Hey Nat. 

Natalie
Hey Bec. 

Rebecca
Hi Michelle. 

Michelle
Hi. Nice to see both of you. 

Rebecca
Today we are reframing our relationship to food with Michelle, which is an interesting topic. 

Natalie
Dr. Michelle May. 

Rebecca
She is a former family physician and recovered yo-yo dieter. She is the founder of Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Programs and Training at www.amihungry.com. She’s the author of the Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat book series that teaches mindful eating to help individuals resolve mindless and emotional eating and senseless yo-yo dieting to live the vibrant life they crave. Ok, Michelle, so what is mindful eating and maybe just give us a little sense of your background and how you got into this? 

Michelle
Well, the professional background gives me the credibility but I have to be honest, it’s the personal experience with disordered eating and struggling with yo-yo dieting and body image that really give me the passion for this topic. Long before I became a doctor, I was a person who eats and struggled with it. This work around mindful eating has been life-changing for me and transformational for a lot of the people I work with. Most of us, we’ve heard all the rules about what you should and shouldn’t eat, and being good and being bad, and all of these things that we try to do, but most people aren’t able to do those things continuously and they began to struggle. That was certainly my story. So mindful eating offered a completely different way for me to think about my own eating first, which is essentially with curiosity — to notice why I wanted to eat in the first place, to begin to pay attention to my physical sensations like hunger and satiety, fatigue, thirst, as well as my emotions and thoughts. As it turns out, emotions and thoughts are big drivers for eating when we’re not hungry, or eating past the point of fullness. Mindful eating (let’s give a simpler definition) is eating with intention and attention. It’s eating with purpose and awareness. So why are you eating in the first place, and then paying attention to your eating in order to reach the level of satiety or comfort or satisfaction that you were hoping for at the beginning of the meal. 

Rebecca
So you would definitely not be a ‘finish what’s on your plate’ kind of person. 

Michelle
I was. I was in the club, you know. I do think that’s a really important point, because I think a lot of us were raised by parents who were raised by parents who grew up in a time when food was scarce. There was a time that those messages probably made sense when food was not readily available. Yet if we continue to pass those messages on to our children who are in an abundant food environment for the most part, then they begin to override their own natural cues of satiety and eat everything they’re given. You know what kind of portion distortion we have. So oftentimes, they’re given more food than they really need. 

Rebecca
Right, interesting. Do you have kids of your own? 

Michelle
I do. I will call them adults, but this whole thing was happening while I was raising my children, and I’m happy to say that both of them have grown up to be very competent eaters with none of the eating struggles that I had, and was really afraid I would pass on to them. Actually, despite the fact that I don’t believe in restriction and diet rules, both of my kids are now vegetarians. I’m not, but they both have chosen to go down that path. I love vegetables, they both know how to cook and love to eat, and they eat whatever they want within their own ethical guidelines. I’m very happy to say that when you’re raising children, if we don’t mess them up, they do just fine! You know? 

Natalie
Ok, so then I need to check on this one. In my family, my kid is seven. He’s a really active little guy who wants to eat, and he enjoys it and loves food and all the good things, but he’s really happy to also get done. He wants to eat and then get back to whatever he’s working on, so I would say that our family eats pretty quickly. Do we need to be changing that in my little household over here? 

Rebecca
Yeah, you guys do eat fast. You’re very efficient when it comes to food. 

Natalie
I know. I value efficiency, so this is something that I probably need to ponder here. 

Michelle
Yeah, so I don’t want to be prescriptive about it, because it would be pretty easy to turn mindful eating into another form of dieting with a bunch of rules about what you should do and a bunch of rigidity about counting the number of times you chew, and how many minutes you sit at the table, and all of that kind of thing. But you could do a couple of things that might slow the process down. For example, a really simple technique is to put your fork down between bites. One of the ways that people eat fast is they put a forkful of food in their mouth, and they immediately begin to load the next forkful. The challenge with that, although it speeds up the process because it’s efficient — you can’t pay full attention to both forkfuls. Most likely you’re paying attention to loading the next forkful and you’re not paying attention to what you’re eating, and then of course when you put the next forkful in, you turn your attention to the next forkful. So you’re never actually eating what you’re eating, you’re always eating what you will be eating. That’s one of the reasons people tend to clean their plate, because it’s a fork filling activity, a plate emptying activity — not a satiating, enjoyable activity. 

