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During the holiday season, it’s understandable that you might overindulge on unhealthy food or get off track with your usual routines. That’s why so many of us see a new year as a chance to adopt healthier habits and diets. Dietitian Maxine Smith explains how mindful eating can help us reassess our lives and revisit our usual routines—or make new ones—in a thoughtful way.

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Mindful Resetting with Maxine Smith, RD

Podcast Transcript

Annie Zaleski:

Hello, and thank you for joining us for this episode of the Health Essentials Podcast. I'm your host, Annie Zaleski and today, we're talking with dietitian, Maxine Smith about incorporating nutrition and mindfulness going into the New Year.

During the holiday season, it's understandable that you might overindulge on unhealthy food or get off track with your usual exercise routine. That's why so many of us see a new year as a chance to adopt healthier fitness habits and diets. While slow and steady progress is the best way to see positive health changes over time, it's understandable that we may want to see immediate results or take an all or nothing approach to our health.

Maxine Smith is here to talk about how to avoid that panic and instead reassess our lives and revisit our usual routines—or make new ones in a mindful way. Maxine, thank you so much for being here today.

Maxine Smith:

Thanks for having me, Annie. I look forward to it.

Annie Zaleski:

All right. Well, let's dig in. So I guess first off, this is the big question: Why do people tend to overdo it in the New Year? What is it about a calendar flipping to January that wants us to make changes, and make changes now?

Maxine Smith:

There's a lot there. So I think after the holiday season and straying from our typical habits, there's a desire to get back to some kind of normalcy. Things may have been crazy over the holidays and we just ... I think it's basic human nature to want to regain some control over our lives, and one way to do that through our eating patterns and regaining some structure in that area. We might also feel some of the negative consequences of over-indulging over these dark winter months when we're not outside and active as much. So that could have been going on for a couple months that maybe we've been eating more comfort foods, richer foods and our bodies are starting to feel the toll of that. Whether it's indigestion or a tightened waistline and we're feeling a little bit stuffed in our clothes.

So all of those things could be calling out saying, "Okay, it's time to do something." Also, getting a little bit tired of the winter months, we may already be looking forward to spring break or the summer months and anticipating how we're going to feel doing some of those activities, how we're going to look on the beach. So there's different reasons that ... for different people, why they want to start making some changes.

Annie Zaleski:

You mentioned that rich holiday food and drinks were something that obviously people tend to indulge in. What does having poor eating habits temporarily, maybe for a month or two, do to our bodies and how quickly does a poor diet kind of affect our overall health?

Maxine Smith:

So yeah, anybody that's over-indulged at a meal can attest to the fact that we can start feeling that pretty quickly. We could have indigestion. We could ... It can definitely carry on into the evening hours, so it can affect how we sleep and the quality of our sleep, because when our bodies are supposed to be repairing themselves, instead they're busy trying to digest our food. It could lead people to have more heartburn, which is exacerbated when we're lying down. We can start even feeling the facts that the next day. We might wake up feeling that our ankles are swollen or we're a little bit heavier. If we had a meal even the night before that was laden with salt and carbs, and we're not used to eating all of those things in particular, we're going to hold on to more fluid. That can take a toll on our bodies. So we can start feeling these effects very quickly.

Our body is quite adaptable, however. So are you going to have a big change in all the physiological functions in the body? No. We have our great liver that is the manufacturing plant for our body that is able to clean toxins out of our body. We have our kidney that is the great filtering system for our body that can filter out waste. So as long as our bodies and our organs are working fairly well, our bodies can handle these short-term assaults on our body. A lot of people are concerned now about the gut garden, as I call it, or the bacteria and yeast or the microbiome, which is responsible for many functions in our body, including the immune system, which we're all very conscientious of at this time. As one documentary calls it, “the second brain.” So, as far as having an effect on our microbiome, it might take a little bit longer than some just short-term, unintentional, unhealthy eating habits.

Annie Zaleski:

I mean, it's good to know that a couple months of just poor eating habits won't do damage right away. But at the same time, obviously, you want to get back to eating better. Why is it so difficult to kind of undo poor eating habits and make better choices once you kind of get in the habit of maybe having an extra piece of chocolate or an extra cookie late at night?

Maxine Smith:

Well, we have this very logical part of our brain, that executive functioning part of our brain, that can make very logical decisions about eating, as far as what's healthy, when to eat and so forth. Then, we have this very habitual part of our brain that can be captivated very easily by tempting culinary delights. Foods that are either sweet, salty, high in fat, the terrible trio. They can captivate certain functions in our brain that make them have a very rewarding and pleasurable effect in our brain, the more primitive part of our brain. And then the desire for those foods can also be stimulated by things like stress, or we feel like we need a reward. A lot of these things happen during the holidays. I think everyone can attest to the holidays being a bit stressful.

