Mary Smith may only be 4 feet 10 inches tall, but her short legs have taken her lots of places in her 70 years — to the top of Colorado 14ers with her husband and across miles of agricultural fields in her career as a scientist in agricultural research.
Despite her active lifestyle, Smith said she’s always been a bit overweight. She’s tried every popular diet over the past several decades and each worked for a while. Then the pounds returned. She’s just not a rule follower; and she loves food, she said.
When her husband of 48 years fell ill, the couples’ adventures dwindled and Smith became his caretaker.
“He was so sweet — to him, I was still the girl he married,” Smith said.
Life’s trials and tribulations
The added stress caused Smith to neglect her body even more. Food became a stress reliever, but the added weight wore on her aging joints. Progressing arthritis in her knees forced her to move out of the fields and into the lab.
Eventually, she left work for several months to take care of her husband near the end of his life.
“We talked about everything,” Smith said. “He told me, ‘Take care of yourself,’ and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
With her husband adamant that she lived a healthy life without him, Smith joined a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class offered to cancer patients and their caregivers at UCHealth Cancer Center – Harmony Campus.
Take care of yourself
The eight-week program touched on all facets of mindfulness, helping Smith become more aware of habitual reactions as well as how to control them. It taught her tools to help her handle her stress and pain.
“Even at the end (of my husband’s life), I was able to sit and meditate,” she said. “That class was so useful, and that’s where I met Deanna, one of the facilitators, and learned about the ‘Am I hungry?’ class.”
Deanna O’Connell is a registered dietitian and mindfulness practitioner with UCHealth in northern Colorado. In addition to teaching nutrition and other mindfulness classes, she teaches “Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating,” a workshop focused on learning to eat with the intention of caring for yourself, and with the attention necessary for noticing and enjoying food and how it affects your body.
“Before I started, I read the book (Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat) and was impressed,” Smith said. “But the class really brought it all together — it went way beyond my expectations. It worked and it keeps working to improve my health.”
Smith’s draw to mindful eating
“We did a bit of meditation in each class. It was more to relax us and make us receptive to what we’d be learning,” Smith said. “But what impressed me the most is that it really is not a diet — it’s about mindful eating.
Mindfulness helps calm the nervous system, O’Connell explained.
“If we take away that nervous edge and replace it with a calm awareness, it helps stabilize emotional eating or eating because it’s a certain time of day and it stabilizes outside triggers and internal emotional cues,” she said.
O’Connell said the program focuses more on tuning into hunger as a way to be aware of how much you’re eating rather than a specific diet.
“I’ve done diets — they’re restricting,” Smith said. “I’m short, and I like to eat and cook. It doesn’t take much for me to gain weight. But with this program, you develop your own plan for how you eat. You ask the question every time you eat: ‘Am I hungry’?
“However, once I started eating, it was even more important to ask: ‘Am I full’? That fullness-scale concept probably saved me a lot more excess calories than the first question.”
What is mindful eating?
The “Am I Hungry?” program dives into the mindful-eating cycle: Why do I eat? When do I eat? What do I eat? How do I eat? How much do I eat? And where do I invest my energy?
O’Connell follows the licensed curriculum for the program, which guides participants through the book “Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat,” by program developer Dr. Michelle May. O’Connell then she adds more mindfulness training into the class.
“Food is not good or bad. It’s about understanding your own body and needs, understanding eating is for fuel rather than the other reasons we eat,” O’Connell said. “It’s bringing awareness every time you eat and learning to trust your own wisdom on how much and when. … It’s an instinctive way of knowing how much to eat, which we’ve lost in our food-abundant culture.”
Smith realized that the time of day she ate was important. Having worked all her life, she fell into the morning breakfast, noon lunch and evening dinnertime routine. She ate because it was time to eat, not because she was hungry. What she learned is that by eating at noon, she was very hungry after work and then would overeat for dinner. By recognizing she wasn’t hungry at noon — and having the flexibility to eat lunch instead at 1:30 p.m. — she found she wasn’t starving when she got home and could make herself a healthy and portion-correct meal for dinner. It was her new eating plan, she said.
Instinctively eating again
In the program, participants practice this awareness throughout the eight-week course.
“We practice that because as adults, we learn to ignore our internal hunger cues,” O’Connell said. “There is a lot of practicing and repetition for recognizing hunger and fullness and a lot of support around that.”
What Smith realized is even though she wasn’t always hungry for breakfast, she in fact needed to eat something so that she didn’t resort to unhealthy snacks or overeating the rest of the day.
“I’d have an egg or whole wheat toast and piece of cheese,” she said. “Just making sure I had a little bit of protein in the morning helped me make that later lunchtime work.”
Mindful eating is working!
She dropped 15 pounds during the class “without even trying,” she said.
In fact, she was trying; she was trying to use the skills for mindful eating she learned in the program. But not having to follow certain rules or count calories made her feel like the weight came off effortlessly.
Even better, she hasn’t gained any of the weight back. After finishing the class, she decided to take it again eight months later.
Weight loss is still one of her goals because she feels her weight affects her arthritic joints. With knowledge of tools to eat healthier, she wanted to step up the time she spent on physical activity.
Continuing to work on herself
She signed up for UCHealth’s EnhanceWellness program.
“That class has increased my energy by 100 percent,” Smith said.
O’Connell said people who continue through the various UCHealth Community Health/Aspen Club programs for healthy living have a higher success in making lifestyle changes that stick.
“It’s been heartwarming to watch Mary tune into her own needs and really transform,” O’Connell said. “She is inspiring.”
In EnhanceWellness, Smith said she learned the benefits of regular exercise, including weightlifting and resistance training.
“Just using your muscles somehow gives you more energy,” she said. “It’s so nice to know that even as I’ve gotten older, I can still increase my fitness and eat better. I’m just a lot healthier than I used to be.”
After finishing EnhanceWellness, she was able to move off a weight plateau she’d been on for about a year, and now she’s down 30 pounds.
Her husband would be proud.
“UCHealth programs have just helped me to be a much healthier person — which is what medicine should be about,” she said.