I constantly use the hashtags #ditchdieting #eatmindfully to create momentum around this idea. Loving and taking care of your body sounds good but is not easy in our world. I’ve been pleased to see some shifts in this mindset saying that we must diet to be the best version of ourselves. But the diet mentality still hangs in there. My clients have said, “But if I don’t diet, then what?” The good news is that mindful eating puts something in its place.

As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Susan Albers. Dr. Albers is a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and New York Times Best Selling Author of nine books on mindful eating. She is a frequent guest on the Today Show, Dr. Oz, ABC, NPR and quoted in Shape, Prevention, Eating Well Magazine as well as many others. Visit her website www.eatingmindfully.com

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Igrew up with an Italian mom who was a well-meaning food pusher. Any feelings were lovingly fed with food. So I personally understand how easy it is to get your hunger signals confused and to use food for comfort. I’ve helped thousands of people untangle those hunger wires. What I’ve been focusing on recently is helping people not only to stop mindless eating and comfort eating but also how to stay way ahead of their hunger. It’s a brand new way of thinking and interacting with food. In my new Hanger Management, I walk people step by step through how to pick foods that boost their mood and help them to be at their best. I talk about the science of how we form healthy habits and use these tips to your benefit.

The roots of my interest in mindful eating date back more than twenty five years. I was an exchange student in Japan when I first encountered the concept of mindfulness. My host family applied a kind of mindfulness to everything they did in ways I had never experienced, from walking and talking to just sitting.

My few weeks in Japan were a struggle to eat. I had used chopsticks in the past but always had a back-up fork on hand to navigate eating small items. I was surprised when there was no fork option to pick up more challenging things like rice and noodles. Prior to this experience, I just picked up my fork and ate. No thought. The chopsticks suddenly slowed me way down. At times, I even felt frustrated by the pace. It taught me the take-home message that runs through all my books. Changing how you eat can be as life changing as changing what you eat. I distinctly remember beginning even to taste food in a different way and noticing how my entire experience of eating changed when I actually slowed down. I tucked those moments in mind. Fast forward to today, I still think about those chopsticks and how the experience changed the way I ate and set the stage for my life’s work.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I didn’t realize how my books would connect me with people.

One day I happened to catch the Today Show. This was unusual since I am typically in my office before it is on. I was listening in my kitchen. Suddenly I heard a familiar voice. It was an interview with a celebrity who was currently on one of the hottest TV shows. I couldn’t understand why that voice was so familiar. About half way through the interview, it hit me. I had been working virtually through my online practice for a year with a woman on mindful eating. We only spoke by phone. She made allusions to acting but I didn’t think much about it. I had no idea who she was. It was a great lesson to me that emotional eating impacts everyone — including celebrities. I am always blown away when people from all over the world — Russia, Brazil, Japan etc. email to tell me their transformation from a mindless to a mindful eater after reading one of my books. I didn’t realize that my message could be felt all around the world.

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

The very first story I tell in Hanger Management is about my toddler daughter. The inspiration for the book started in Church. Unfortunately it was not divine intervention. It was the day I forgot to bring the Cheerios. As soon as the service started she became fussy. I soon realized I had not brought her snacks! She ran to the front of the Church and threw a full on meltdown right there. I slunk to the front of the Church to pull her off. I was asked to leave. It was one of my first and most embarrassing lessons on the power of food on emotions. It was interesting to me how parents were a whiz at being mindful of their toddler’s hunger and came prepared with snacks to avoid meltdowns. Yet it’s much harder to manage their own moods relating to hunger. So I apply the same process of knowing how to identify your hunger cues — even when they are confusing.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My mom taught me to use my voice. There is an Italian saying that she always quoted to me that took me a long time to really understand. Testa ca ‘un parra si chiama cacuzza which basically means that if you don’t speak up, your head is like an empty pumpkin. In other words, use your voice and let people know what you need. For example, one day I received an email out of the blue from a book editor at a major publishing house. She was seeking a book review quote for one of her authors. Since we were emailing back and forth, I decided to pitch her an idea for a new book on mindful eating. She said that I needed an agent to pitch that particular book. At the time, I didn’t have one and asked her if she knew one. The result? She introduced me to one of the top agents in NYC for health books. Today, I am publishing my ninth book, Hanger Management. The lesson I learned was that there are doorways that you don’t even know are there. Keep knocking and asking for what you want.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

Stop dieting. Start eating mindfully. Too often we wrestle with our hunger. Dieting in particular — which requires ignoring or negotiating with your hunger — damages your relationship to food. When you start to be more mindful of your body, you begin to trust what your body needs. Create a culture of relationship between how we eat impacts how we feel and how we feel impacts how we eat.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Provide snacks and food within the context of the work environment to help people manage their mood, concentrate and focus throughout the day. Too often, without access to healthy food, people snack on candy and processed food in vending machines. It wreaks havoc on their blood sugar and mood — and they end up hangry and unfocused. We can use work culture to promote mindful eating.

OK thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness.

