Choosing the pleasure principle over self-denial to lose weight

This morning I noticed an article on ‘mindful eating’ in the Australian edition of the Huffington Post. I was interested to compare the writer’s ideas with my own, which I set out in a list before visiting my nutritionist late last year.

My personal journey towards a right relationship with food goes back to primary school, when I was stigmatised as the fat boy in the class. Subsequently it became a life goal to reach normal weight. I was never obese, but over the next four decades I was mostly overweight, sometimes significantly.

I would tell myself that I was happy being moderately overweight. But I don’t think that was really the case. I wanted my weight to be ‘normal’.

I achieved my goal two years ago. The turning point was selling my car in 2012. I had felt the need to justify owning my car by using it. When I no longer had a car, I adjusted my life so that many of the services I routinely accessed were within walking distance.

Measurement was important. I got into the habit of weighing myself every day and set and achieved high step goals, which I monitored using the various electronic pedometers I owned.

My scales talk to the Fitbit app, and - as a matter of both pride and weight maintenance - I keep my eye on the graph in the app that tells me my weight is in the middle of the recommended range.

I was not preoccupied with diets or counting the calories of my food intake. But I would have very productive conversations with my nutritionist, who did not recommend crash or fad diets.

I have been keenly aware that most people who lose weight put it back on within a year. Not me. I set a new goal for myself, which was to develop a habit of what I called ‘mindful eating’.

That is something I worked out for myself. It includes spiritual and ethical dimensions as well as practical measures such as eating with small bowls. I didn’t realise until I read this morning’s Huffington Post that mindful eating is a concept talked about by the experts.

For me, the underlying principle is that it’s like meditation. Focus on the food rather than extraneous thoughts. Watching TV or doing another activity while eating is taboo. Even unchecked eating with others in a social situation works against mindfulness unless the conversation is about the food.

The Huffington Post writer Juliette Steen is familiar with what happens if you take your mind off your food: ‘You start eating a meal and look down a few minutes later to see an empty bowl, even though you don’t remember eating everything’.

I’ve often wondered why the French tend not to be overweight even though their diet includes many high calorie foods such as butter and goose fat. My theory is that they’re always talking and thinking about the food they’re consuming. Their eating is mindful.

The idea is that the pleasure of eating is maximised by the level of awareness, not the quantity on the plate. This is something the French know and Americans (and Australians) don’t. It’s also the basis of the ordered pleasure principle of the ethics of the Greek philosopher Epicurus.

Clinical psychologist and author of Mindsight Dan Siegel says that in developing the capacity to label and describe our internal world, we become more nonjudgmental and develop a greater sense of equanimity.

As a means of dieting, and indeed regulating our intake of any of life’s pleasures, it beats self-denial. Indeed it makes us much nicer and more balanced human beings.