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Plainview nutritionist's meditation practice promotes mindful eating

Tracy Stopler leads a meditation class in Plainview

Tracy Stopler leads a meditation class in Plainview in January with, from left, Barbara Muller, Mollie Sugarman, Janice Omstrom, Larry Baily, Shanta Minhas, Dee Harvey and Alyssa Yuchowitz. Photo Credit: Linda Rosier

At first glance, it looks like a slumber party for older adults.

Seven women and one man are snuggled into the living room sofa and chairs at Tracy Stopler's Plainview home on a Tuesday evening in early January. Some have their feet up on hassocks.

"Is everyone comfortable?" asks Stopler, 54.

Her guests, who are also clients in her nutritional practice, nod and smile.

"I wore my good socks tonight," says Larry Baily, 65, from Great Neck, wiggling his shoeless feet.

Everyone laughs.

"I'm going to take you on a journey," says Stopler, a registered dietitian and a professor of nutrition at Adelphi University. "You may lose track of the time, but that's OK. There's no place you need to be here except here."

In other words: For the next hour, don't worry about your job, your family or your phones (all turned off at Stopler's request); forget about the emails you have to send, or the bills you need to pay.

Because for the people in this group, like many, those stressful distractions of daily modern life are often accompanied by something else: Mindless eating.

"A lot of my clients make poor eating choices when they're stressed out," Stopler says.

To combat such mindless eating, the group is gathered to practice mindfulness — that is, to tune out the distractions and focus inward, through a group meditation.

Although meditation classes abound at libraries, yoga studios and elsewhere, Stopler's is unusual because it's designed to help her clients better manage their eating by managing their stress.

The idea of meditation — which involves little physical movement — as a technique for weight control might seem at odds with typical strategies for shedding pounds that prescribe physical activity to burn calories. While diet and exercise are indeed part of what she counsels to her clients, Stopler says the emotional aspect of overeating is often overlooked.

The missing link

A registered dietitian in private practice for 28 years, Stopler says she noticed about 10 years ago that eating well and exercising regularly weren't always enough, especially for older clients who often had many stressors and complications in their lives. (Her debut novel, "The Ropes That Bind: Based on a True Story of Child Sexual Abuse," was published in 2018.)

"I didn’t have what they needed," she says. "I didn’t know what was missing.”

In 2010, however, she received a promotional mailer for a course with Dr. Herbert Benson, of Harvard Medical School, founder of a type of meditation known as "relaxation response."

She decided to register for the program. After completing the intensive, weeklong course at Harvard, she realized she'd discovered the missing piece.

"I scheduled the first group meditation class for my clients a week after I got back," she recalls.

She's been holding classes roughly once a month since. Her clients — who also meet one-on-one with Stopler for more conventional nutritional counseling — pay $50 each for the hourlong sessions, which consist of 20 minutes of guided meditation followed by a group discussion in which participants share their experience "on the journey," as she describes it.

Many of them have successfully lost weight over the years, and Stopler believes the meditation has been a factor.

Dawn Heller, 59, who lives in Huntington, says she’s lost 20 pounds since starting to work with Stopler in October 2017. She is happy with her "slow but steady" weight loss.

"Tracy's meditation sessions are an added plus,” Heller says, “allowing me to find some inner peace and be more mindful with my eating."

Reducing impulsive eating

"It's an interesting idea," says Liz Neporent, an exercise physiologist and author of many health and fitness books, including 2018's “The Empathy Effect: 7 Neuroscience-Based Keys for Transforming the Way We Live, Love, Work, and Connect Across Differences” (Sounds True, $15.38) which she co-authored with Dr. Helen Riess.

While many studies have shown the benefits of meditation for stress reduction, Neporent says, "there's not a lot of research linking meditation directly to weight control, but it really makes sense."

"Some people use food to quell their anxiety," says Huntington psychotherapist Mollie Sugarman, clinical director of the Patient Empowerment Program at New York Breast Reconstruction Associates / Aesthetic Plastic Surgery in Great Neck. Although not a weight-loss client, Sugarman (who allows to being over 60), has participated in Stopler's meditation sessions. "Being able to have something to help deal with those anxieties is useful," she says.

