The CBT mouth orgasm scale
This article and extract were previously published in the Independent on Saturday.
Eating mindfully is the key to healthy eating and no-diet weight loss. Cravings inspires CBT expert Helen Perry to share a unique and effective ‘conscious eating’ tool.
- “The Mouth Orgasm (MO) scale has nothing to do with sex but everything to do with the very sensual and whole-body experience of present-moment—mindful—eating, as described in Cravings,” says Durban-born clinical psychologist Helen Perry, who dreamed up the scale while watching her weight balloon 20 years ago (see extract).
- “I was an emotional eater,” the Brisbane-based former yo-yo dieter, now an advocate of mindfulness, mindful eating and mindful self-compassion says. “I mean, what do you do if you’re sad, mad, glad, drunk, stressed, sore, miserable, homesick, bored, celebrating, crying or lonely? You eat, right?”
- Or, like Perry, you break these patterns, make changes and start eating for hunger, pleasure and good health.
- “You are what you eat” has long been a popular mantra. You are “how” you eat is proving to be as, or more, relevant, when it comes to good health and sustainable weight loss.
- The “how” involves eating with mindful awareness and engaging the senses: being in-the-moment present to what you’re eating, the taste, texture, flavors and the in-the-body experience and how it makes you feel.
- A growing body of research, especially in the broad field of cognitive behavioral therapy, Perry’s long-time focus, is showing that eating mindfully can be key to healthy, sustainable weight loss.
- It involves consciously, and with a playful awareness when using the MO scale and other mindfulness strategies, working with the brain and how habits form and change (neuroplasticity). While conventional diets are generally rigid, temporary (in terms of duration and weight loss) and involve rules and deprivation, mindful eating involves pleasure, nurturing and working with what works, person to person.
- Perry lost weight in a sustainable way when she became conscious of what she wanted to eat. Namely, “full-fat foods eaten without guilt, heaps less sugar and processed carbs than I previously had eaten and a tad more protein. I began to enjoy cooking and eating real, unprocessed food and leaving food on my (much smaller) plate at every meal, just because I could. And the weight started slipping away and my body began changing shape. I was amazed.”
- Hope might spring eternal—but diets don’t work. Anyone who has tried a number of them knows this. Mindfulness, however, can — and does. — Wanda Hennig
The MO scale as explained in Cravings: A Zen-inspired memoir… (Say Yes Press, 2017).
After reading a draft of Cravings, Australia-based Helen Perry—clinical psychologist, cognitive behavior therapist and co-author of Experiencing CBT from the Inside Out—sends me a Facebook message. It’s to tell me about a visual analogue Mouth Orgasm (MO) scale she developed when “newly married and new to New Zealand, drowning in the rain, eating my miseries away and in the process gaining 20-plus kilograms.”
“You’ve got me thinking as to what might really have been going on for me,” she says.
Perry is no stranger. Once-upon-a-time I was her high school counselor (at Maris Stella in Durban). Since falling down that hole, she got a handle on her eating, relocated to “sunny Brisbane” where she had friends and family, moved on with her life. And forgot about the scale. Till she read my book. “I was thinking, wouldn’t this be a nice way to improve one’s experience of mindfulness while eating?” she says. “To notice the effects on your pleasure centers.”
She points out that a visual analogue scale (VAS) “is by its nature idiosyncratic to each individual and therefore subjective: measuring only this person’s experience at this time, assessed by his or her own anchor points—as established from past experience.” So she suggests I think of the most orgasmic thing I’ve eaten. “That could be your 10. The least orgasmic, your one.”
By way of example, Perry recalls her “10” from back then. The temptation that sparked the MO idea. It was a luscious minty ice cream. She relates the sensual experience of eating it. And hey, couldn’t one view the anticipation and what she calls “the visual feast”—ogling the dark chocolate flecked with peppermint bits—as foreplay?
This followed by “the weighty feel” of the fat ice cream on a stick between her thumb and forefinger; cracking through the hard, thick chocolate with her teeth; the “hungry mouth and eager tongue” meeting “the cold, gorgeous, creamy ice cream;” the “first shudder of true delight” as the minted swirl of flavor hits her taste buds; the “melting in the mouth, when I have to cry mmmm. Followed by a second and third, mmmm, mmmm, mmmm.” And then the sugar high that hits “with a warm fuzzy pulsing through my whole body, probably as the endorphins are released.”
“The miracle of food,” she adds.
I fancy I hear a contented sigh.
A “one” on Perry’s scale? “A plain boiled egg. Pleasant and satisfying but no shudders or warm fuzzies afterwards.”
Hmm. Wonder how she would have ranked my Scots grandmother’s egg flips.
Inspired by Perry’s example, and grateful for her gift—she tells me to take what I want from her VAS; to adapt it as I wish—I put it on my mindfulness menu. Try it. Play with it. And find all I need do is ask myself, with interest and curiosity, the obvious question: one through 10, where on the MO scale?
I find it “same” but “different” from the “food or sex” buzz phrase. More organic. Makes my mouth water even if there is no food in the picture. Makes me become “in the moment” mindful when food is present: just as Perry said.
At times, when I get into a relationship (seems an appropriate term) with something I consider a treat—into the whole MO experience as in seeing, smelling, texture, flavor, mouth-feel, thinking about how it makes me feel and whether it’s what I want to be chowing—I wake up to the fact that I’ve been seduced by a habit memory and what I’m eating is not so sense-sational after all.
Thinking “Mouth Orgasm” is fun. It’s easy. It’s instant. Doing it in company feels like a secret decadence. And this simple practice works as a natural barrier to overeating: feeling stuffed being the opposite of orgasmic, sensual or turned on.
I also note that depending on my mood and my hunger, what ranks as a nine on a Monday might switch to a five on Tuesday, which playfulness and unpredictability keeps the MO game fresh.
On a recent morning at the Buddhist Retreat Center, in South Africa, I’ve spooned gently bubbling oats from a jumbo pot into a bowl. I’ve dolloped on natural unsweetened full-cream yoghurt, plopped about a dozen raw almonds on top, added a handful of house-made muesli, some wheat bran and a scattering of linseed. Eating this in the quiet of the “noble silence” observed at breakfast, I note that on the MO scale, I am giving it a 10. Like a warm and comforting lover, it’s satisfying and sublime. Which is not to say a decadent dalliance won’t be the object of desire another time, another place.
Part of the joy.
It’s like the “do you want food or do you want sex” mantra has come full circle and transformed itself. —Thank you Helen P.