Rebecca
I had this experience the other day — my father-in-law was telling me about some things in his life, and I was getting a little anxious as I was listening. I had ordered pad thai, and I had this pad thai in front of me, and I was just shovelling it in as I was listening to this. I was getting kind of anxious, and my kids are watching me, and then at the end I was like, “I just ate so many noodles, and I don’t remember tasting them. I don’t even feel good now.” I don’t usually do anxious eating, I don’t think, but I was like, “Oh, I just did it.” Just shovelled in noodles, without tasting a single bite. 

Michelle
I would say you’ve just given us two really good examples — one of mindless eating, what happens when our brain is distracted by emotions or thoughts or watching television, or whatever the outside or the internal process is that distracts us from the actual eating. You also gave us a wonderful example of mindfulness, simply noticing that that’s what happened and recognizing, “Oh, isn’t that interesting. I was feeling kind of anxious about this conversation, and I cleared off this plate without really enjoying it.” That’s what mindfulness is, it’s not about doing it right or wrong. It’s about becoming curious and beginning to notice how things work for you, and then taking that information. I promise, the next time you’re starting to eat and you recognize that you’re doing this, you put your fork down and pause and go, “Am I feeling anxious about something going on right now? Or what’s happening that I’m suddenly not eating in an enjoyable way like I usually do?” 

Rebecca
Do you find this is more of an issue for girls than boys? Do you deal with parents who are more concerned about their daughters? Is that something you notice? 

Michelle
I think there’s obviously gender differences because of the bias that we have in our culture about what girls are supposed to look like, and how they’re supposed to act, and big-eating boys. This was part of my challenge as a child, it was one of the many factors that contributed to my own disordered eating. I think as parents, especially parents of daughters, but parents of children, we want to be conscious of the messages that we’re sending that imply that maybe the female-identified child is eating too much, or too fast, or too anything. The other behaviours in the male-identified child kind of indicates that it’s ok for you, and we see these kinds of gender divides across the board. We have to be conscious of them as parents, because we tend to have some of these implicit biases ourselves and not even realize it. 

Rebecca
It’s very subtle what they pick up on. Interestingly, I was reading Anne of Green Gables with Violet, and Anne in the first or second chapter feels bad about herself because she’s too skinny. Violet (my daughter) said, “That’s strange that she would feel bad for being too skinny,” and we do not talk about that in my house. We don’t talk about skinniness. I have actually thought, “We’re a pretty great household for this issue, because we don’t make it a thing.” Yet she has picked up on the fact that isn’t that a good thing to be? And then she went on to say, “There’s a girl in my dance class who’s a little bit fat, but she’s really nice.” So this is kind of crazy to me, because I was thinking she has picked these messages up from… I would suggest society, or somehow. What do you think, Nat? Isn’t that interesting? 

Natalie
Well, that is really interesting to me, because just the other day when Violet and Frankie were sitting there at the table — so Rebecca’s daughter is Violet, my son is Frankie — the two of them were sitting side by side, they’re little best friends, and they were eating dinner. Frankie had eaten really fast, and then said to Violet, “Are you going to eat those noodles?” and she was like, “I’m still thinking about them.” I don’t even know what I was trying to do, I was just teasing and talking, but whatever I said, whatever Violet said, however the conversation went down, Frankie looked down at his bowl kind of sad and went, “I think I eat too much.” It was such a dramatic statement from a seven-year-old, because I work with high schoolers and I have seen a number of boys struggling with eating disorders at the high school age. I don’t work with elementary kids, I only know my own kid. I only know our kids. But when I see anorexia as an actual issue in the high school setting, I realized that this stuff can, like what you’re saying Bec, the messages get in, and then stuff lives on in their bodies. So anyways, obviously we interrupted it, like “No! Eat!” But how would that have been different if it had been a little girl at that table? I don’t know, I have no idea. 

Rebecca
I mean, where do you see it coming in, Michelle? Is it usually from families, or do you see the messages coming in from TV, from everywhere? 

Michelle
All directions. We call this diet culture. It’s this cultural phenomenon, and it’s the water that we swim in, so most of the time, we’re not even aware that it’s there. It sometimes comes from parents. I have a lot of clients who are adults now who tell lots of really horrifying stories about things they were told as children about their bodies, about their eating, and things like that. But also it comes from the media, it comes from social media in a huge way — you know that working in a high school, right? It’s huge on social media. But even the medical profession reinforces these messages. I think the beautiful thing that I’m hearing from both of you is that you’re having these conversations with your kids, and you’re recognizing the things that they’re repeating back and it gives you the opportunity to have a conversation about that. 

