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April 7, 2011 Volume 32, No. 26

Think before you eat: Course, blog teach awareness of food choices


Mindful eating asks dieters to examine their hunger

For many Americans, the struggle to eat healthy and lose weight is a never-ending battle. Some people turn to the latest diet craze, while others launch intensive exercise regimens.

Lynn Rossy wants to help end the battle once and for all through a method she calls mindful eating. 

Rossy, a health psychologist with the T. E. Atkins University of Missouri Wellness Program, has developed a ten-week course on mindful eating principles, which challenge people to think about what food they consume, how certain foods make them feel and why they eat the way they do.

The course, called Eat for Life, teaches the principles using meditation techniques, group support and skills training. The course is offered several times a year, on campus and online. Along with a blog, Tips for Mindful Eating, a Twitter feed shares Rossy’s insight and healthy recipes.

“We try and help people make health a priority in a way that’s enjoyable and sustainable, and you do that by learning how to develop a regime or a lifestyle that makes sense for you as an individual,” Rossy said. “You do that through really paying attention to your awareness of hunger, thirst and other sensations in the body.”

MU’s Healthy for Life program began in 2004 when a pilot study showed that many University Hospital employees were suffering from stress, obesity, physical inactivity and smoking addictions. Rossy was commissioned to develop the course to combat the top three problems. 

Rossy said that mindful eating begins with some simple questions that encourage people to take a closer look at their eating habits.

“We teach them to ask, ‘Am I hungry?’” Rossy said. “That’s profound for some people because they don’t even think to ask. Because food is so readily available and it’s there, we eat it. It’s a paradigm for people to check in with their hunger before they eat.”

According to Rossy, American cultural norms, such as abundant fast food choices, large portions and a clean-your-plate attitude, encourage overeating and other less-than-healthy habits.

“We’re told to eat because there are people starving other places in the world,” she says, “but it’s no more wasteful to put it in your stomach when you’re full as it is to throw it in the trash.”

Kathryn Walterscheid, professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ Honors College, took the Eat for Life course and said it changed the way she thinks about the food she consumes.

“She taught us that whatever you choose for food has to do with other factors like your upbringing, how you feel about yourself, what’s a comfort food,” Walterscheid said. “So when we go and eat five quarts of ice cream, maybe we’re doing it not because we feel hungry, but because it’s a comfort for us that we might have had since childhood. What we choose to eat is about a lot more than a piece of food.”

The course also consciously avoids the rules that govern most diet plans. Banning certain foods, says Rossy, can be detrimental to a person’s progress in the long run. And unlike most diets, mindful eating steers clear of counting calories and using point systems.

“People have gone through diet after diet and they’re still overweight and there’s a reason for that,” Rossy said. “It sets up a plan that doesn’t work because when things are forbidden and you’re told you can’t have something, you crave it.”

Rossy also insists that forming mindful eating habits doesn’t mean that you have to eat boring or bland foods.

“I always stress that this is about really enjoying food,” Rossy said. “So many times food has become the enemy for people, and I’m trying to end that battle and help people learn that food can be enjoyed and can be a really pleasurable part of our day.”

Susan Langstraat, a licensed clinical social worker at the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, is trying to end her own battle with food. Langstraat enjoyed the Eat for Life class so much the first time that she decided to take it a second time on Blackboard.

“I learned I could comfort, soothe, deal with issues and feelings without eating,” Langstraat said. “I feel like I am just beginning to incorporate the principles from the class and it’s been a joyful experience. I feel the principles have given me a way to get free from the diet mentality and not be a prisoner of the double-bind I have been in regarding food and weight.”

—Kelly Nelson