Susan Albers, PsyD, joined us for an interview on her book, eating mindfully for teens: a workbook to help you make healthy choices, end emotional eating & feel great. What follows are our questions in italics, and her thoughtful responses.
You begin your most recent book, eating mindfully for teens: a workbook to help you make healthy choices, end emotional eating & feel great, with the definition of Mindfulness. What are some of the challenges today’s teens face that preclude mindfulness?
Today, I saw a mother hand her daughter a plate of lasagna at a restaurant. I initially assumed it was to try a bite—it looked absolutely amazing. She took a photo. After snapping the shot, she handed it back to her mother untouched.
Social media and screens make it extraordinarily easy for teens to disconnect from their real life experience and be present in the moment—viewing the world through a screen instead of actually experiencing the sight, sounds, taste etc. Even food—teens are more likely to be experts at taking a picture of their food than truly knowing how to taste it and experience it mindfully.
Ironically, technology, one of the biggest competitors of mindfulness can also be used to help teens be more mindful. There are many apps that teach mindfulness skills and ways to calm down to help avoid stress eating. For example, Calm is an app that helps teens to take a mindful moment and breathe—not an easy task for busy teens!
The good news is that teens are very capable and eager to learn mindful eating. They are extremely motivated to have a healthy relationship with food. It is one of the things that inspired the book—I work with so many teens that desire to learn how to eat healthier and take care of themselves. What I love about this format is that parents learn just as much as teens!
It’s about really simple exercises and fun activities. The tips are activities that I even do with my 12-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. I’ve seen my kids instruct other kids (yes!) on putting the screens away when eating or snacking. So rest assured, I’ve tried them out first hand on my own kids and with patients in my office. They are teen approved activities!
Please share the “Five S’s of Mindful Eating”.
1) SIT DOWN. Have a seat! Sit down (at a table!) While it may be tempting to eat in front of the TV or snack at your desk, research indicates that eating at a table helps you to enjoy food more and reduces mindless eating. Gently remind teens to move away from the TV or computer and to sit at a table whenever they eat.
2) SLOW DOWN. My motto is pace don’t race! You can eat an entire plate of food and not taste one bite. Just slowing it down a bit can be a game changer for being more in charge of how much you eat and how much you enjoy it.
3) SAVOR. Take a mindful bite. Smell. Taste. Notice and look at each spoonful. Shut off devices—when you eat, just eat. Research indicates that eating a meal or snack without the distraction helps improve focus on the act of eating, increases enjoyment of the food, and decreases mindless eating. Ask everyone to put their devices in a box or location away from the table before you eat—including you.
4) SIMPLIFY. Create a mindful environment. Place healthy foods in a convenient place like on the counter or in a fruit bowl. Put treats out of view to cut down on mindlessly picking at them. If you really want them, you will get them out. We can set up an environment where healthy eating is close at hand.
5) SMILE. Smiling can create a brief pause between your current bite and the next one. During that gap, ask yourself if you are just satisfied, not full. Or, during that smile pause, ask yourself, “How hungry am I on a scale of 1 to 10?” Are you starving, a little bit hungry or just need a light snack? This question is much more specific and helpful than “Are you hungry?” because it helps your teen get in touch with their feeling of hunger and what to do to satisfy it.
The “Chapters” in your workbook are entitled, “Activities.” Activity 4 tunes in to speed eating. How does slowing down when one is eating contribute to one’s betterment?
Slowing down is not an easy task for any of us—particularly when eating. We are often in a rush, eating in the car or busy running to the next activity. We expect everything to be fast from our Internet connect to packages delivered.
When I talk to teens about slowing down, I tell them an important fact about eating slowly. Our bodies process food much slower than we can eat it. Give it time to catch up!
I often use a little bit of humor when I am reminding my daughter to slow down! You can do the same in a teasing tone (ex. “Where are the cameras?” When they ask what you mean say, “Oh, I thought you were in an eating contest!”)
You ask, “What does sleep have to do with mindful eating?” Can you please comment?