So for example, when she said, “Well, I have a girl in my class who’s fat, but she’s really nice,” that can be an opportunity to say, “Well, fat and thin are just descriptions like brown hair, blue eyes, tall, short, it doesn’t mean we have to have a judgement about somebody, it doesn’t mean anything about that person. It’s just an adjective. Do you know what an adjective is? It’s just a way of describing a person’s characteristics, but it doesn’t mean anything about who they are.” So you could say, “I have a friend in my dance class who’s fat and she’s really nice.” Not, “But she’s really nice.” These are kind of sensitive conversations. It requires us as parents to think through our own biases, because we need to first notice whether we’re accidentally doing these things — or sometimes intentionally, honestly, in some situations — and also whether we believe some of these things too, in which case we won’t even notice a comment like that. It’ll just fly by us because it fits with what we already believe. 

Rebecca
All the little moments are coming back to me. There was a moment with the yogurt and my older daughter, where she was serving herself because now she’s 13, so she’s doing all of her own snacks and stuff. That’s an interesting phase for us. You know, we get to control it more when it’s the little kids. But she was serving herself some yogurt and I think I said something about, “That’s a lot.” I was thinking, “You’re going to get full, I don’t want you to waste the yogurt.” That was my process. I don’t know how she heard it exactly, but I sensed something on her face. I just felt like that comment could have sunk a lot deeper without me realizing. I can right away see that she doesn’t want to be monitored, or that is dangerous territory to start monitoring her. I don’t know, can you speak to that at all? 

Michelle
Again, it’s the ocean that we swim in. Dieting has been around for a century or more. I’m older than you are, but many of our mothers were in that twiggy phase — if that reference even means anything to you. At some point, things shifted from a larger body size to a smaller body size. There was a huge amount of pressure — particularly on women, but men too — and that has just continued through the decades. So here’s the thing. What mindful eating does for us is it teaches an inside-out way of making decisions about eating. Diet culture is all outside-in, beginning with: what do you weigh? What do you look like? What is your pant size? To: how many calories? How many carbs? How many grams? How many servings? How many ounces? It’s all these rules about when, what, and how much you should eat that are coming from experts, books, doctors, magazines, everything, coming at us. 

What we’re doing with mindful eating is we’re flipping the table. I want to compare this to what you’re talking about with your children. In mindful eating, we’re going to check in first. Whenever I feel like eating, I’m going to pause for just a minute and ask, “Am I hungry?” Not with the intention of deciding whether I’m allowed to eat, but to give me the opportunity to figure out why do I want to? Does my body need fuel? This would be like checking your fuel gauge before you pull into a gas station. You’re just checking in. Does my body need fuel? Because if it doesn’t, this desire to eat may have come from something else — maybe the time of day, or seeing food, or seeing a commercial, or feeling sad or bored or stressed, or any of thousands of triggers. What we’re doing then is we’re stopping the process of evaluating whether I can and can’t eat from some external arbitrary rule to, “What does my body need?” 

Your children, my children, we were born with the instinctive ability to know when we were hungry and to stop when we are satisfied. Babies cry to let their parents know. It takes a while as a parent to figure out what each cry means, and sometimes it’s tempting to pop the bottle in when what we really know is they’re bored, or they’re overstimulated, or whatever. We have to negotiate that. But at an early age, they’re pretty attuned to their body. We can begin to override those signals by making them clean their plate, or another common mistake we can make is making them eat the yucky stuff in order to win the prize — the dessert. We’re sending very clear messages about which foods probably don’t taste good and aren’t desirable, and rewarding them with foods that they want, instead of just putting them all on a level playing field — this is food, this is what we’re having now, and not making a big deal out of it. 

Rebecca
Right. So are you anti-‘treat’ language? 

Michelle
Yeah, I don’t like the word ‘treat’ unless we’re pretty careful about it. Mostly because if you look it up in the dictionary, it kind of implies that it’s some special thing that you’ve earned. I really think coming at food from a more neutral place is important. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a foodie. My husband’s a professional chef, my parents own restaurants. I love food, and thank God I’m over my disordered eating because I get to enjoy whatever I want. I don’t think that teaching children that food is a reward really pays off in the long run, because over the long run then when they’ve had a bad day, or a long day, or they’ve had a fight with their partner, or whatever, and they need a reward, they may associate those treats that we talked about in childhood with something that they can do to feel better — instead of considering “Well, what is it that I’m really needing right now? I feel sad, I feel angry, I feel upset. Maybe I need to talk to somebody, or take a walk, or listen to some music, or any of a number of other things.” 