              Food does alleviate those things, especially the foods that are sweet and high in fat and so forth. Our brain is very good at remembering that connection. So if we did have some rich dessert on a regular basis, our brains remember that, "Oh yeah, this did help alleviate some stress." So very easily then the next time we feel stress, our brains say, "Oh, that worked last time, so I think I'm going to tell him or her to go do it again." Food is readily available, and it's very culturally acceptable, so it's an easy go-to. Our brains are pretty mystifying, and have more power over our decisions than we would like to think.

Annie Zaleski:

It makes sense, though, if you have a really delicious chocolate dessert and you felt better after it, of course, you're going to reach for that, so that makes a lot of sense.

Maxine Smith:

Absolutely. We want to feel good and yeah, to some extent, it’s a survival mechanism too. Primitively, in a time of famine, it would be important that our brains remembered where the high-calorie foods are, those rich food sources, because those are the ones that are going to sustain you, put on the calories, put on the pounds and get you through possibly the next famine that's coming up. That mechanism happens for a purpose.

Annie Zaleski:

So, obviously, you can't or you shouldn't be eating those rich desserts over and over again. That's not necessarily, over time, good for you. So one thing that people turn to is a fad diet. Can you talk a little bit about what a fad diet is and maybe why these are not the best option for you?

Maxine Smith:

Yes, there's a cycle of fad diets. I've been a dietitian for 30 years, so I've seen a lot of them, and often they're recycled under different authors and different names and just a little bit of a tweak on the original version. It's kind of like clothing: If you live long enough, it'll come back in style, and maybe with just a little tweak. Bell bottoms, yes, we'll come back in again.

So a lot of these fad diets are like that. They often don't have a lot of scientific basis behind them, or a lot of research. They may work for some people. They may not work for other people. Often, they'll be celebrity-promoted, so that can be a warning sign. They often will not be a well-balanced diet. Some of the more research diets, it's hard to make them sexy. The plate model, Mediterranean diet, we hear about these things so often that they can become boring.

So often these fad diets have a bit of allure to them, and excitement to them, the way they are marketed. They often, though, eliminate particular food groups. So that is something to be wary about. They can often accentuate certain foods and glamorize certain foods while villainizing other foods. So they can wind up providing an unhealthy diet, maybe not so much in a very short term, but if that diet was to be continued.

Another thing about a fad diet is that it will give you a time limit. Twenty-one days seems to be a very popular timeframe—21 days, 30 days. So it has a very short term focus and often, yeah, but that's very enticing to somebody because they feel that, "Well, I can do anything for about 21 days and then, I'm going to be okay. Everything's going to be okay." But fad diets often will not have a long-term plan. So it'll be ... yes, you may repeat this, but it may not be a sustainable eating plan.

Annie Zaleski:

Both of those things are really good points. You want to, over time, change your diet. That's the best thing for a healthier living is to kind of make sustained changes. And these fad diets, you might be missing out on something crucial, from a vitamin or a mineral standpoint or something that really helps your body stay ... running properly. So I think those are both really good points.

Maxine Smith:

Yeah, absolutely. Food is medicine. The last article I read indicated there's over 25,000 different biochemicals and food that works synergistically together to keep ourselves healthy and for our bodies to be able to do the things that they were intended to do and that we enjoy doing. Yeah, starting to eliminate a lot of foods can get us into trouble.

Annie Zaleski:

At the same time, dieting can be very, very tough this time of year, not just because of the holidays and making new starts, but colder weather can make you want to eat certain foods more than others. It also makes outdoor activities difficult. So, people tend to gain some weight in the fall and winter. So what kind of diet is ideal for this time of year then? What do you suggest?

Maxine Smith:

Well, there isn't one diet that is appropriate for everybody. And patients hate when I say that because they want a very directive approach. But it's so true. There are many different kind of eating patterns that can be associated with health. Some of those that have a lot of research behind them are plant-rich eating patterns that are lower in animal foods, particularly those that are high in animal fat. So that may be the classic Mediterranean type of diet, that you may have heard of before. US News and World Report evaluates diets every year, and it's popped up to the top of their diet recommendations over the past few years, surpassing even the DASH diet, which is the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, which is a similar type of eating pattern that is very plant rich. It may not focus on some of those Mediterranean types of foods, such as olive oil, nuts and seeds and so forth, or fish, but it's still considered a very healthy eating model.

You have plant-based diets, which have gained popularity over the years. It's not for everybody, especially those big meat and potato eaters, but if it's carefully constructed with some guidance of a dietitian, preferably, it could be a very healthy eating pattern for some. There are some others, but those are some of those main diet models that are considered quite healthy.

