Remember what dinner was last night? Most can’t recall what we ate in the last few hours, let alone the taste. According to a 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American spends 2.5 hours a day eating, but more than half of that time we’re doing something else too. Because we’re working, driving, reading, watching television, or fiddling with an electronic device, we’re not fully aware of what we’re eating. And this mindless eating- a lack of awareness of the food we’re consuming- may be contributing to the national obesity epidemic and other health issues.
Today’s fast-paced society tempts people with an abundance of food choices. On top of that, distractions have shifted attention away from the actual act of eating toward televisions, computers, and smartphones. Eating has become a mindless act, often done quickly. It takes up to 20 minutes for the brain to realize it’s full; eating too fast means the fullness signal may not arrive until we’ve eaten too much. This is common in binge eating. By eating mindfully, you restore your attention and slow down, making eating an intentional act instead of an automatic one.
We all know most weight loss programs don’t work in the long term. Around 85% of people with obesity who lose weight return to or exceed their initial weight within a few years. Binge eating, emotional eating, external eating, and eating in response to food cravings have been linked to weight gain and weight regain after successful weight loss. Chronic exposure to stress may also play a large role in overeating and obesity. The vast majority of studies agree that mindful eating helps people lose weight by altering eating behaviors and reducing stress. By changing the way we think about food, the negative feelings that may be associated with eating are replaced with awareness, improved self-control, and positive emotions. When unwanted eating behaviors are addressed, chances for long-term weight loss success is increased.
What is mindful eating?
Mindfulness means focusing on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting all feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. The tenets of mindfulness apply to mindful eating as well, but the concept of mindful eating goes beyond the individual. It also encompasses how what we eat affects the world. We eat for total health. That’s essentially the same concept that drove the development of the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which, for the first time, considered sustainability of food crops as well as the health benefits of the foods.
Although the ideal mindful-eating food choices are similar to the Mediterranean diet– centered on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts, and vegetable oils, the technique can be applied to a cheeseburger and fries. By truly paying attention to the food we eat, we may indulge in these types of foods less often. In essence, mindful eating means being fully attentive to all the foods in our lives- what’s bought, prepared, served, and consumed.
1. Begin with a shopping list. Consider the health value of every item added to the list and stick to it to avoid impulse buying when shopping. Fill most of the cart with produce and avoid the center aisles- which are heavy with processed food- and the chips and candy at the check-out counter.
2. Come to the table with an appetite, but not when ravenously hungry. Skipping meals may produce such hunger that the first priority becomes filling the void instead of enjoying the food. Learn to distinguish between true hunger and non- hunger triggers and eat only until full. Ask why you’re eating, whether you’re truly hungry, and whether the food chosen is healthy.
3. Start with a small portions. It may be helpful to limit the plate size to nine inches or less. Start with a salad plate. It’ll trick the brain into believing it holds a larger larger portion of food from the beginning. Use a red plate to help signal the brain to stop when full and don’t finish all the food. Put some away for later.
4. Appreciate the food. Pause for a minute or two before eating to contemplate everything and everyone it took to bring the meal to the table. Silently express gratitude for the opportunity to enjoy delicious food and if not alone the companions you’re enjoying it with.
5. Bring all senses to the meal. When you’re cooking, serving, and eating your food, be attentive to color, texture, aroma, and even the sounds different foods make as you prepare them. As you chew your food, try identifying all the ingredients, especially seasonings, and how they taste feel on your tongue.
6. Take small bites. It’s easier to taste food completely when your mouth isn’t full. Put down your utensil between bites, that way it’ll take longer to eat and allow satiety cues to catch up. Focus only on the food. Turn off other distractions like the TV, computer, laptop or phone.
7. Chew thoroughly. Chew food completely so the essence of the food can be tasted and enjoyed. This may require chewing each mouthful 20 to 40 times, depending on the mouthful. Your taste buds will be surprised and delighted by all the amazing flavors this releases.
8. Eat slowly. By following the above advice you won’t bolt your food down. Devote at least five minutes to mindful eating before you chat with your table mates. Then, with all the other recommendations, eating will become an event unto itself. Allowing a fuller, longer, more incredible experience that links food to a positive behavior.
9. Learn to cope with guilt and anxiety about food. By increasing your recognition of physical hunger and fullness cues, we can better distinguish between emotional and true, physical hunger. This also increases our awareness of triggers that make us want to eat, even though we are not necessarily hungry. By knowing our triggers, we can create a space between them and our responses, giving us the time and freedom to choose how to react.
10. External eating. This occurs when we eat in response to environmental, food-related cues, such as the sight or smell of food. Unhealthy eating behaviors like this and eating out of stress are the most commonly reported behavioral problems in people with obesity. Mindful eating gives you the skills needed to deal with these impulses. It puts you in charge of your responses instead of at the whim of your instincts.
11. Notice the effects food has on your feelings and body. Over time all that hard work will pay off. Take a moment each day to look in the mirror and appreciate who you are, what you look like and the changes your making. Notice small achievements like buttons no longer straining on shirts, or pants are easier to button.
Mindful eating is a technique that helps us to gain control over our eating habits. It has been shown to promote weight loss, reduce binge eating, and help us to feel better. By changing the way we think about food, the negative feelings that may be associated with eating are replaced with awareness, improved self-control, and positive emotions.
Pick one meal a day to focus on these points. Once mastered, the tenets of eating mindfully will become natural and a routine part of that meal. Then expand these habits to the entire day. This can be a powerful tool to regain control of food. If conventional diets haven’t worked, why not give it a try?