Natalie
Your website has some amazing resources. You’re sharing some gold here with us, this is super and we really appreciate it, but I also appreciated being able to go to amihungry.com and actually look through some of the articles that you have there. One of them that struck me, because I also consider myself a bit of a foodie and I really enjoy cooking, and actually Rebecca and I put out a newsletter each week attached to this podcast and in it is one of my healthy recipes. That’s something I take a lot of energy from, the actual cooking process is something I like. One of your titles was, “Take Your Life Back from Food: Five Ways to Reclaim Your Time and Energy.” I was struck by that because I see food as an energizer, but in that piece it seems like you’ve positioned it as an energy thief. So I’m just wondering in terms of the reframing of food itself here, the act of eating and of cooking. Are all those things connected for you? And you just shared about how you have this restaurant culture in your own family, so I’m assuming not. 

Michelle
I think that’s a great question. I think that the difficulty is that my primary audience are people who are struggling in their relationship with food. I would describe it as a love-hate relationship with food. They enjoy food, but they feel guilty when they eat it. A lot of the people that I work with, and that I can help people with through coaching and retreats and other things, is that if they are spending a lot of time thinking about what they wish they could eat, thinking about when they’re going to eat, and then how much they can get — and then feeling guilty about it, and then paying penance, and hiding the evidence, these are the kinds of behaviours that signal disordered eating. Feeling guilty after eating is a thief of joy. It takes away our ability to really enjoy that meal we cooked, or that restaurant meal we’re eating with our partner, or that family meal where we’re having conversation and engaging with each other. My audience oftentimes are people who really don’t have the balanced relationship with food that you’re describing. And that’s what I can help them — I can help them become you, I think, Nat. 

Natalie
You know what, I like that, because I really do think that I have managed to determine a way of eating that has been healthy for me. I would say that there was a time when I was sad. There was like a period of my life when… 

Rebecca
Sad years? 

Natalie
My sad years, my divorced years. There were some sad years where I did too much drinking. I was never drunk, it wasn’t that kind of an experience, but I didn’t ask myself, “Do I need a glass of wine? Do I want a glass of wine?” It was more just, “I’m sad. I’m pouring myself a glass of wine.” I feel like it has been a real win for me even though I’ve got this very positive, healthy relationship with food. It’s also been a real win in the last decade of coming to a place where I have a really healthy relationship with other types of — well, I’m thinking right now of wine, but it could be any of those. I would have called them a treat, but as you say, I would only have a drink on the weekend, because it feels like something I’ve saved for a time that feels enjoyable and I can sit and actually sip it. I can really taste it, as opposed to that mindless, “Just pour a glass, because.” It’s all so connected. I think this is quite interesting to hear you describe this. 

Rebecca
Like with your clients do you feel like alcohol and food kind of go hand-in-hand? Or is it they tend to be different relationships? 

Michelle
They’re different. It’s certainly not that they don’t overlap sometimes. I think the theme that we’re talking about here — let’s broaden it to a bigger thing, because it’s not just food and alcohol. Some people use exercise. Some people use overwork, and perfectionism, and shopping. What we’re talking about here is that some of us have not learned coping skills, we have not learned how to interpret our emotions, how to know what our needs are, how to calm ourselves when we feel anxious or upset or stressed or overly excited. And we may have at some point learned to use food or alcohol or shopping or other things to try to soothe ourselves. I think it’s a healthy response to want to feel soothed and comforted, I think where we sometimes miss the boat is that we don’t know how to identify what we need and we’ve learned that food makes those symptoms go down fast — even though ultimately, like alcohol, it has longer-term effects or even immediate effects. I like to say that eating the ‘right’ amount of food (there’s some air quotes there) is not about being good. It’s about feeling good. A lot of my work is centred around helping people identifying self-care behaviours that leave them feeling better than any of the false ineffective coping skills they’ve been trying, like eating. 

Rebecca
Right, but it’s hard to change habits, isn’t it? That’s what makes all of these things challenging. 

Michelle
Absolutely. 

Rebecca
If you’ve been doing that for how many years… 

Michelle
Of course it is. I think the other reason, particularly where food is concerned (I mean, obviously that’s my area of expertise and interest) but I think so much of what we’ve been told about eating is actually counterproductive and even harmful. I just finished writing a paper for a journal with some colleagues, and there’s a lot of research that you don’t hear about that shows that when people are restricted and deprived and feel guilty, or when they go on some kind of restrictive diet, their hunger cues get ramped up. The saliency of food, the desirability of food gets ramped up. Our whole biology is geared to keep us alive, and so when we start restricting and depriving food in order to gain control (air quotes again there), what we actually end up doing is eventually losing control. 