That being said, the best diet is really one that offers a lot of nutrients, but that one also finds sustainable. They can really picture themselves growing in that eating pattern and continuing over time, that it's not just a short fix for somebody. Sometimes this takes some trial and error to find out how sustainable this is for us. Some people, including my son, have dabbled in a plant-based diet. They may have seen a documentary or whatnot that stimulated their interest. It's okay to try that type of eating pattern and see if you think it might be for you. For him, he lasted, I think a total of 10 days. Other people, they may find that, "Oh, I really enjoy these types of foods and this is a new adventure for me to explore new recipes." They may find it more sustainable.

You also want to consider people that you live with. It might be a little bit difficult if your spouse is a meat and potatoes lover or if you live in Texas. I always use that as an example, because Texans really like their red meat. [Laughs.]But it might be a little more difficult to go to a plant-based or vegetarian diet, if you're cooking for the family, because you may be cooking a couple different meals. So there's those family considerations, cultural considerations, how much pressure you’re going to have from your family to eat a certain way. Or are their particular cultures that revolve around eating in your family that are important to you, that you want to continue?

Food is complex though. There's not a simple answer, but just taking a step back and thinking, what is important to me when it comes to eating? And what kind of support am I going to have from my family and friends as I move forward?

Annie Zaleski:

That is really reassuring, though, that there's not any one-size-fits-all solution. You can look at something that works with your life, and that fits with your life, and if you try something and it doesn't work, there are other options. It makes it a little less black and white then.

Maxine Smith:

Yes, absolutely. And we're finding out more and more about that with personalized nutrition, that as we grow in that area, which is so exciting as we have more scientific tests to confirm that, yeah, one size doesn't fit all. Based on our genetics, based on our microbiome, we're going to find out that we're much more individualized as far as what foods are good for one or less healthy for another, and also how our tastes are affected by these factors.

Annie Zaleski:

Physical activity, as difficult as it can be, is really vital to our overall health. What is kind of the role does exercise play alongside dietary changes or maybe trying a plant-based diet?

Maxine Smith:

Well, the general guidelines for exercise for health purposes is about 150 minutes of exercise a week, and preferably including two days a week of, including resistance exercise. So when you consider how much that is in a week, it could be quite manageable. We don't have to become marathon runners or body builders. Moderate exercise can make a big difference, not so much as far as weight loss, though. Exercise does not play a huge part in weight loss.

For weight maintenance, it's very important. It helps offset some of those factors that lead to weight regain. So exercise is very, very important in that manner. Also, exercise helps decrease stress. We all know that. It acts on the brain to decrease stress and many, many people eat out of stress. So just the fact that we're reducing our stress levels, it can make a big difference.

Also, it's pretty fascinating as far as the effect on the reward center in our brain, they've done studies where they can observe how the brain functions and when people are introduced to an image of something highly tolerable, I think they may have used something like a Twinkie, it wouldn't be my first choice, but it's something very, very sugary. And they can see the way the brain reacts before and after exercise. The brain lights up a lot more in the reward center of the brain when a person does not exercise versus after they've exercised. ... That expression in the brain is very diminished, so it may help quite a bit with impulsive eating as far as increasing impulse control. A lot of people just ... As a matter of fact, they will tell me, "Boy, when I start exercising, I just find myself eating better. I just want healthier foods, and I'm not as tempted to grab that sweet."

A lot of people will also take a look at that calorie readout on their treadmill and say, "Wow, I only burned 200 calories in that 20 minutes of exercise. I can eat one protein bar,” a glorified candy bar in essence. “It takes that much effort to burn, so in my mind, I can't rationalize eating that." So people start weighing those calories and determining if it's really worth it.

Exercise also helps people sleep better and improves digestion, or you can gain benefits that way. Huge benefits. Exercise, particularly if not done too close to bed, because then it can be stimulating, can improve sleep. Sleep is so important for regulating hunger and satiety hormones in our brains. If we get good sleep, we're going to have better regulation over cravings. We will find that often that we'll get full on a smaller amount of food. It makes sense because if our body is deprived of energy, because we're tired, our brain is going to say, "Oh, I need quick energy. What's quick energy? Sugar, right?" So it will give us that temporary lift, but we'll also probably have it crash after that.

And digestion— boy, you can't overestimate the benefits on digestion and it keeps that digestive tract working. So if somebody particularly is prone to heartburn or constipation, it can be crucial making a difference in that respect.

Annie Zaleski:

That's very helpful that once you start working out, you do see changes and can sense changes in you. That's great motivation to keep working out then, if you can see, " Hey, maybe I'm not going to have this extra bit of dessert later” or “I see exactly what it took to burn those calories. Maybe I'll back off." Motivation is always difficult to help you work out. So, that's good to hear that those ... You have those little sign posts that are telling you, you're moving in the right direction.

