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Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Program Helps Staff Member Ditch Emotional Eating and Dieting Mentality
When Kristi Vega, academic support specialist in the School of Architecture, signed up for a program called Am I Hungry? offered by the Syracuse University Wellness Initiative for faculty and staff last September, she anticipated a run-of-the-mill group weight loss program or “The Biggest Loser”-style challenge.
“My first thought when I found out the group would be meeting virtually on Teams was, ‘Well, how am I going to weigh in?’” Vega recalls. She had never joined a program focused on improving her eating habits that didn’t begin with a trip to the scale. She realized over the course of the program that her obsession with the scale was just one of many aspects of her relationship with food and eating that had become distorted over the years.
When asked to explain the Am I Hungry? program, Vega says, “Let me start with what it’s not … it’s not a diet plan. It’s not a fad. There are no points or counting or weighing in or shakes or pills. It’s more like a book club. You read a few chapters [of the book ‘Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat’ by Dr. Michelle May] and then review and discuss them on weekly calls with the facilitators and as a group.”
According to the program description on the Wellness Initiative website, the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Program is a “non-restrictive approach to a sustainable healthy lifestyle” and a “non-diet, weight-neutral approach that empowers individuals to take charge of their decisions about eating, physical activity, health and self-care.” Sounds great in theory, but what is it like in practice?
“The program is about mindfulness,” Vega says. “It’s about examining your relationship with food and relearning your own body’s signals.” One of the first questions the group was asked during the weekly sessions was, “Do you know when you are hungry?”
“I laughed because I realized that I couldn’t answer the question. It sounds ridiculous, but years of conflicting diets scrambled my signals. This program helped me reset my brain to eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m not. It sounds super simple but I had a lot to relearn and habits to change.”
Going Below the Surface
Am I Hungry? encourages a psychological plundering of sorts to get to the bottom of why, when, how, how much and what we eat—with the goal of moving participants from an overeating or restrictive eating pattern (called the eat-repent-repeat cycle by Dr. May) to a more natural, instinctive eating pattern.
Weekly lessons explore topics like:
- why diets don’t work and why there are no “good” or “bad” foods
- how to incorporate movement that you actually enjoy into your daily life
- cultivating more presence
- building a toolkit with alternatives to mindless eating
- using a hunger scale to help identify physical hunger, as well as satiety (or fullness) cues
- awareness of physical, environmental and emotional triggers to eat and different ways to respond to those triggers
Vega says that going beyond the surface level into the emotional component helped her identify longstanding patterns and beliefs that were so deeply embedded in her subconscious that she wasn’t even aware of them.
“I discovered that ‘reward and punishment’ had become my personal life mantra,” she says. “I hated to exercise because I used it as either a punishment or a reward.” Vega uncovered a pattern of bartering with herself when it came to calories in and calories out—for example, telling herself that if she spent 20 more minutes on the treadmill, she could have a second glass of wine, or a cup of ice cream or some cookies.
“With Am I Hungry, I was able to stop that association. I started taking walks and enjoying them. The walks became my time to relax, breathe fresh air, look at the scenery. It wasn’t a punishment anymore for some food sin.”
Since participating in the program, Vega has also stopped eating things she hates. She shared some of the more extreme diets she’s tried over the years, and recalls with misery days of cabbage soup, boiled chicken, overloading on watermelon and even having to have her gallbladder removed after a period of being on the (low-carbohydrate, high-protein) Atkins Diet.
“I can happily say after participating in this program, I am never going to eat anything that I don’t want to ever again. I am not going to drink nasty powdery shakes. I will never eat celery or cabbage soup,” she says. “I am no longer going to torture myself or feel bad about what I eat or don’t eat.”
Setting an Example
Vega also says Am I Hungry? has been eye opening in how she approaches her 13-year-old daughter’s eating patterns. “This program has not only liberated me at this later stage of my life, but it’s helping me be a better mom. I hope my daughter will have more happiness and less stress about food and eating because of the example I’m setting,” she says. “That alone is priceless.”
Modeling healthy, balanced habits and self-care is extremely important to her as a parent. Vega says she comes from a generation where “self-care” feels like a naughty word, a forbidden thing—and Am I Hungry? has helped her realize that you cannot fill somebody else’s cup if yours is empty.
“I’ve come to see that there are many women, especially mothers, who put everyone and everything ahead of themselves. This group has shown that I’m not the only one who struggles with shame or guilt when I invest time and energy into my own well-being,” Vega says. “It’s hard to break the mindset that self-care is not the same thing as being selfish.”
She is grateful for the chance to participate in Am I Hungry? and felt empowered to make working through the readings and workbook lessons a priority each week. “A free program from my employer that is going to help me have a better life and hopefully help my daughter have a better life?” she says. “Yeah, sign me up.”
Am I Hungry? will run again this spring, beginning March 24 for five weeks. There is a personal investment of $60 from participants, which is paid for through payroll and reimbursed upon successful completion of the program.
“If you’re looking for a quick fix or the latest weight loss trend, this program isn’t for you,” Vega says. “But if you are interested in truly exploring your relationship with your own health, I strongly recommend it. The facilitators [Gail Grozalis and Kim DeStefano, both trained in the Am I Hungry? methodology] did a great job keeping us focused, encouraged and empowered. As SU employees, we are very fortunate to have the Wellness Initiative and team.”