So we end up with this duality of I’m either in control, or I’m out of control — we often refer to this as yo-yo dieting. I think of it as the eat, repent, repeat cycle where I eat, then I feel guilty, so I’m not going to eat, and then because I’m not eating, then I’m overly hungry, and I’m feeling deprived, and then I eat. This is the cycle that a lot of my clients struggle with. My clients are the best dieters, they’ve tried everything, they’ve got tons of willpower — they don’t believe it, because things don’t work for them long term — but ultimately, it’s because what they’re doing is just another wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s just another form of the same old restriction and deprivation. Mindful eating introduces a completely new way of thinking about food, making decisions about eating, and most important, making decisions about self-care that work better than food ever did. 

Rebecca
Have you seen that app Noom? Is Noom mindful eating, or not? 

Michelle
No. Noom is a good example of many weight control programs who are co-opting the language of mindful eating and other words and using them to confuse the audience. There are things about Noom that may have some psychological pieces, but if you talk to people who’ve used the app, they’re given a calorie range, they’re reporting in on their weight — it is without a doubt, just like every other diet we’ve seen. We’ve seen this happen over and over and over and over again through the decades, it’s just one outside-in way of controlling our eating. Here’s what mindful eating is about: it’s not about finally getting into control. It’s about being in charge. In other words, I’m conscious of the decisions that I’m making. I’m conscious of the physical sensations I’m experiencing, the thoughts and the feelings that I’m having, the social environment. When you’re mindful, aware of the present moment without judgment, you can take this information in and then make a decision that’s right for you. If you don’t struggle with food, you probably already intuitively do this and just don’t know it because you’ve always done this. But for those of us who’ve struggled with food, it’s a huge shift in the way that we think about eating. 

Rebecca
To bring this awareness to food. 

Michelle
To bring this awareness, yeah. My work does not revolve around telling people what they can and can’t eat. It doesn’t revolve around telling people how many minutes they have to exercise to burn off what they ate. In fact, I can tell you when I was a family physician that a lot of people would come in, “Oh, I know I should exercise, Dr. May, but I hate it.” Of course you hate it if you’ve learned to use it as punishment for eating — then of course it’s going to be something you want to avoid. But contrast that with your son who can’t wait to get up from the table to go back and play. As children we intuitively love to move and find joy and learning new things and exploring and climbing and running and chasing. We lose that as we become adults if we don’t find joyful ways of moving our body that aren’t tied to making up for our eating. 

Natalie
Right. It’s like the mental exercise attached to the physical. My husband’s very much a meditator and I think he would just be so behind everything you’re saying here in terms of those check-ins — the actual check-in with the self about, “What is it that I’m about to put in my mouth?” 

Rebecca
You would meditate? 

Michelle
Well, I think there’s a lot of forms of mindfulness, meditation being one of them. Personally, I’m a yogi and a hiker. One of my favourite forms of meditation is to go hiking with my dog by myself in the mountains behind my house. Being out in nature, moving my body, having a moment to just not do, but to be, it brings me that sense of awareness and calm and peace and curiosity. I think meditators get similar effects in different ways. As much as I’ve appreciated the benefits of it, it’s been difficult for me to sit consistently. Once I sit, I’m fine. It’s finding the consistency that makes it difficult. I like active mindfulness, and that’s why mindful eating itself is such a cool way to bring mindfulness into our lives because we eat multiple times a day. What a great opportunity to pause, express some gratitude, look at our food, notice the beauty of it, the colour, the texture, notice the smells. And then when we put it in our mouth to just pause for a minute and actually taste what we’re eating, appreciate the ingredients that you put into that food. To notice exactly what’s working about it and enjoying it. Slowing down chewing (the digestion process begins in the mouth, anyway). I think the act of slowing down allows us to feel much more satisfied with the food that we’re eating. When we eat too fast, then we may miss a lot of the experience of it. 

Natalie
Another one of your articles that I was really struck by on your website was the one that you titled “The Differences Between Goals and Intentions.” I thought that your reorientation of language there is what I find myself doing in the process of reframing through this podcast — like life’s various hurdles. I want to know what you think more about goals versus intentions? 

Michelle
I’m not anti-goal setting, it has a place. It’s just that goal-setting is very typical of our western culture. It’s always about getting there. We set this goal — this is where I’m going, this is what I’m going to do — and then oftentimes unfortunately we forget to enjoy the process. We get to the goal, and then it’s like, “Oh, hmm.” Then what do we do? Now we either maintain, or we have to set a new goal. So we’re constantly looking out into the future. Well, mindfulness is about the present moment. If I can set an intention for how I want to be, how I want to feel in the present moment, how I am right now, then I am living it out immediately. I don’t have to wait for anything to change to be able to experience what it is that I’m wanting. A simple example related to what we were just talking about: let’s say your goal is to eat less and move more. What if your intention was to feel better? Maybe you set an intention, intentions are typically spoken in the present moment, and they’re positive. My intention, for example, is ‘I live a vibrant life.’ So ‘I live a vibrant life’ is going to have a huge effect on how I spend my time, it’s going to have an effect on who I spend my time with and what I do, and what I eat, and how I show up in relationships — because ultimately my vibrant life is unfolding moment by moment. There’s no there that I’m trying to get to. It exists right now, right here — and after all, this is where every decision is made. 

