The Eat for Life approach: Understanding how emotion drives bad food choices

  • Leslie Smith Frank teaches a class that focuses on paying attention to what you eat and the emotions that may be driving unhealthy eating habits. For the Recorder/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Leslie Smith Frank, a certified mindfulness-based stress reduction teacher, teaches a class that focuses on paying attention to what you eat and the emotions that may be driving eating habits. For the Recorder/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Leslie Smith Frank’s Center Street studio space where she leads her classes through guided meditations, breathing exercises and structured movements, bringing attention inward. For the Recorder//ANDY CASTILLO

For the Recorder
Published: 4/27/2018 1:38:00 PM

Marcia Estelle of Worthington was a dieter for 35 years.

She tried everything — point systems, shakes, packaged food, hypnosis — before discovering Eat For Life two years ago, a program that focuses on paying attention to what you eat and the emotions that may be driving unhealthy eating habits.

It’s called a mindfulness-based intuitive eating program, which is led locally by Leslie Smith Frank of Northampton, who trained at University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness.

It was life-changing, Estelle said.

“Leslie helped me get off the diet roller coaster. She helped me to listen to the quiet voice of my body. I hadn’t been listening to it for a long time.”

Eat For Life is a 10-week educational program, taught nationwide, that guides participants to interpret their emotions and listen to internal signals of hunger and fullness. Frank noted that the Eat For Life program is not a substitute for medical and mental health care, and those who have eating disorders should seek professional help.

“One of the foundational pieces of this program is learning to pay attention to one’s own body and emotions, and thoughts,” said Frank. “And this is not something that most of us learn.”

A key feature of this approach to healthy eating is addressing the root cause of overeating. When people ignore signals of hunger and emotional needs, eating becomes a coping mechanism, she said.

Frank, a certified mindfulness-based stress reduction teacher, previously worked for 25 years in hospitals as a physician assistant in neurosurgery and orthopedics, where she saw firsthand how emotions affected people’s ability to recover.

“I found that, oftentimes, people’s pain persisted long past their injury or surgery. What would have really helped them was for them to recognize that it was their thoughts and emotions that were contributing to their pain.”

That is the same idea that guides Eat for Life which she teaches at The Mindful Awareness Practice Center in downtown Northampton. She also teaches courses at Bay Path University, and is a faculty member at the UMass Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness.

No quick fix

“One of the principles for an intuitive eater is to make peace with food,” former dieter Estelle said. “You can eat anything you want. This principle was initially hard for me due to my ingrained diet mentality but was critical for me to grapple with. This is because the issue of being deprived leads to more emotional eating, binging, craving food that ‘isn’t allowed,’ which resulted in gaining the weight back.”

So now, instead of trying to follow a strict diet, ultimately failing and rebounding further into unhealthy habits, Estelle said she’s able to control eating by focusing on moderation and self-care.

To help change participants’ perspective on eating, Frank leads her classes through guided meditations, breathing exercises and structured movements, bringing attention inward. Traditional diets rely on a structure that’s outside of the body, like weight scales, a list of good or bad food, and nutrition information. Conversely, Frank’s approach focuses on the idea that the human body knows what it needs, and healthy living is achieved by listening to signals.

Frank notes that most of us lead busy lives that leave us distracted and prone to skip meals, ignoring sensations of hunger. Over time, those hunger sensations become weakened, and eating becomes influenced by other emotions like anxiety, stress or anger.

“People come in and I’m lucky if they’re 30. They’re 40, 50, and 60, they’re 70, and have a lifetime of habits,” Frank said. “So, this is not a quick fix.”

Like other practices such as yoga or martial arts, healthy living takes commitment day in and day out. Through her course, Frank said, she gives people the tools they need to foster a healthy lifestyle.

“Many people who struggle with weight loss aren’t misinformed,” Frank said. There’s plenty of information on nutrition that’s readily available.” They just need to see a fuller picture.

Commited to change

Like Estelle, Laurie Bilyeu, a registered dietitian who works with geriatric patients in Springfield, has had success with Frank’s approach.

“I do this professionally, there’s nothing I don’t know about food,” she said. After turning 50, Bilyeu experienced health problems, went through menopause and gained weight.

She sought out Frank’s program two years ago, and has learned how to make healthy eating choices. Instead of reacting to food based on cravings, she focuses instead on whether she’s actually hungry or if the hunger is driven by emotion, and then decides whether to eat.

Now, instead of eating doughnuts left at the office, for example, she keeps a square of dark chocolate in her desk to eat during an afternoon break.

“I’m totally committed. If we can’t help people manage their emotional life, we aren’t going to get them to manage their health,” Bilyeu said.

Mind body connection

Noting the connections between physical and mental health through her work as a physician assistant led Frank to start a meditation practice in 1993, and begin studying at UMass Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness in 1998. Simultaneously, Frank’s own struggle with weight loss led her to discover intuitive eating, a health philosophy that promotes moderation and self respect that became popular in the mid-1990s. Eat For Life combines mindfulness with intuitive eating.

“These practices have changed my relationship to food so much. I think I lived in fear of deep fried anything for years,” Frank said.

Since she began teaching Eat For Life in 2014, by paying attention to how food impacts the body, Frank said she’s able to eat all foods in moderation, ultimately controlling her weight.

Eat For Life works, she said, but not necessarily in the way most people expect a weight loss program to work.

“They feel less anxiety and worry and stress around food, which is a really big deal,” Frank said. Weight loss, which is secondary, comes as byproduct.

These days, Estelle said, there is no ideal weight that she is striving to achieve. Rather “I am learning what is a healthy weight for me. I don’t weigh myself anymore which was a daily practice in the past. It used to be the way I would measure my success or failure on the diet roller coaster.”

She no longer craves the foods she used to crave, and finds it easier to say “no” to unhealthy options.

“I have a new respect for my body. My body enables me to move, think and live a full life.”

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@gazettenet.com.




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