AUSTIN, Texas — Michelle May never saw her mom eat a baked potato.
When she was a kid, everyone else at the table got one, but not her mom, a slender woman who was always on a diet to stay that way.
“I believed that when I grew up, I wouldn't get to eat potatoes anymore, either.” It's a story she tells in “Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat," a 2011 book I discovered last summer at a nutrition conference hosted by the University of Texas that helped put our modern American dieting culture into perspective.
In her keynote speech at the event, May — a family physician who became a wellness coach — explained that there are three types of eaters: restrictive eaters (such as her mom), overeaters and instinctive eaters.
Most of us who have struggled with our weight oscillate between the first two, either consuming every chance we get (and feeling bad about it) or eating by strict sets of predetermined rules (and feeling bad when we break them).
But it is that third category — instinctive eating — that May wants us to strive for when we feel trapped by what she calls the eat-repent-repeat cycle.
During the Austin conference, May asked the audience to think of someone we know who seems to have a healthy relationship with food. I immediately thought about my mom, who struggled with compulsive overeating in her 20s and 30s and finally broke her yo-yo dieting habits by the time I was in elementary school.
I always thought of her as a mindful eater, whose key to success was reasonable portion sizes and a regular, consistent exercise regimen.
I rarely saw her eat seconds, but I never saw her miss a meal. She was the kind of mom who could eat one, maybe two cookies, and feel satisfied. She enjoyed cooking, but food was only one of the ways she showed us her love.
For example, when I came home from college weighing 30 pounds more than when I left, she didn't lecture me for not practicing what she preached. She simply continued her practice.
Instinctive eating helps us refocus on what food really is: fuel for our bodies.
Starting in our teen years, and increasingly earlier, we learn the latest (and ever-changing research) on “good” and “bad” food, drinks, eating habits and exercise. We obsess about calories consumed. We learn how to calculate a small bag of fries into minutes on a StairMaster.
We eat because the clock says it's time to eat. We fill our plates with too much food because the plates are large and that's what everybody else is doing.
“We eat for every emotion in the book,” May said. “When a craving doesn't come from hunger, eating will never satisfy it.”
We can't eliminate the triggers, May said, but we can learn to recognize them and pause, which gives us time to think about how we really want to respond. This “respond-sability” becomes the backbone of mindfulness.
“Mindful eating means you eat with intention and attention,” she said.
It means setting a purpose for your meal and becoming aware of how you feel while you're eating. It starts not with deciding what you should or shouldn't eat, but with when, how and why.
Re-learning how to listen to your body so you can determine whether it's telling you to eat more protein, greens, grains, dairy, vegetables, fiber, vitamins and even specific minerals can take years, but you have to be paying attention to how you feel before, during and after eating to start that process.
And beware, May said: Your learned “needs” might not really be needs at all. The chemicals in, say, diet soda, have trained your body to “want” them, but those false needs are triggers you have to break, just as with the emotional ones.
Once you've figured out how to know when it's actually time to eat and what kind of fuel your body is telling you it needs, then comes what can be the hardest part: knowing when to stop.
“Satiety is your body's signal that you've had enough,” she said. “Discomfort is not the goal.”
We've been hearing for years that it takes more time than we realize for our stomachs to send the message to our brains that we're full. But it's not just about eating slowly to allow that memo to be delivered; we have to be focusing on the food and not something else, such as the television or computer or a book or magazine.
Not paying attention to the act of eating is one of the biggest culprits in overeating, which then throws off your internal gauge.
The goal isn't to eat “perfectly” or never “mess up,” May said.
“If you fall off, don't judge,” she said. “Just think, 'Oh, isn't that interesting,' and pay attention to what went 'wrong' and why.”
The whole point of all this, May said, is to free yourself from feelings of deprivation and guilt so you can be in better charge of many aspects of your life, not just what's for dinner.