Longtime psychology professor Jean Kristeller says we can be healthier — and more satisfied — by being more mindful of what we’re eating. For instance, it’s better to savor half a cookie instead of devouring the whole bag.
The holidays may be over, but the struggle to lose weight and not overindulge often lingers well into the New Year.
It’s a battle that has been the focus of Jean Kristeller’s research for decades. Now a professor emerita of psychology at Indiana State University and co-founder of The Center for Mindful Eating, Kristeller is bringing her practice of mindful eating to a broader audience with last month’s release of “The Joy of Half a Cookie: Using Mindfulness to Lose Weight and End the Struggle with Food.”
“It’s a different way for people to frame their intentions for the New Year,” Kristeller said. “Mindfulness is about using the cues of physical hunger and satiety to guide your decisions on whether to begin and end eating meal or a snack. I wanted to teach people to create a different relationship with food.”
Co-authored with writer Alisa Bowman, “The Joy of Half a Cookie” provides an outline for balancing food and life using the 10-week, Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training program Kristeller created with funding from the National Institutes of Health.
Learning about the effects of psychology on health has been Kristeller’s passion since she started as an undergraduate at Swathmore College in Pennsylvania. After graduating in 1974, Kristeller earned a master’s degree in clinical psychophysiology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in health psychology from Yale University. Her research on eating and on meditation as a healing process goes back to then.
After serving as the associate director of the Behavioral Medicine Service at Cambridge Hospital, Harvard Medical School and an assistant professor in Preventive and Behavioral Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Kristeller came to Indiana State as an associate professor of psychology in 1991.
She’s brought the practice of mindful eating to people through one-on-one and group sessions. Now, Kristeller hopes to reach a wider audience through the book, which explains both the science and practice of mindful eating she discovered through decades of research and clinical training on how the human body and mind regulate themselves.
“It’s natural and normal to eat in response to emotions, celebrations or to comfort ourselves, but people need to do it in a positive way and not overdo it,” Kristeller said. “It’s about making the experience of eating more about quality than quantity and about creating a healthier and more enjoyable place between overeating and dieting.”
She adds one of the most important parts of mindful eating is learning to tune into our taste buds.
“Our taste buds start to get tired after just a few bites, especially of high sweet, high-fat foods — those very foods we think we can’t stop eating.”
She also helps people learn to tune into feelings of fullness at lower levels, rather than aiming for “as much as you can eat” and regretting it afterwards.
Just as she would do with her clients, Kristeller encourages readers to try her tips on the spot with practice steps and reflections sprinkled throughout the text and shares examples of the personal struggles people have with food, including her own.
“I’ve worked with a lot of people who say they shouldn’t eat anything sweet, but when the cookies are in front of them they have one cookie, then another and another and another until they end up eating the whole box, feeling guilty the whole time,” she said. “Mindful eating teaches people how to enjoy those foods, but in small amounts and gets them away from the good-and-bad-food dichotomy by teaching them how to tune into the experience of actually tasting and savoring each cookie, rather than mostly feeling guilty.”
Kristeller has watched the program work for many people over the years, including a woman who made daily stops at McDonald’s until the habit was replaced by mindful eating.
“By the end of the program, she discovered that when she really thought about what she was eating, she didn’t want to stop at McDonald’s every day,” Kristeller said. “When she did stop, she learned to enjoy about half of what she’d eaten before, because she simply did not want more than that. It took time to get to that point, but once she did, she said it felt so much better than when she used to argue with herself and eventually give in.”
For people who can’t get her one-on-one guidance, the book brings it right to their fingertips.
“I’m excited that this kind of book allows me to get the work I’ve developed for many years out to a broad number of individuals,” Kristeller said. “People should be mindful of social pressures and situations that cause them to eat when they aren’t hungry. You may not drop 10 pounds by the end of the month, but the hope is that people will find a way to be more flexible and continue to eat the foods they like, but consume smaller amounts of it and truly learn how to enjoy eating.”
“The Joy of Half a Cookie” is available for purchase on Amazon.com. A booksigning is also scheduled for 4 p.m. Jan 21 at the Barnes & Nobles Bookstore on campus.
On Jan. 29, Kristeller will be presenting a three-hour workshop through OLLI on the ISU campus (more info at www.indstate.edu/olli or 812-237-2345) and is available for individual consultation (JKristeller@indstate.edu).
More information about Kristeller’s work can be found at www.mb-eat.com.