Looking for the next big thing to help with weight loss? Don’t have the willpower to follow a diet? The answer may lie in an ancient practice that encourages enjoyment of food (even chocolate).
It’s not what many of us want to hear at new year, but diets don’t work. Extensive research shows that, in the long term, restrictive eating practices contribute to weight gain and a disturbed relationship with food and eating whereby your mind and body are no longer working together but on parallel tracks. Your head wants to limit calories, while your body’s biology desperately tries to fight ‘starvation’ and essentially forces you to overeat or even binge eat. It has nothing to do with willpower. Meanwhile, metabolism slows with each new diet attempt, leading to the dreaded ‘yo-yo’ cycle. So, then, what is the answer for those of us who want to lose weight this new year without rebound weight gain?
Enter mindful eating.
You’ve probably heard of mindfulness. It’s one of this decade’s most talked-about psychology topics, praised as an accessible, self-help practice that has been shown to help with everything from stress to anxiety and depression. Drawn from ancient Buddhist practices, it is alarmingly simple. In short, it is paying attention to what is in any given moment. This often involves paying close attention to the body and functions such as breathing as well as sensations such as the feel of your feet connecting with the floor or the cool sensation of a breeze rushing past your ear. It makes sense, then, that mindfulness is now being explored and used as a tool to regulate food intake and help with weight management.
How does mindful eating work?
The idea is that overeating or consuming unhealthy foods is often the result of a kind of distractedness or disconnect from the body’s cues and signals. Many of us make food decisions based on convenience rather than what would nourish our bodies and make us feel good. In addition, many of us eat on auto-pilot, which causes us to consume unnecessarily large portions. (It is hard to recognise when you’re full if you’re holding a burger in one hand and driving with the other or inhaling a cafe pasta at your desk). Moreover, rapid eating with little or no chewing may prevent you from feeling satisfied. This is because it takes about 20 minutes for the brain to register satiety (fullness). What’s more, chewing fully helps the body’s hunger and fullness hormones to kick in. Which is why ‘mindless’ eating can contribute to weight gain and work against weight loss.
On the flip side, consciously choosing and preparing nutritious foods, making dedicated time to sit down and eat without distractions, paying close attention to the experience of eating, including texture and taste, and tuning in to your body’s signals between mouthfuls (e.g. by putting down your fork while you fully chew and properly swallow), may mean you recognise that you are satisfied with less food. Many people who try mindful eating report that it’s ‘like magic’. If you’ve tried ‘dieting’, you may be surprised that regulating food intake and weight can be so simple and effortless.
Is mindful eating a diet?
Mindful eating is not a diet. In fact, the two concepts are contradictory. A key difference is that while diets prescribe ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods (often with a ‘forbidden’ list), mindful eating encourages consumption of a varied, balanced diet including favourite ‘indulgences’. In fact, your favourite chocolate can form a valuable part of mindful eating - even if your goal is weight loss. How can this be? The logic behind the lack of restriction in mindful eating is two-fold. One, the psychological and physical deprivation triggered by restrictive eating actually set in motion processes that promote binge eating or erratic patterns of ‘light’ eating and ‘splurging’. If everything is allowed, this is less likely to occur. Two, favourite ‘indulgence’ foods are great vehicles for mindful eating practice. For instance, that decadent Danish chocolate you buy by the piece and special occasions. The key is to opt for small portions of high-quality chocolate or cheese and make an occasion of eating them. Think of it as a kind of ‘food meditation’.
What about the chocolate?
Let's apply a typical, simple mindful eating session to a piece of chocolate. First, sit down, preferably at a table, with a single piece of chocolate served on a nice plate. Take time to observe its appearance. Next, take in its aroma. What do you smell? Then slowly move a small amount of food to your mouth and take a small bite, noticing the feeling as your teeth penetrate the food. Is it cold? Hard or soft? Then push it back on to your tongue and observe characteristics such as the flavour, temperature and roughness or smoothness. Continue to observe changes in these attributes as you chew thoroughly. The more complexity a food or meal has, the more rich and satisfying you're likely to find the eating experience - which is why experts recommend choosing more expensive, high-quality foods over low-quality, uninteresting ones you're more likely to need more of to feel satisifed.
How to practise mindful eating
Unlike diets, mindful eating is a long-term practice. You don't need to entirely change the way you choose, prepare and consume food overnight. Experts suggest starting mindful eating by choosing one meal a day for practice. Try these hints and tips to kick start your mindful eating habits.
- Organise yourself to be able to sit quietly, without distractions, for 20 minutes with a sensible portion of good-quality food. If you’re at work, this may mean taking your lunch outside or choosing a time when the office kitchen is quiet. Preparation is key.
- Set a timer for 20 minutes, and pace yourself across that time. There is no hurry. You want to give your hunger and fullness hormones a chance to kick in and tell you when you’ve had enough.
- To help you to slow down, try eating with your non-dominant hand or using chopsticks. Once you’ve placed food in your mouth, put your utensils down and focus on observing the characteristics of the food. How does it taste? How does it feel? How does it change as you chew (be sure to chew fully before swallowing)?
- While eating, consider the wonderful natural processes that contributed to the flavours and textures and nourishment the meal is giving you. What did it take to grow that crispy lettuce?
- Once you've eaten enough (you may well find you don't wish to finish the portion), remain seated for a few minutes. During this time, pay attention to your level of hunger or fullness. Do you feel comfortable? Imagine the goodness infiltrating your cells as nutrients travel to each part of your body. Perhaps there is a pleasant aftertaste? Thank yourself for the gift of mindful nourishment.
Is mindful eating the same as intuitive eating?
Intuitive eating is another ‘anti-diet’ practice hailed as an effective tool for curbing behaviours such as binge eating and emotional eating. Like mindful eating, it discourages a restrictive diet mentality and promotes permission to consume all foods. Intuitive eating also encourages awareness of the body’s needs and signals such as hunger and fullness. However, proponents of intuitive eating warn against using the practice for weight loss. While weight loss may be a side-effect, making it a priority can work against truly becoming aware of and freely honouring the body’s needs.
If your new year goals include losing weight, eating better or resolving certain health issues or symptoms, consider consulting an accredited practising dietitian (APD) for science-based, personalised advice.