Rebecca
I really like that because I’m very goal-oriented. So that’s really nice. 

Michelle
Hey, I teach what I needed to learn, believe me. 

Rebecca
One thing that’s making me think how food is a very specific thing — now I’m going to bring up my dad. 

Michelle
Again? The one that makes you anxious? 

Rebecca
Oh, that was my father-in-law. So I’m just doing the whole gamut of my whole family. But I’m thinking how my dad really meditates and is a very meditative person, but he eats fast. It’s just interesting that you can apply it in one area of your life but it might be difficult to apply it to another area. Food is not necessarily a natural place to bring mindfulness. That just occurred to me. 

Michelle
It’s interesting and it’s not unusual, I sometimes have people that come to do work with me who will say, “Gosh, it’s so interesting, it never occurred to me to apply this to my eating. I just didn’t really understand how beneficial it can be.” So that’s not at all unusual. In some mindfulness, like mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR), they teach specific mindfulness exercises: body scans, and other mindfulness meditation, and other things. One of the things they will do is a mindful eating experience with a raisin. I don’t even like raisins. It’s an interesting experience. You’ve never actually really eaten a raisin until you’ve done it mindfully, but it doesn’t connect to real life and people oftentimes don’t take that experience into their eating day-to-day. 

If I’m doing a retreat or a workshop, one of the segments that we’ll do — at least one — will be a mindful eating experience that I guide them through all the way from beginning to end. Honestly, it can be a little uncomfortable, because our habit is to eat fast or eat while we’re watching TV or while we’re distracted. Any time we’re trying to change a habit, it’s going to naturally feel uncomfortable. Our brain likes habit because it knows what to expect, it knows what to do, and it can shut off and just go through the motions. But isn’t that the problem — we’re just going through the motions? So bringing mindfulness to it can feel a little uncomfortable, but it creates this transformation in the way we experience food and eating — and the people we’re eating with, for that matter. 

Rebecca
Ok, tell me how you eat tacos. 

Michelle
As regularly as possible. The restaurants my parents own happen to be Mexican restaurants, so… 

Rebecca
Because I think the only way to eat tacos is to shove them in really fast. 

Natalie
It’s true — to get every bite perfectly encapsulating it. 

Rebecca
Because they’re just going to fall everywhere. What do you do with those kinds of foods? 

Michelle
I don’t put tacos down. Unlike the setting your fork down that I suggested earlier, it doesn’t work very well for tacos, and it doesn’t work very well for loaded burgers either, right? I think it’s actually quite fun. It’s a two-fisted activity, and the goal is to get a little meat, a little lettuce, a little cheese, a little sour cream, a little salsa, and the crispy shell and each bite. You can do that and slow down. You can’t set the taco down too many times or it falls apart, but you can take that bite, enjoy it, and then move on to the next bite — because after all, if we love tacos so much, let’s act like it. If we acted with our children or our partners the way that we sometimes act with food — multitasking, ignoring, hurrying, rushing, not paying any attention — I don’t think that they would feel very loved, and I don’t think we’d feel very satisfied by that interaction. Yet that’s what happens with food. We’re thinking about it and looking forward to it, and then we eat it as though we can’t wait to get it over with. 

Rebecca
Ok, I’m going to try that with a taco. I don’t have to put it down. 

Michelle
You don’t have to put it down. 

Rebecca
I can still be mindful as I hold it in my hand. 

Michelle
It’s one bite at a time. That’s the key. Again, I don’t like to be prescriptive. Because mindful eating has become much more popular — I mean, when I first started teaching it, nobody had ever heard of it, now there’s millions of hits when you look it up — sometimes people don’t really understand it. So they say things like, “Chew each bite 32 times.” That’s not mindful eating. That is more counting, more measuring, more quantitative assessment of what you’re doing. That’s not what this is about. 

