So my wife and I have decided to get healthy this summer, deeming this our “Summer of Health” — we’ve got a poster board and everything (this is what happens when two teachers decide to do something). She’s healthier than I am, with no serious chronic health condition to monitor, but we’ve both been pretty lax about what we consume. Too much junk food, too little consideration for nutrition, and too little mindfulness about our habits. As always, I match my carb intake to my insulin and keep my blood sugar in check, but it’s plenty easy to maintain good blood sugar while eating food that has no nutritional value.
And so we’ve set our goals — exercise at least four times each week (but no X number of minutes or miles to run, etc.), and be mindful of what we eat, when we eat, and WHY we’re eating. We haven’t exactly set specific dietary goals, but have instead remained a little vague. I plan to keep my food to three meals a day plus one snack, but beyond that I haven’t set any real specific goals such as “eat more whole grains” or “only have X number of grams of fat per day” or any other such metric.
There are a few reasons I’ve left my goals a little vague. The first is that hard and fast numeric goals always seem destined to fail. Holding a yardstick up against every single thing you do has always sounded like a good way to drive yourself crazy, and a bad way to actually solve anything. Drawing from my previous life as a therapist, I can say that I’ve seen this hard-line approach fail many times. Far too often, people take an approach to shifting habits that doesn’t allow any room for failure, and when that little bit of failure inevitably happens, all progress grinds to a halt.
The second reason I’ve focused on “mindful” eating rather than more concrete numeric goals is that I see the numbers as a reflection of a deeper process. I’ve discovered in the past that following an arbitrary numeric goal fails to inspire any lasting change. It might work in the short-term, but it’s a shallow change. In contrast, when I’ve started with mindfulness, the change is deeper.
Tonight is a wonderful example of the distinction I’m talking about. We’ve been on this “summer of health” for a very short time. In fact, we’re not exactly on it yet — just planning it. The official start isn’t until next week. In any event, this evening, we went to one of our usual restaurants, a Mexican cantina nearby. I usually order the tacos, and I always finish the plate. And, of course, I walk out feeling “too full.” Tonight, I ordered the usual. And I walked out with half of the plate in a to-go bag. I didn’t do this because I gave myself any kind of calorie or serving limit, but because just talking about mindful eating has given rise to that mindfulness. I actually NOTICED what my body was telling me, and when I reached a point of having eaten enough, I listened.
I could have set an arbitrary limit, focusing on a numeric goal rather than on the process underlying my behavior. But I know how that would end: I would force myself to stop at the limit, still have the urge to go past it, and probably come home, finish the entire plate, and end up falling short anyway.
In the end, mindfulness works because our bodies KNOW what we need. That’s the miraculous thing here: We don’t have to set arbitrary metrics for this stuff, we just have to listen! My body knows when it’s full. My body knows when it’s receiving the nutrition it needs. My body knows when it’s receiving the exercise it needs. We FEEL these changes — I know I’m exercising enough because I FEEL better, I have more energy, I think more clearly.
So maybe this should be the “Summer of Mindfulness” instead of the “Summer of Health.” I have to say I’m somewhat partial to “Summer of Health” at this point just because we’ve said the name so often. But either way, mindfulness is our guiding principle. And while that mindfulness isn’t guaranteed to last — it takes daily diligence to maintain mindfulness — it’s a much better foundation than imposed limits.