As a nutritionist, I am often posed the question: How do I maintain my weight? Many people who take up running for this purpose know that what they eat plays a critical role in helping them to lose the weight and keep it off, but did you know that how you eat is also a major contributing factor to healthy weight management?
Emotional Eating and Food Addiction
I realised this was the missing piece of the puzzle in weight-loss programs that did not equip participants with the tools for long-term success. Most people who rebound in weight do so not because they do not know what they should eat to maintain their weight-loss, but rather, despite their knowledge, they find themselves mindlessly turning to food to distract them from their worries and fears or as a mask to cover up uncomfortable feelings like ennui or sadness. This is called unconscious eating or emotional eating.
Food is also often used as a reward. After a long day, all we want is to soothe our exhausted, hard-working selves with ice-cream and potato chips. Eating these sugary and fatty foods trigger the release of opioids in our brain. Opioids are the active ingredients in many narcotic substances; hence the downside of depending on sugar and fats to calm and soothe the mind and spirit is developing an addiction to food that is hard to break.
Research in Mindful Eating
As the rates of obesity and disordered eating rise, more and more people are looking for alternative methods to help treat these conditions, among them is an increasing interest in mindful eating. A growing body of research now shows that a slower, more conscious way of eating could potentially help with weight issues and eating disorders.
Psychologist Jean Kristeller at Indiana State University and colleagues at Duke University conducted a study on the treatment of binge eating. The study compared a mindfulness-based therapy to a standard psycho-educational treatment. At the end, participants in both groups reported declines in binging and depression, but those in the mindfulness-based therapy group also noticed that they feel less of a need for control over food, and eating became a more pleasurable experience. In another report, researchers discovered that dieters who continued to use mindfulness techniques after completing a weight-loss program not only maintained their weight, but in fact continued to drop pounds.
Mindful Eating to Maintain a Healthy Weight and Appetite
The research is promising but how does mindful eating work? Mindfulness involves being fully aware of what is happening within and around you in the moment. When using mindfulness around food, you’re present and aware to the whole experience of eating. You slow down the entire process and deliberately pay attention to what is happening both inside yourself –thoughts and emotions – and outside yourself, in your environment as you eat.
By removing distractions like TV, work or your mobile phone, and turning your attention to stimuli like the colors, smells, flavors, temperature and textures of your food, mindful eating helps to reconnect you with your physical body. By engaging all your senses, you derive more pleasure from your food and quite often, people who eat in such a conscious manner in fact end up eating less.
By observing internal thoughts, you start to pick up repetitive thought patterns and emotions that may lead to certain cravings and food choices. You are better able to distinguish between physical hunger and emotional hunger, and meet your needs with the appropriate form of nourishment, which may not necessarily be food. You are also more in touch with your body’s fullness signal and can eat to a point of being satisfied without over-stuffing yourself. Ultimately, instead of allowing your feelings to rule your food choices mindlessly, you start to naturally control portions, choose healthy options and avoid emotional eating.
Mindful eating isn’t just about weight loss. When you tune in to your body’s real needs and start improving your eating habits, it will in turn have positive effects on your overall health and well-being.
Mindful Eating 101
Convinced and all ready to give mindful eating a try? Here are some tips and tricks to help you get started:
- At the start of your meal, gauge your hunger from 0 – 10. Half-way through the meal, repeat and ask yourself, "Do I really need to keep eating?"
- Try eating with your non-dominant hand. The whole idea is that you slow down the process of eating.
- Put down your fork or spoon between each bite, and only pick it up when you have swallowed the food.
- As you eat, try to visualize the entire process of how that meal got onto the table – from the sun's rays to the farmer to the grocer to the person who prepared the food.
- Pretend you are a food critic and imagine how you would describe the meal to your readers.
If you are new to mindfulness, mindfulness teachers often advice to start slow and build up your practice gradually. You can begin as simply as eating one meal a day or week using one of the suggestions above. Remember, there is no need to over-commit. Mindful eating is not a fad diet or a quick-fix, but rather a simple and gentle way to re-establish a healthy and joyful relationship with food and eating.