Natalie
I feel like I’ve really enjoyed this experience, but I don’t want to go away from this and then go back to the table that I spend so much time making so beautiful, but then actually judge myself for eating quickly. Really it’s a balancing act, isn’t it? I know that as a family, we do eat a bit quickly, and I’m presenting that to you as a potential problem to be reframed. But at the same time, I just can already feel the danger in myself of, “That’s another thing I need to fix or work on.” 

Michelle
Yeah. Good catch. Aside from eating, one of the most common definitions of mindfulness is awareness of the present moment without judgment. No judgment required. In fact, one of the principles that I teach people is that every mistake is an opportunity to learn something. So rather than, “Oh, I’m eating fast, this is not…” whatever that that self-talk looks like or sounds like, it’s, “Oh, wow, isn’t that interesting? I had my first two or three bites slowly and mindfully, and then at some point I checked out, and I never checked back in again until my plate was clean. I didn’t realize I was going to do that. But I did take the first two or three bites mindfully. That’s something.” Something that helps us. One of the things that I teach in that specific example is to create a speed bump in your meal. Literally making a line through your food, or if you’re having a sandwich that’s cut in half, just kind of visually separating them. When you hit your speed bump, that’s your reminder to slow down again, check back in. “Am I feeling satiated? Am I enjoying what I’m eating? Am I getting carried away? Am I feeling anxious? What’s going on right now?” Take just a few moments to pause and check in, and then resume eating if you want to. 

Rebecca
Right, which is something that’s come up on our podcast with different people is this idea of an interruption. 

Natalie
Necessary interruptions, yeah. 

Rebecca
Would you call a speed bump a necessary interruption? 

Michelle
I like ‘pause’ because really, there’s so much that can happen in a pause. It makes all the difference between reacting out of habit and responding out of choice. 

Rebecca
This is a super conversation. I wonder, as we wrap up, do you have a powerful sensory-based meal you could tell us about? Or some memory of eating that feels really positive in your mind? 

Michelle
So many, so many. In my yo-yo diet days, I have a lot of memories of buying Girl Scout cookies a month before, not remembering they were coming, being on my diet, and then the girl delivers the cookies, and I’m just going to have one — and then two and then three, and then pretty soon, I don’t know how I’m going to explain half a box of cookie. So I hide it in the closet and eat the other half tomorrow. I have a lot of really emotionally-loaded memories about my struggle with food that are pretty familiar to people who’ve been there. Nowadays, I would say just about any meal can be a sensuous experience — sensuous just meaning using all the senses. I’m not saying that every meal is this meditative joy, don’t get me wrong. I’m busy like you guys, I’ve got lots of things going on. But it’s an opportunity to really experience something that brings me a lot of pleasure every time I eat. Given that my husband’s a professional chef and loves to cook for us, and we love to try different things — just like you explained earlier with your own passion for cooking, I think it brings a lot of pleasure when you know what’s in your food, and you can taste it, and you can experience it, and experiment with it. 

Rebecca
That’s a great answer. Nat, we should contrast that with what you had read about Victoria Beckham. Tell us. 

Natalie
Oh, I found this so fascinating. She’s notoriously a picky eater. I love her clothes, so I’m not being a negative Nancy here, but her eating struck me because David Beckham also likes to cook and she’s only eaten one of his home-cooked meals in their whole marriage. He said in some interview recently that her meal every single dinner is steamed vegetables and baked fish. That’s it. 

Michelle
That sounds joyless to me. 

Natalie
Don’t you think it sounds joyless? It’s really strange. 

Rebecca
I know, I was shocked. 

Michelle
Yeah. I don’t know anything about really what’s going on. It could be that, you know, she just is not a food person, and food is fuel and she doesn’t care — weighed (no pun intended) with her outward appearance to the world and what she feels she needs to look like, maybe that’s where it’s coming from. But that’s fairly rigid behaviour. 

Rebecca
To put it mildly. 

Michelle
I don’t know anything about her, but if I had somebody that came in expressing that, I’d want to know what is that about? Why are you engaging in that behaviour? What is this accomplishing for you? What are you afraid is going to happen if you allow yourself to eat something he made, or heaven forbid, have a baked potato with it? What do you think might be the outcome? Because that may be an indicator of underlying disordered eating. Again, I think in our culture disordered eating has become so common that it’s almost become normal. 

Natalie
Normalized, oh my gosh, yeah. 

Michelle
We don’t even question it if people won’t eat carbs, or only eat this, or don’t eat that, or say things like, “Oh, I was so bad today, I ate a brownie, now I have to go to the gym.” Things like that are just commonplace, but that is not normal eating. That is a different level of control, or attempt at control, that really for most of us just leads to a cycle — the eat, repent, repeat cycle. 

