Mindfulness can be a diet game-changer, and it's easier than you think.

By Julia Malacoff
January 01, 2018
Photo: Diana Indiana / Shutterstock

I know how to eat healthily. I'm a health writer, after all. I've interviewed dietitians, doctors, and trainers about all the different ways you can fuel your body. I've read research about the psychology of diets, books about mindful eating, and countless articles written by my colleagues on how to eat in a way that helps you feel your best. And yet, even armed with all that knowledge, I still struggled with my relationship with food until *very* recently.

While that relationship is definitely still a work in progress, over the past six months, I finally figured out how to shed 10 pounds I'd been trying to lose for the past five years. I have a little bit left to go to reach my goal, but instead of feeling stressed, I'm feeling motivated to keep working at it.

You might be thinking "Okay, that's nice for her, but how does that help me?" Here's the thing: What I changed to end my self-sabotaging, stressed-out, endless loop of dieting and then "failing" was not the foods I eat, my eating style, the timing of my meals, my calorie goal, my exercise habits, or even my macro distribution. For the record, those are all helpful strategies to achieve weight loss and/or better health, but I knew how to get most of those things on lock. I just couldn't stick with them long enough to see the results I wanted. This time around, I changed how I ~thought~ about food, and it was a game-changer. Here's how I did it.

I learned how to track my food without judgment.

Anyone who has successfully lost weight can tell you that managing your calories either through tracking what you eat or eating intuitively is crucial. I tend to feel better with a more precise approach (control freak, reporting for duty), so I used both calories and macros as tools to get me closer to my goal-just in a different way from how I had before. In the past, I'd been able to track my food intake for a month or two consistently without a problem, but then I'd get frustrated and give up. I'd start to feel restricted by needing to account for every single thing I ate. Or I'd feel guilty about those nachos I ate when I was out with my friends and decide to just skip logging them.

This time around, I was given the advice by a dietitian to go ahead and try to make indulgences fit into my calorie and macro goals for the day. And if they didn't? No big deal. Log it anyway, and don't feel bad about it. Life is short; eat the chocolate, amirite? No, I didn't do this every day, but once or twice a week? Definitely. This attitude toward tracking is something mindful eating experts advocate, because it allows you to learn how to indulge in a sustainable way while still working to reach your goals.

"Many people feel like tracking your food is restrictive, but I disagree," says Kelly Baez, Ph.D., L.P.C., a psychologist who specializes in healthy, sustainable weight loss. She advocates for seeing food tracking like a budget. "You can use the calories any way you want, so if you want to indulge in dessert, you can do that without beating yourself up," she says. After all, when you eventually get to your goal, you're probably going to want to eat your favorite dessert, and you might as well learn how to feel good about doing that now rather than later. The bottom line? "Food tracking is simply a tool," Baez says. "It offers no judgment nor is it the boss of you and your food choices." Having a "perfect" food diary isn't the only way to reach your goals.

I changed my vocabulary.

In a similar vein, I stopped having "cheat days" or "cheat meals." I also stopped considering foods "good" and "bad." I didn't realize how much these words were hurting me until I stopped using them. Cheat days or cheat meals are not actually cheating. Any dietitian will tell you that occasional indulgences can and should be a part of any healthy diet. I decided to tell myself that eating foods that didn't necessarily fit into my macro or calorie goals wasn't cheating, but instead, an important part of my new eating style. I found that sitting down and eating something I really loved-guilt-free, regardless of its nutritional value or whether I once might have considered it a "bad" food-actually added some motivational fuel to my tank. (More: We Seriously Need to Stop Thinking of Foods As "Good" and "Bad")

How does this mental shift happen? It all starts with changing your vocabulary. "The words you chose really are important," says Susan Albers, Psy.D., Cleveland Clinic psychologist and author of six mindful eating books. "Words can motivate you or tear you to shreds." Her advice? "Lose the 'good' and 'bad,' because if you slip up and eat a 'bad' food, that quickly snowballs into 'I'm a bad person for eating it.'"