During the time I’ve been a psychologist, technology has changed dramatically—particularly with the invention of “on demand” TV. Probably one of the things I have noticed and highlight to people is how sleep impacts eating and mood. For example, when you get hooked on a TV show and watch five episodes until three in the morning, the next day, people’s food choices plummet. You are tired, grumpy and can’t think as clearly—including how you choose food.
In my upcoming book, Hanger Management, I talk about how food impacts how you feel and how you feel impacts the foods you choose. We get hangry (grumpy + angry) when we don’t eat well.
Quality sleep is essential to eating well—and acts like a magic wand for helping people eat more mindfully. However, it gets little credit for the part it plays and how important it is to eating.
One of my favorite quotes is by Virginia Woolf and this sums it up well, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” ― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.
In your section on Mood, you offer activities on comfort eating. What are some steps a teen can take to diminish stress without relying on food?
We tend to have a knee jerk reaction when it comes to food and feelings. We feel something and often automatically reach for food to escape or push away those feelings without even really thinking about it. I work with teaching teens natural, healthy, cheap (or free) alternatives to comfort eating.
One of the exercises in the book is what I call the “5 X 5” Exercise. I ask the teen to have a self-soothing plan in place and ready to go. In this exercise, they write down a list of 5 strategies for each category. They place this plan in hot spots for emotional eating like on their desk or refrigerator. Get out a piece of paper.
Write 5 Activities that RELAX you (ex. Flip through a magazine, a 5-minute break, lay on the couch).
5 Activities that DISTRACT you (ex. email, games, cleaning).
5 Activities PLACES you can go that are comforting to you (ex. Your bed, garden, cozy chair).
5 PEOPLE to call and connect with you (ex. your best friend, mother, sister, mentor).
5 THINGS that soothe your senses (cool cloth on head, comfortable clothing, turn down lights)
Choose one of these activities to do for 5 minutes. If the urge to eat is still there, eat! If not, you know that soothing without food was the best action to take.
Why do encourage teens to hide the scale?
Get rid of the scale! We often use scales as a weapon instead of a tool. We don’t want teens to base their worth on numbers on a scale! Too often, a scale becomes a source of stress and judgment. Also, it doesn’t teach them the most important lesson of tuning in to how their body feels and accepting their body as it is.
In addition to letting go of the scale, also stop the dieting chitchat! Instead of words like, “I shouldn’t eat that” start teaching teens the language of mindfulness—words that check in with their internal signals like “Am I satisfied?” or “Am I eating mindfully?”
Some teenage brains have a tendency toward black and white thinking. How does this thought style thwart a teen’s relationship with food and eating?
There is no handbook when it comes to eating, nor is there a “right” or “wrong” way to eat. I call this type of black and white thinking “zebra” thinking. We want to teach teens how to think about and interact with foods in a flexible way. In my office, I have repeatedly seen the way rigid thinking often goes hand in hand with eating disorders and disordered eating. So, the more you can help teens think through why they are eating and be flexible and not rule based with eating habits, the better. For example, sometimes you may be very hungry and eat a lot and sometimes you may not be very hungry and eat a little, and that is okay. Diets are an example of rule based black and white thinking—not a good option for teens or anyone.
If you are a parent, you can’t make any better investment in tools than to help your teen have a mindful relationship to food and manage stress—right NOW. This will save them years of struggling with their food and body.
If you want some free tools, please visit my website, eatingmindfully.com Also, for professionals, I have a bonus guide. When you buy Eating Mindfully for Teens, I will give you free additional handouts and a guide of how to use this book in your office with parents and teens.
About the author:
Susan Albers, Psy.D is a New York Times best-selling author and a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Albers graduated from the University of Denver and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Stanford University in California. Dr. Albers is the author of eight mindful eating books including: EatQ, 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, 50 MORE Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, Eating Mindfully, Eating Mindfully for Teens, Eat, Drink, and Be Mindful and Mindful Eating 101. She has been a guest on the Dr. Oz TV Show, TODAY show and NPR. Her books, programs and tips have been featured in O, the Oprah Magazine, Family Circle, Shape, Prevention Magazine, Self, Health, People, New York Times, Fitness Magazine, Vanity Fair, Natural Health, the Wall Street Journal. Visit her at www.eatingmindfully.com