Maxine Smith:

Yeah, absolutely and yeah, you might have a little bit more spring in your step or you just feel a little bit toner, so you're carrying your body a little bit more erect. Also, you might find that you have more energy. I always say, especially with muscle and aging, that muscle likes to break down very quickly. So, it takes really consistent resistance exercise,

One complaint that people have, especially in the winter months, is that they're tired and they feel like they're dragging. We don't have that stimulating sunlight, and we're not getting out as much and so forth. If you have more muscle, your weight may be the same, but maybe you gained some muscle, lost a little bit of fat. That can be like running a car with a super engine, and we just have that extra lift, as opposed to losing muscle, which can happen quite quickly. If we're just sitting around in the winter months in front of the fireplace or the TV, you lose muscle. It's more like trying to drive a car with a lawnmower engine. You don't have that oomph behind every step you take in every day. So that's one great rewarding factor, is that burst in energy can make you feel 10 years younger by gaining a little bit of muscle.

Annie Zaleski:

Excellent. That's awesome. So I guess as we look in the New Year then: What are some good first steps someone can take to ease into getting your diet back on track after a period of overindulging? I think getting started and taking that first step can be very daunting sometimes. So what do you tell people?

Maxine Smith:

Well, I think the New Year is a time for reflection, and to think about your life, to think about your values, what's important to you. You can tie that into your eating too, in that reflection. What is important to me as far as my eating? Why do I want to make some changes? And then, once you've evaluated that, trying to get others on board. Because they might think you've gone a little crazy if all of a sudden you just start eating totally different, ditching everything out of the house. So it's good to have that conversation with others to gain their support and any changes that you anticipate in making and explaining to them why this is important to you. Definitely, yeah, kind of reassessing your environment. Environment has a huge impact on what we eat.

              Anybody that has had kids that go out trick or treating and they've bring home their Halloween candy can attest to that. If it's sitting around, we're going to be more tempted to eat it. So kind of reassessing that environment, maybe getting rid of some of those things that are just hanging around that don't have even that enjoyable impact anymore. They're just leftovers from the holidays, whatnot.

And then thinking of some healthy foods that you can start bringing in the house. You're going to still want to consider things that may be seasonal. If you're living in a cold environment, it's probably not going to be ”Okay, I'm going to start eating a lot of salads in the middle of the winter,” but maybe yeah, bringing in some more vegetables in the form of some soups or stews or roasted vegetables. Thinking of those things that would be of course healthy for you, but also that you can enjoy during that particular time of the year.

Annie Zaleski:

So, I liked all of those ideas because they're easy things that aren't necessarily completely life changing. They're just kind of small, incremental changes then. But at the same time, I think as we talked about fad diets, some people might make some very extreme changes, or changes all at once, which might not stick. What are some tips for people so they don't do that? So they kind of look at their life and decide, "Okay, I'm going to make these tiny changes that I can do, that will probably be more long lasting."

Maxine Smith:

Well, if you considered any time that you tried to change a lot of things at once. Think back to your history, how long did that last before you felt defeated? If anybody has had a compromised manager, and they came into the workplace and decided to change everything according to their new style. How receptive are those employees going to be to a lot of changes at once? They might get burned out. They might get resentful.

It's really the same thing with eating. We want to make small, incremental changes that we are 80, 90% sure that we can continue with and we can be successful with. I'll have people come back and say, "You know what, the one thing I changed this year ..." because I see people for nutrition, physicals primarily.

I'll see them about once a year and they'll say, "I stopped using artificial sweeteners." So yeah, that's huge like stuff that they have continued to work on that and have done that for an entire year and, incrementally, they've gotten these artificial sweeteners out of their diet. Yeah, they might still be eating too much red meat, they might be snacking too much, but they were successful at reaching that one goal. 

We cannot just focus on our eating. We have a lot of other goals in our life that we need to be focused on. So changing one or two things is huge. We can continue to build on those as we go along. Once we feel success in one area, it builds our confidence to move on and tackle another one. It gives us practice as to how to make gradual changes, the challenges that we'll be faced with when we have to make that change in different environments and situations.

How are we going to handle other people that try to get us off track or the powerful influences of the food industry and the diet industry, and so forth, that tries to get us off track? So making a small change can really carry us a long way.

Also, instead of focusing on the outcome or the ultimate goal, which may be a healthier diet to lose weight, focusing more on, how can I build healthy skills? So focusing on those skills. What skills do I need to develop to achieve my goal? It's like, if you are searching for a college degree, well, your ultimate goal might be that college degree, but you may have to take a lot of classes in order to build your skills, in order to pass that ... get that degree, pass that final exam. You might even have to take some prerequisites if you're not at the same level with everybody else.

So in the same way, you want to build those skills, just like building or remodeling a house. I say, when we want to remodel our bodies and our habits, it's like remodeling a house. Yeah, you have this ultimate dream picture in your mind of what your house is going to be like, but you got to break it down. What's the priorities? Well, it may be,
“My bathroom hasn't been remodeled for 30 years and things are starting to break down and not function as well in that area. So yeah, that's going to be my priority.” And then you have to decide, "Okay, well, what kind of resources do I need to remodel that bathroom?" So you're going to need money. You're going to need time. Or if you want to do it yourself, you're going to need to have the skills, know how to use the hammer.

