Ancient yet thoroughly modern practice takes root at Dickinson
by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson
March 20, 2012
Dickinson’s new registered dietician, Christine Rudy, teaches mindful-eating techniques, develops nutrition-information programs and meets one-on-one with students, faculty and staff members.
We’ve all been there. Maybe you polished off a pizza while studying for midterms or devoured fast food in the car. You might have munched on popcorn at the movie theater, or scarfed a bag of chips by the light of the computer screen or TV. Fact is, we’ve all eaten with our brains on autopilot. But in an age of readily available junk food, supersized portions and ever-increasing distractions, it’s more important than ever to try to tune in.
For many, mindful eating is the key. Adopted from sixth-century Buddhist principles, mindfulness is a holistic approach to physical, spiritual and emotional wellness. Applied to modern eating challenges, this ancient practice helps us identify how what’s going on in our minds, bodies and environments influences what, why and when we eat.
Learning to tune in
Part of Dickinson’s wellness programming for several years, mindful eating is building steam on campus with the arrival in January of the college’s new registered dietician, Christine Rudy. That growing enthusiasm was obvious when Rudy recently introduced mindful-eating concepts to a full house of faculty members and staff.
The first basic step, Rudy told them, is tuning in to our bodies’ hunger cues—a task that can take practice, because many of us misinterpret or have learned to ignore those highly individualized signs. This helps us to determine what to eat, when to eat and how much we should eat.
Then comes the tricky part—to slow down our eating process substantially, so we are truly focused on the meal and our responses to it. “You have to really pay attention to your senses, and that can be very frustrating at first, because we’re used to doing everything quickly,” Rudy said. “It takes practice, so even if you start by taking just one mindful bite, you are on your way.”
Rudy recommended jotting down what we eat and our responses to it, with hope that in time, we can identify and let go of the emotional, intellectual and environmental triggers that lead to unhealthy choices. This frees us to make decisions according to true wants and needs, rather than in an emotionally charged or habit-driven way. If we discover that what we really want is a less-healthy treat, we can eat it—moderately and mindfully—and still stay on track.
“When mindful eaters do sometimes slip up and eat mindlessly, they notice it and recover quickly. They don’t beat themselves up,” Rudy said.
That’s important because studies indicate that negative thoughts—including the notions that there are “bad” foods and that we behave badly when eating them—do not spark positive behavioral change, Rudy added. Those who adopt a less emotionally charged approach often achieve and maintain healthy body weight.
Arming students with knowledge and skills
A vital part of the process is learning to recognize healthy foods and serving sizes, an especially important task for college students. “It’s very challenging, because students have so many new choices, and the environment, while structured, might be less structured than they’re used to,” Rudy said, speaking in her sun-drenched office, where she meets one-on-one with students. “Some students respond to the stresses by undereating or overeating, and many don’t have good information about nutrition. There’s so much skewed information out there.”
Several educational and awareness-raising initiatives are under way, including a Dickinson Dietitian Twitter feed and revamped nutrition-information Web site, featuring a question-and-answer section. Rudy also offers private sessions to students and 15-minute minisessions to employees, and she plans to lead a grocery-store tour at the end of the academic year.
Along with the Office of Human Resource Services (HR), which was nationally recognized for its holistic-health employee program, the Wellness Center is partnering with offices and groups across campus to spread the word about healthy eating. Rudy, who works through the Wellness Center and HR, plans to visit the College Farm to discuss how greater awareness of food origin—a natural byproduct of growing produce—intersects with mindfulness.
Rudy also has coordinated with Dining Services staff to hold food demonstrations and nutrition-information sessions for residence halls, athletics teams and student groups. And Wednesday’s Mindful Eating dinner, organized by the Wellness Center, is part of Love Your Body Week, a multidepartmental program headed by the Women’s Center.
As Wellness Center Executive Director Alecia Sundsmo notes, this is important work not only for those with eating issues, but for all who wish to make more satisfying food choices. “Mindful eating helps people understand how to have a healthy relationship with food and their bodies by focusing on wellness, rather than illness,” she explained, adding that Wellness Center counselors routinely use mindfulness techniques to help students with anxiety and depression. “We all can benefit from it.”
Rudy agreed. “Men, women, young and old … we all have some kind of issues around food—some areas where we can improve,” she said. “And if you learn the coping skills, you can apply them to improve other areas of your life, too.”