5 Ways to Be The Most Mindful Version of You

1. Eat Mindfully: By slowing down, savoring each bite and eating more consciously, you can improve your health, feel good about your body and lose/manage weight without fad dieting. Eating mindfully isn’t easy in a world filled with comfort foods and desserts. Start by eating with your non-dominate hand, which research indicates can slow down you down by 30 percent. Your Motto: Pace, don’t race!

2. Communicate Mindfully: Do you ever wish you could take back the last few words you just uttered? We all do from time-to-time. Communicate mindfully by taking a “mindful pause” before you speak. Take your emotional pulse before having an important conversation and a few deep, mindful breaths to cool down and center. Your Motto: Respond, Don’t React.

3. Work Mindfully: Work stress can often lead to worrying about the future. A mindful approach is not dwelling on the past or the future, but living fully in this present moment. When feeling stressed, bring your mind back to the present by focusing on what is happening in the room — what do you see, smell, hear, and feel. Your Motto: I can’t control the future, I can only make mindful decisions in this moment.

4. Relate Mindfully: Listening and spending a lot of time with your loved ones is not easy. If you are busy, that’s OK. It’s not the amount of time you spend with your kids, friends or family, it’s the mindful quality. Put down your phone, look into their eyes, stay present mentally and in-the-moment when they talk to you. Be compassionate! Your Motto: When I listen, just listen.

5. Move Mindfully: You don’t have to love exercise. Just begin by tuning into your body. Feel your feet against the floor or your back against the chair. Do a few simple stretches (shrug your shoulders and then drop them). This gets you reconnected with your body. It’s particularly good for thinkers who spend a lot of time in their head! Your Motto: I am mentally and physically present in my body.

Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement?

Mindful eating is key at any age, particularly after retirement. Many my clients stress about their weight and eating after menopause. Realize that the way you eat and your appetite will change. Expect it. Be mindful of your new energy needs. Learn how retirement changes your appetite and movement.

Also, sometimes people are surprised that they lose some of the joy they experience around eating after retirement. They don’t eat with friends and colleagues at work and often miss out on the social eating that happens at the office. Continuing to be social and connect with others, particularly around food, can help to maintain the joy of eating.

How about teens and pre teens? Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?

I have a lot of people in counseling that wish that they had learned how to eat mindfully as a teenager. It’s harder to undo mindless eating habits as an adult. I would urge teens to examine their relationship to food right now. Don’t wait. Take an interest in what they are putting in their bodies. I did an experiment with one of my clients. I asked her to look at the expiration date on her favorite snack. The sugary packed cakes didn’t expire for eleven years. This simple exercise raised the question, what the heck is she putting in her body. What must be in it to allow it to be still edible for eleven years!? We can help teens to enjoy food. Cook together. Explore new foods.

With my own teen, I take her on food tours — this is my favorite thing ever! I go all around the world, and in each new city you can often find a tour. It is often focused on local foods that tell you something about the city and history. It’s often just a bite or taste of their foods that we try and savor mindfully. I love showing my daughter how food has meaning and tells you about the people of that city. If you haven’t done a food tour, I recommend scheduling one the next time you travel to a new city.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

Fast Food Nation. This book opened my eyes not only to how people eat but where food comes from. It taught me to be mindful of where food comes from. My mind was blown away by the dark underside of food production. I can no longer not ask the question of how the food got to my table. I teach people to be mindful of this too.

Also, I love the biography on Julia Childs called Dearie by Bob Spitz. She sparked in me a joy of cooking and became a kindred spirit who was about mastering the art of mindful eating — although she didn’t call it that at the time. She encouraged people to savor food. The mouthwatering descriptions of food made me hungry throughout the book! Julia’s journey from someone who couldn’t cook into emerging as a world renown chef shows that we don’t have to go to culinary school to enjoy cooking. She invented herself and evolved her career around a passion along the way.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I constantly use the hashtags #ditchdieting #eatmindfully to create momentum around this idea. Loving and taking care of your body sounds good but is not easy in our world. I’ve been pleased to see some shifts in this mindset saying that we must diet to be the best version of ourselves. But the diet mentality still hangs in there. My clients have said, “But if I don’t diet, then what?” The good news is that mindful eating puts something in its place.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.

-Virginia Woolf

This has been true for me and all of my clients. We simply can’t be at our bests if we aren’t fed well. I’ve seen the dark side of dieting and how it negatively impacts people’s relationship with food. Fortunately, I see and help people to experience the flip side. When you dine well, you set the stage for being at your best. I notice that I am a better writer and mom when I am well fed. I have more patience and can concentrate well.

One day I showed up for work when my daughter was an infant and my client said to me, “Dr. Albers’ I am not sure if you are aware that your shirt is on inside out.” I looked down and sure enough my shirt was on inside out. I am not the only one who has experienced pushing too hard and being exhausted. For many women in particular, their clothes still match but the effects of lack of sleep wreak havoc on their appetite and well being. It reminds me that if you aren’t getting enough sleep, you aren’t going to be functioning at your best.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

@DrSusanAlbers (Instagram)

eatdrinkmindful (Facebook)

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!