In the same way, when we're remodeling our diet, we want to think, "Okay, what kind of skills do I have? What kind of support do I have? How much time do I have to put in to making this change?” So it might be that you need to develop some more skills. If you want to stop eating out as much or depending on DoorDash nowadays, it might be that, “Yeah, I know that this food isn't the healthiest for me from the restaurants but what are my alternatives?” Especially if you don't have a lot of cooking skills, so it might be taking a virtual cooking class or making a goal to weekly look up a YouTube video on simple fish preparation, whatever it may be, to build those cooking skills. It might be that you have no idea what healthy portions are.

So doing a little bit of research into that. You might not have the tools, you might need to go buy a set of measuring cups or a kitchen scale so that you can get more information. So, yeah, setting a goal is more towards building skills, which I think can be a much more exciting adventure than trying to reach an ultimate goal, which we don't have a lot of control over sometimes.

Annie Zaleski:

Breaking something down into maybe smaller, incremental milestones also makes something feel more achievable. It feels less overwhelming when you're saying, "Hey, I'm just going to reach this small thing," or going out to the store to buy something. Then you feel accomplished doing that little thing and that also, again, keeps you motivated.

Maxine Smith:

Yeah, absolutely and noting those improvements because you're not going to be ... you're not going to hit your target every single time. But, yeah, how many times have I gone to the grocery store with a list, over the past month versus not, and is this improving as far as just casually dropping in the grocery store because I have a craving. Yeah, that still is likely to happen, so you have to expect progress and not perfection.

Annie Zaleski:

So, something else, a tool that people have been sort of adopting more and more, I think is mindful eating. Can you tell us what mindful eating is and then how to incorporate that in the New Year?

Maxine Smith:

Yes. Well, I think most of us can attest to that, it doesn't take much to eat mindlessly. Food is just such a part of everyday life and is pushed to a great extent. It's so readily accessible that mindless eating is quite easy to do. But mindful eating really focuses on the why and the how of eating, versus what's promoted by many diets, which is more than what to eat, how much to eat, maybe even when to eat. So it's much more of an internal versus external approach to eating, which can be very freeing and very lasting as far as its benefits.

Mindful eating grew out of general mindfulness theory and practices and there's three basic components that cross over there. And the first is eating with intention. So again, eating can be ... it doesn't take a lot of intention, but part of mindful eating is to consider the why. What is my intention for eating?

That may be to improve my health. It may be to improve my energy, my digestion. It could be because my clothes aren't fitting well, and I don't want to go out and buy a new wardrobe. There's a lot of different reasons. Considering the why that you want to eat is very important.

And as I mentioned, the food industry and the diet industry has captivated us to some extent to try to manipulate this, as far as the why we should or want to eat. Being a foodie is kind of a common thing and it can be glamorized. Snacking has been glamorized, which is a very popular thing. A lot of the foods that haven't been as popular and selling as much is being advertised as snack foods now.

So it’s really thinking about my values, and why is it important for me personally to eat healthfully. Being intentional about what you eat, also when you eat and why you eat. Thinking about those things.

The second factor is eating with attention to your food. How good are you at doing other things while you eat? It's pretty easy to do a lot of things. We walk and eat. Some of us talk and eat. We are on our computers while we eat or we're eating while we're reading, eating while we're watching TV, eating standing up. We even have a lot of distractions from children and other people. So we're not giving a focus to what we're eating and how the food tastes and savoring our foods as we once were. We're in a rushed world, and lengthy meals where we have the opportunity to really savor our foods, can be quite passé. So bringing more attention to eating is part of mindful eating and making time for that.

Lastly, there's the attitude aspect of food. So intentional eating, eating with attention and then lastly attitude. We can have very, very negative attitudes about eating, if not ourselves. We know people that have very bad relationships with food. That can go way back. It can go way back to childhood and shaming by a parent or teasing from classmates. It doesn't take much to be shamed when we choose certain foods or we choose certain amounts of foods. The lovely aspect of mindful eating is that it's a loving and ... self-loving and non-shaming, kind approach to eating. You're replacing a lot of those dos and don'ts of eating with just an attitude of exploration and curiosity, without judging dos and don'ts and rights and wrongs, and applying moral implications to foods that should not be part of eating.

Annie Zaleski:

Everything you just said there really dovetails with making better choices in the New Year. It seems like this is really a complementary thing for someone looking to make changes.