Instead, she suggests trying to find more neutral ways of thinking about food. For example, Albers suggests the stoplight system. Green light foods are ones you'll eat frequently in order to reach your goals. Yellow are ones that should be eaten in moderation, and red foods should be limited. None of them are off limits, but they definitely serve different purposes in your diet.

The way you talk to yourself about food matters. "Pay attention to how you feel when you talk to yourself about food," Albers recommends. "If there's a word you say that makes you cringe internally, make a mental note. Steer clear of those words, and focus on words that are accepting and kind."

I realized that the scale isn't everything.

Before I embarked on this six-month journey, I hadn't weighed myself in years. I'd followed the advice to ditch the scale because of the unnecessary stress it can cause. Stepping on a scale always struck fear in my heart, even when I was at a weight I felt comfortable with. What if I'd gained since the last time I stepped on? What would happen then? This is why the idea of never weighing myself had become so appealing. But I came to realize that while it works for many people, it definitely wasn't working for me. Despite getting plenty of exercise, I found that my clothes weren't fitting quite right and I felt uncomfortable in my own skin.

Again at the encouragement of a dietitian, I decided to attempt to see the scale as simply one tool in my weight-loss project rather than the single determinant of success. It wasn't easy at first, but I committed to weighing myself a few times a week to evaluate how I was doing, in combination with some of the many other ways you can tell if you're losing weight, like taking circumference measurements and progress photos.

I can't say the effect was immediate, but as I learned all the various things that can impact your weight over the course of a few days (like working out really hard!), I came to see what was happening on the scale as more of a data point than something to have feelings about. When I saw my weight go up, I encouraged myself to find a rational explanation like, "Well, maybe I'm gaining muscle!" instead of resorting to my typical, "This isn't working so I'm going to just give up now."

As it turns out, this might be better for some people. Research suggests that weighing yourself frequently can help prevent weight gain, and after this experience, I'll definitely be weighing myself regularly. While the choice to make the scale part of your life or not is a very personal one, it was incredibly encouraging for me to learn that it doesn't have power over my emotions by default. (Related: Why I'm Seeing a Therapist for My Fear of Stepping On the Scale)

I put an end to "all or nothing" thinking.

One last thing I really struggled with in the past was "falling off the wagon" and giving up. If I couldn't get through a whole month of "eating healthy" without slipping up, how would I ever be able to do it long enough to actually see some results from all my hard work? You might recognize this as "all or nothing" thinking-the idea that once you've made a "mistake" in your diet, you might as well just forget the whole thing.

Mindfulness can help you break this pattern. "The first thing people can do is to start practicing being aware of those 'all or nothing' thoughts whenever they come up," says Carrie Dennett, M.P.H., R.D.N., C.D., a dietitian with training in mindful eating and founder of Nutrition By Carrie. "Noticing and identifying those thoughts in a nonjudgmental way, like 'Yep, here we go again with the all-or-nothingism,' and then letting the thoughts go rather than ignoring them, denying them, or wrestling with them can help you start the process," she says. (BTW, research has confirmed that positivity and self-affirmation help promote a healthy lifestyle.)

Another tactic is to counter those thoughts with reason and logic. "There's a clear difference between eating one cookie and eating five cookies, or between eating five cookies and eating 20," Dennett points out. "Not only is each meal or snack a fresh opportunity to make decisions that support your goals, but you have the power to change course in the middle of a meal if you feel that you're heading down a path you don't want to go." In other words, eating something you didn't plan to isn't a foregone conclusion about your ultimate weight-loss success. It's just a moment in which you chose to do something different from what you've been doing since you started your diet-and that's pretty normal.

Lastly, it's important to remember that perfection isn't the key to success, Baez says. "You're not a machine; you're a dynamic person having a very human experience, so it's perfectly fine-even helpful-to fumble." If you can start to see "mistakes," "slipups," and eating indulgences as part of the process, you might find yourself feeling a whole lot less intimidated by the process itself.