There are various types of meditation: Benson's "relaxation response," has been described as a "secular" version of transcendental meditation and, according to an article in the Harvard Health newsletter, focuses on "eliciting a physiologic state of deep rest, the opposite of the 'fight or flight' stress response."

That state of deep rest is what Stopler prepares her clients to enter into at the start of the January class. As they close their eyes, the soft strains of a streaming music channel called "Spa" wafting in the background, she invites them to imagine floating down a river.

"Flow along your river of life," she intones. "Allow your body to relax."

Periods of silence are punctuated by gentle words of encouragement and empowerment.

"Remember, you are in charge of your boat of life," Stopler purrs. "Yes, there are problems, but you know how to handle them. You have the tools. You can face the problems. You have the strength."

Those problems include what one of those in the group calls "the gerbil on the wheel" syndrome.

Dee Harvey, 59, of Huntington describes that as "when it's 4:30 in the afternoon at work, and I'm stressed out, and I haven't had lunch, and so now I'm eating candy and soda and whatever five other bad choices I can find."

Being able to slow down, take deep breaths and channel the meditative experience, she says, "helps me put on the brakes."

After 20 minutes, Stopler gently brings the group back to consciousness. "When you're ready, open your eyes."

Most do — although Baily has fallen asleep. He is wakened by the stirring of those on the couch with him.

Stopler offers water to the group then invites them to share their experiences.

"I was very relaxed," says Barbara Muller, 50, of Wantagh. "Which I haven't been for a long time."

"I was snoring," says Baily. "That's a good sign. Like I'm at home."

"I was able to detach and observe myself," says Shanta Minhas, 75, of Plainview. "What a rich spiritual journey."

Whether it will translate into a trimmer waistline for everyone is an open question. While many of Stopler's clients are successfully managing their weight, weight gain remains serious problem for many older adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 35 percent of Americans over 65 are obese.

Neporent, who has written extensively on weight loss, believes Stopler's use of meditation for weight control is smart. "Anytime you can give people something that isn't another drug, that isn't surgery, and doesn't cost much, that's a good thing," she says.

For her part, Stopler is committed to the technique for her clients.

"The guided meditations connect them to their emotions so there is less emotional eating," she says. "The goal is to have them leave feeling and ultimately behaving more positively."

Battling weight gain as you age

Ever get the feeling that shedding a couple extra pounds has gotten more difficult as you get older?

It's not in your imagination.

"The older you get, the more the metabolism slows down," says nutritionist Lisa R. Young, who lives in Manhattan. "It becomes harder to lose that weight."

But, adds Young, author of “Finally Full, Finally Slim: 30 Days to Permanent Weight Loss One Portion at a Time” (Center Street, 2019; $14.99), “small changes can make a big difference.”

Such changes can include adding a few minutes of additional physical activity. "There's more and more evidence that doing something, anything can make a difference," says exercise physiologist and author Liz Neporent. "Even if you don't lose weight at first, your ability to move will improve which means you'll be able to move more. It all builds to a point where you are fitter, healthier and often, closer to your weight loss goals."

Young, who also teaches nutrition at New York University, emphasizes the importance of portion control in her book. "When you get older, you have to eat less in general," she says. "And you have to eat smaller portions of higher calorie foods." That doesn't mean a barren dinner plate — or disavowing favorite foods. "Have a smaller steak but add more salad and veggies," she says. "So, your plate is full, but you're eating less calories."

Experts agree that calming the mind and reducing the stress that triggers poor food choices or excessive calorie consumption may be key to weight management.

Nutritionist Tracy Stopler, who holds monthly meditation classes for her weight loss clients in her Plainview home, suggests the following exercise to help avoid mindless eating:

With your eyes closed, inhale slowly for a count of four ("one, two, three four."). Then deeply exhale, and count down from five ("five, four, three, two, one."). Repeat this four times.  

The simple calming effect of this deep breathing exercise, Stopler says, "can make it less likely that you'll reach for a candy bar or a plate of French fries, next time you're under stress."

And, she says, if you do the same exercise on your drive home — with your eyes open — “you are more likely to drive straight home rather than to the nearest drive-thru fast-food restaurant."

— John Hanc

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