Maxine Smith:

Yes. Yeah, absolutely, and I think we all want to be kind to ourselves and loving to ourselves, just like we want to be to those we love and our children. And sometimes we're so tough on ourselves and so condemning of ourselves. Would we treat child like that? Would we treat our children like that? We have these expectations of ourselves that are not really healthy sometimes, or are not constructive. So having a positive attitude about eating is so important. I'll tell my patients, the one thing that will be your demise is if you have a negative attitude, or if you feel deprived. Because nobody wants to feel deprived. Once you do, you are likely to fail, very likely to fail. So if somebody said, “I can't have something to eat,” I think it's very important to catch yourself saying that and you want to change that into a positive statement, “I choose not to eat that.” So as far as an approach, it's a very empowering approach versus a deprivation approach. It's regaining your control over food rather than letting it take control of you.

Annie Zaleski:

So it sounds like for starters, changing your mindset is one good way to start easing into mindful eating. What are some other tips for anyone who maybe wants to kind of explore that in the New Year?

Maxine Smith:

Yes. There are some exercises that you can do. It is a practice, and it has been shown to be able to transform the brain as far as cravings and other things that like to take control again of our eating habits. Which is really cool: It's like reformatting the hard drive of your brain. It can start responding differently to a lot of those different eating cues out there. And that is really what it takes, is that reformatting of our brain.

There are some great exercises, and we have done these in classes where a person practices being mindful while they're eating a particular snack. They're turning out all distractions, paying attention to all the sensory implications of the food, all the different sensory aspects of the food, and just practicing savoring it.

Also paying attention to how that food may help them feel in the short term. Does that food provide me with energy or does that provide me with a strong desire, a craving, to eat more of that food and whatnot? But, again, not judging that food as good or bad. There's some really good practices at a few different locations or just some apps there on the web.

One is the Center for Mindful Eating. So if you just go to the resources or practices tab at thecenterformindfuleating.org, they'll have the audio practices that you can practice. One of my favorite ones that I always will do, if I do a mindful eating practice with a group of people, is one that includes aliens, cartoon aliens. And it's one that you can even do with your family. I just say, “Google ‘alien animation’ or ‘alien cartoon mindful eating,’ it's an easy way to remember it. I think it's by GoZen! company. But it's one even kids can relate to. So it can be a fun family activity to do also.

I love the idea of these aliens coming down to earth and exploring food for the first time, because they've never been exposed to it. So there is no ... you can't be judgmental—is this food good, bad, does it taste good? Does it taste bad? Is it good for you? Is it not good for you? Approaching it from an alien's point of view takes a lot of that judgment out of it. And you could do this with anything—I think they might use a piece of chocolate. You could to do it with a Saltine cracker or anything that has a little complexity of taste and texture to it. So that can be a really good place to start.

              Also, as my mom always said, plan your work and then work your plan. Going into every day with a plan is really important. That plan would include, yeah, foods that you want to include in your day, foods that you know will help nourish your body, but also those things that may be pleasurable to you. One can get most of their nutrients, if they are eating healthfully, about 80, 85% of the time. So we can have those occasional indulgences, but the important part about that is that they’re planned indulgences. So if you go into the day with a plan, include some of those maybe higher calorie foods, or less healthy foods, maybe in smaller amounts or less often. But including them could take the sensationalism out of them.

I'm thinking about when I was a kid opening a Christmas present, something that I just wanted so badly, because I thought it was going to make my life wonderful for the rest of my life. How long does the enjoyment of that really last once you open it? It can be the ... When you start exploring it and playing with it, you might not find that it's all that enjoyable or fascinating after all. It's the same way with food. If we say we're never going to eat something again, it almost puts it on a pedestal and makes that even more desirable, than if we incorporate some of that into our eating pattern and eat it mindfully. We might find out, "Oh, we're satisfied with just a little bit of that,” and it's not all that enticing as our brain is making it out to be.

Another problem that people can get into over the holidays is, they're busy and they find themselves not eating often enough. This can lead to the problem that you may be eating one or two big meals a day instead of nourishing your body throughout the day. One’s stomach can actually become distended, and then you require more food to have that sense of fullness. Making sure that you schedule smaller meals, maybe a little bit more often at first, until you can be accustomed to eating a smaller amount of food, possibly scheduling the timing of meals even about every three hours or so apart. They may be a small mini-meal, such as a yogurt and a piece of fruit and a small handful of nuts or something like that. It doesn't have to be a formal meal. But having something just so to carry you over, so you don't go too long without eating and that you go into the next meal ravenous.

Then you also want to consider where you're going to be that day. Life is not always predictable, and we need to consider if we're going to be out on the road. Are we going to be running errands? Are we going to be at a child’s sporting activities, so am I going to need to have some food to take with me? If I'm going to stop and get something at a restaurant, what are some go-tos that can be reasonably healthy?

Because spontaneous eating just doesn't work in our environment. There's too much food around, a lot of toxic food, in a sense—food that is designed sometimes even to make us desire more of that food. I use the term loosely, but semi-addictive in nature. So having a plan is an important part of the process.

