The Mindfulness Trap


Last week, a few of my favorite Internet people started a post-Easter “reset.” There was a lot of talk about “no sugar.” “X number of days without sugar.” Getting back “on track.”

When I saw this sprout up in my online space, I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to participate in. And yet… There was a little seed of a thought in me that said, “Maybe I should be more mindful of the treats I’m eating.”

Daily chocolate—specifically, a Seattle Chocolates truffle bar split with my partner after our children are in bed— was one of the cornerstones of my recovery. Good-bye, restriction and “fear foods!” Hello, abundance and eating for the pure joy of it! Over time, as I got more comfortable with the idea that sugar was not sloughed off the skin of Satan himself, and my desire to eat for pleasure was not wrong, my sweets consumption increased. Half a truffle bar in the evening was a given, but I also added a little dessert after lunch most days, and sometimes even had a Girl Scout cookie or two as my morning pre-workout snack. And I loved it! I felt great! But with all the post-Easter “no sugar” discussion, I wondered if maybe I should…you know, pay attention to just how much I was eating.

I explained it to myself thusly: I’m not “buckling down” or “dialing in,” I’m just getting more mindful of how much sugar I’m consuming. Yeah. That’s it. I’ll practice mindfulness.

That’s when things got a little shifty. I didn’t leap headfirst back into old dieting behaviors, but the needle slid over to the “Warning” side of the disordered-eating dial. Call them “pre-behaviors”: sneaking food; hoarding food (i.e. buying a bunch of discounted Easter candy with no immediate plans to consume it); feeling hungry, imagining what I’d like to eat, and then trying to talk myself out of my choice with a lower-sugar, “healthy” substitution.

A few days later, I was eating chocolate—and only chocolate—for dinner. Not in an out-of-control binge state (it was a conscious choice), but with a certain amount of lower-brain “oh no, what if she tries to take our chocolate away again?!” urgency buzzing in the background.

True mindfulness around food is a beautiful thing. Focusing my awareness on the present moment when choosing, preparing, and eating food is one of my favorite ways to come back to myself. To respect my body’s ever-changing needs and preferences. But using “mindfulness” as my “in” with the sugar-reset crowd was me trying to have my cake and eat it in a diet-mindset too.

I’m not suggesting people abandon thoughts of eating to feel their best. I acknowledge that there are more nutrient-dense pre-workout snacks than a cookie. I even have places in my food and beverage consumption that I’d like to “work on”—by which I mean be more truly mindful and possibly even reduce a bit. (When my daughter was having trouble sleeping, I got into the habit of drinking a lot of coffee. Her sleep is better, but my coffee consumption is still high, and it’s starting to affect my sleep and wellbeing).

Language can be sneaky, especially for a person like me who loves words and wordplay. “Mindfulness” is a pretty healthy-sounding word, but when it’s used as a tool to self-inflict uncertainty and shame, it’s not healing; it’s diet-speak in disguise.

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