Natalie
So we need to watch what we say to ourselves as we enjoy our food. I think that is a takeaway I can bring to the table next. 

Michelle
Absolutely. 

Rebecca
Is there a specific phrase that I should bring with me? 

Michelle
So many. 

Rebecca
Ok. I need a couple of phrases to go with me, Michelle. 

Michelle
Ok, so here’s one. If someone is interested in trying this on, I think a great place to start is whenever you feel like eating, just use that pause to check in and ask yourself, “Am I hungry?” Don’t turn it into a diet. Don’t say, “If I’m not hungry, I can’t eat,” but use it as a door opener to figure out why do you want to eat? That’s the first thing. The second thing is when you decide to eat, set an intention — not a goal for how many calories or grams or carbs or whatever. What is your intention? My favourite intention when I eat is to feel better when I’m done than I did when I started. If I’m going to feel better, first of all I need to be hungry when I start, because if I’m not hungry, I am not going to feel better when I’m done — I’m going to feel full. I’m going to choose something that I enjoy, usually a balance of nourishment and enjoyment. For me, that’s the perfect balance. I’m going to eat it in a way that brings me pleasure, meaning I’m not completely distracted the whole time I’m eating, and I’m going to stop eating before I feel uncomfortably full. That intention for feeling better can affect so many decisions along the way that really are not about weighing, measuring, counting, or logging food, or paying for it with exercise. 

Natalie
Those are super helpful. 

Rebecca
Going to try that. That’s brilliant. 

Natalie
Dr. Michelle May, thank you for this time. This has just been a really thoughtful conversation. I don’t know what I thought we were going to chit-chat about. I could see on the paper what we had designed for our questions, but I didn’t know I would come out of it feeling so cared for. So I really appreciate that. 

Michelle
I love that. I love that. 

Rebecca
I think I feel excited to work with my kids in a different way, and approach food with joy, that we can do that. I think a little less TV and food. That’s a fun thing for us, but I think it does create a possible negative pattern. 

Michelle
Yeah, we occasionally will have our dinner in front of the TV sometimes as a family. It doesn’t have to be a negative thing, but I think it does distract us from the opportunity, especially when your kids are little, to actually have their ear and be at a table where — for example, when my kids were little we would play roses and thorns. Have you ever heard of roses and thorns? You know, “What was the best part of your day? What was the worst part of your day?” I think part of the learning was when we shared what went wrong for us, and how we felt, and how we handled it. Doesn’t that take us full circle back to the conversation around how sometimes we learn to cope with uncomfortable emotions by eating or drinking or other things. What if we use the dinner table not just as a time to eat together and have joy and nourish and nurture ourselves, but also to begin to learn emotional coping skills, and share these experiences that are so human — that only you as a family can explore safely? 

Natalie
Yeah. Super thoughtful. 

Rebecca
Brilliant. 

Natalie
Thank you for this. We really appreciate it. 

Michelle
My pleasure. I look forward to hearing back from you and how things are going. If you ever want to talk again, I would love to come back and chat with you, you guys are awesome. 

Rebecca
We’ll do a check-in. 

Michelle
That would be great. 

Rebecca
We do like to do those, because sometimes we say we’re going to do things and then we don’t do them at all. So I think this is something we’ll do. 

Michelle
Well you know, I’m not goal-oriented. So if your intention is to do these things, you’re already ahead of the game. 

Rebecca
Ok. 

Natalie
Thank you so much, Michelle. 

Michelle
Take care. 

Rebecca
Thank you again. 

Michelle
You’re welcome. My pleasure. 

Natalie
Bye. 

Rebecca
Bye. 

Oh yes, some house business. Don’t forget to rate, review, and subscribe wherever you listen to your podcasts. This is actually really important. Consider a donation on Patreon if these reframing conversations have supported you or someone you know. And please sign up for our Sister On! newsletter which we send out every Friday. It comes with an original recipe from Nat which, I tell you, her recipes are really good. All the links are in our show notes. And this week in particular, would you leave us a voice message about your feelings around conscious eating, what we just talked about. Do you love it? Do you hate it? It’s not realistic? Tacos are always going to be hard and there’s just no doing that consciously? I don’t know. Tell us what you think. Bye. 

Introducing Dr. Michelle May, and what is mindful eating?
Where do these messages about food come from?
The importance of our instincts and having an 'inside-out' way of thinking about eating
The connection between eating and cooking
Sad years, and how to break eat, repent, repeat
Meditation and other forms of mindfulness
The differences between goals and intentions
How do you eat tacos?
There's so much that can happen in a pause
Just about any meal can be a sensuous experience
A couple of phrases to go
Wrapping up