And not expecting perfection, once again, to our plan, but using that plan more like a GPS. If we want to get to that warm, sunny location in the south, we're much more likely to arrive there, and arrive there promptly, if we have that GPS. Yeah, we may have a few diversions along the way. There might be a little point of interest that takes us off track. But the sooner that we get back on track, the better. And having a meal plan going into the day is going to help us get there a lot sooner,

Annie Zaleski:

Everything you've said just really seems like that it could really just have such a positive impact on your health. So are there any other ways that mindful eating has a positive impact on your diet or nutrition that you haven't mentioned yet?

Maxine Smith:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it just helps our eating habits overall. It can lead to more nutritious foods. It can lead to a much greater enjoyment of foods. I say one of the best factors of practicing mindful eating is that we actually enjoy food more, but in smaller amounts. Like they say, serve the best wine first, right? If we can learn to savor our foods, engage all the different sensory aspects of the food, we can be satisfied with a kiddie cone versus a double scoop ice cream cone.

It regulates eating patterns. It can truly help with emotional eating and disordered eating patterns, such as binge eating, which is the most common eating disorder. Practicing mindful eating guides one internally as to when to start eating, when to stop eating based on internal cues.

The practices can help when to eat more slowly. The digestive enzymes start in the mouth. So, food is digested better. If someone has digestion problems, eating more slowly can immensely help with that. A lot of the practices include chewing foods well, which also helps with the digestive processes.

There's also an enhanced appreciation for foods. A lot of the mindful eating practices will focus on thinking where the food came from. A lot of kids have absolutely no idea where foods come from. It's actually quite hilarious: Try asking your child where a Brussels sprout comes from or where this particular nut comes from or where a pea comes from. You'll get some funny answers because there's such a disassociation between where the origination of the food and farming, and the processes that it takes to get that food.

Also, the practices include focusing on an appreciation for food, for everybody that put effort into producing that food and a sense of thankfulness for all the ways that it's benefiting our bodies. It can lead to an overall sense of gratitude and a positive appreciation for food.

It increases helpful food choices and, of course, it supports weight management indirectly by becoming more internally focused on hunger, and satiation and satiety and so forth versus external regulations. So it can be extremely freeing as far as that's concerned. People, yes, they'll track calories and so forth, and yes, can one lose weight doing that? Yes, but how many people are going to track what they eat for an extended period of time? That gets laborious, that gets taxing. It takes the enjoyment out of food. So this can be a very freeing approach towards weight management.

Annie Zaleski:

I mean, all of that sounds just so ideal. But as with anything, things will inevitably get challenging, and maybe you'll slip up here and there or things will get busy, you'll get stressed, and some of these habits might fall by the wayside. So, how do we make sure that we're sticking to our healthy habits and making better choices when things do get kind of difficult?

Maxine Smith:

Yeah. Well, as I tell my patients, we are fighting a war. And, like I mentioned before, food is everywhere. Everybody is trying to get us to eat, eat more. And would you go out and fight a war as a solo person? No, you would not. You need that army. You need that whole battalion of support.

I also think of the flock of geese. When one gets tired, they fall back in their formation and let the draft that the others create in front of them, carry them. So we need support from other people. So we need to rally support.

That might be a personal friend that really has our back. A lot of people can actually say they have our back but then, they may sabotage our efforts out of jealousy or their own self-conscious feeling that maybe they're not taking as much action as they want to and so forth. So we really want to make sure that the people we seek out for support and accountability are really on our side.

It may be joining a group where they offer support. Really any good eating weight management program out there ... that would be an aspect of their program is that they offer support and accountability, both expert support and peer support. Because nobody better knows what you're going through than others that are in the same situation, fighting those same battles. And others have experienced and practiced strategies that may have been beneficial for them, and they may pass that knowledge onto you. So there's nothing more important than feeling understood, and that somebody else has been in the same shoes. And believe me, there are a lot of others that are experiencing the exact same things you are. And just knowing that, in itself, can be very helpful. So yeah, whether it's an in-person program or a virtual program, an app or whatnot, that's something to seriously consider about engaging in as far as getting that support from others.

Also trying to get support from just family members as much as possible. There's a lot of food pushers out there. I have quite a few in my family. And it’s really taking time to explain to them why you want to make some changes. And if you make it very personal and they can often be very supportive. I have found that if you focus on appearance or just weight in itself, you probably will not get that much support, because they're going to start comparing themselves to you, and saying, "Well, you don't need to lose any weight," and this and that.

On the other hand, if you say, "Gosh, I really want to have more energy because I'm finding that I'm getting tired early, and then all I want to do is take a nap when I get home from work, and I really want to go out with you and have fun” or “I want to be able to watch the grandchildren more and be able to really engage with them, rather than getting tired as soon as I start wrestling with them and playing with them." Who wouldn't want somebody to take over their grandchildren so they can get a little break? [Laughs.] So if you can tie-in some kind of benefit for them also, that can even engage them and get them on your side.

People want to show love towards other people through food so often. And that's one of the biggest barriers is that a person doesn't want to say no, because that's almost like rejecting that person's love towards them.

So letting them know, “If you want to do something special for me, this is how you can do it.
You can bring me some flowers once a week, when you go to the grocery store,” and “You can give me a little back rub, but I'm really trying to stay away from this.” It’s letting people know how they can show their love and care through things other than food can help others engaged and make it more sustainable also.

Annie Zaleski:

So when people do start making better dietary choices and they have the support then, how soon do people typically see results? And what changes do people tend see when they start to eat better? I think we've mentioned that mentally you feel a little better, you might have a little more energy. What are some other things?

Maxine Smith:

Yeah, you may feel that you have more control. Again, food can be like a stalker, a very unwelcome guest to your house. You want your food choices to feel like a welcome guest. So that may be one of the first things that you notice is that instead of having this intrusive, emotionally damaging stalker at my door, multiple times a day, I'm feeling more control over my food choices, and that you have this sense of freedom about that.

So that is one of the first things. You may notice, again physical improvements in digestion, in your mental alertness. You may have more sustained energy because you don't have these highs and lows in blood sugars and temporary energy increases and crashes.

You may find that you don't have some of those other symptoms that may go along with that, as far as lack of concentration. And some people can actually get shaky or dizzy or whatnot, if they have irregular eating patterns. So yeah, the benefits go on and on.

As far as big changes in body weight or body composition, those may take a little bit longer. And sometimes, when you start practicing mindful eating, you don't see any changes. You may even have a slight increase in body weight. I typically encourage people not to weigh themselves especially when they initially start mindful eating, because it's more about developing new practices and new habits versus that number on the scale. And the number on the scale isn't always a reflection of how you're eating.

It could be a reflection of fluid changes in the body. It could be, in females, related to menstrual cycles. There's a lot of different factors that can affect it, particularly short-term weight changes. Somebody may be losing muscle mass and gaining body fat and yet their weight stays exactly the same. For many people, the freedom of food roles is one of the quickest realized experiences and one of the most rewarding.

Annie Zaleski:

As we're winding down here, I think everything we've talked about ... for anyone thinking about a New Year's resolution, what do you say to them? You know, so many New Year’s resolutions fall short, so how do we stay on track? It seems like a lot of the things we've been talking about in terms of how we can change our mindset maybe might apply here too.

Maxine Smith:

Yeah. So it's going to help us to sustain our new habits again, by gaining support, by gaining accountability, by going into it with the right mindset that I'm going to work on improving skills and gaining new skills to support my success. I'm going to, yes, really fight to maintain a positive attitude and surround myself with people that are supportive, and that will help me to succeed. It's important in anything that you take on in life, that acknowledging every day that it's a process and that you give yourself grace for not being perfect. We don't expect anybody around us to be perfect. We don't expect our kids to be perfect. We expect them to grow. We expect them to learn from our mistakes and problem solve and find new ways to do things that work for them as individuals. We encourage others to be their best versions of themselves, to be creative, and we need to apply those same principles to ourselves.

We need to give ourselves grace. We need to not look at getting off track as a failure, but as an opportunity to learn and discover more about ourselves and what helps us to work in an individual way. That may be very different than the person next to me. So like you mentioned, Annie, so much is about going into it with the right attitude, maintaining the right attitude. A lot of it starts in the brain.

Annie Zaleski:

Yeah. Awesome. Well, this has been a wonderful conversation. Is there anything else that you want to add that we haven't talked about?

Maxine Smith:

I really just encourage others to take that plunge and take that challenge to get off the diet mentality. It's hard to do, especially if you've been tied into it for a long time. It can be somewhat scary to throw out the strict eating rules and start that journey of exploration, but it could just be so rewarding.

Possibly start by looking into some of the resources and exercises that I mentioned from the Center for Mindful Eating. Eatingmindfully.com is a website by our own Cleveland Clinic doctor Susan Albers, which also offers a lot of good information. So yeah, easy to click on some of those sites, check out some of the information, maybe try a little mindful eating practice as an introduction.

Annie Zaleski:

Wonderful. So there are a lot of places you can go to learn about mindful eating, that's wonderful.

Maxine Smith:

Yes, absolutely.

Annie Zaleski:

Well, Maxine, thank you so much for being here today. It's very appreciated and everything you've shared, I think will be extremely helpful for everyone in the new year and beyond.

Maxine Smith:

It was fun and I'm glad I got to talk with you and have a happy new year, Annie and everybody else out there.

Annie Zaleski:

Wonderful. All of us get off track with our diets at some point, especially around the holidays. However, working with an expert can help you identify problem areas and get your eating habits back on track. If you'd like to find out more information about mindful eating and making positive health changes in the New Year, visit www.clevelandclinic.org/nutrition.

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