Mindful eating is bringing awareness to our eating habits and patterns and aids weight loss. Practising the mindfulness diet brings us to an awareness of our body and its sensations, bringing attention to the deep wisdom of our body and its natural need for healthy, moderate amounts of food and exercise. Learning to recognise the thoughts and emotions – such as boredom or desire – which influence our eating, can fundamentally alter our compulsive patterns of stress eating, emotional eating, binge eating and mindless eating. Mindful eating gives us the ability to establish a healthy relationship to eating, exercise, body weight, and body image.
‘The hard part isn’t getting your body in shape. The hard part is getting your mind in shape’
The mindfulness diet
When most of us hear the word diet we instantly think of calorie-counting and hunger pangs etc., but the original meaning of diet comes from the ancient Greek word diaita, meaning ‘way of life’ – so Mindfulness diet literally means ‘being aware as a way of life’.
The Mindfulness diet doesn’t suggest certain types or amounts of food, although a natural progression of being more mindful about what we eat, means we will automatically look to eat more balanced, healthy food – various suggestions can be seen further on.
If we really want to lose weight and stay slim, we need to change our food associations and develop new ones in the brain and eating mindfully can help us do that. Research shows that merely by changing how we eat can effect weight loss. Mindfulness has been scientifically proven to help improve health, lessen pain and escape sickness by reducing stress – and as stress is often the reason for overeating, mindfulness can help us to eat better meals, allowing us to lose weight without actually dieting. It teaches us to be ‘present’ in the moment and to be aware of the messages our body is sending us. It can be as simple as taking a few breaths before we put food in our mouth, considering and then deciding, if we really want it. It helps us to recognise and understand our triggers for eating badly, whether from being over-hungry or feeling stressed and allows us to overcome them.
When we are able to slow down, pause, and remain calm in the ‘present’ moment it allows us to reduce stress, better recognise hunger signals, and rid us of out-of-control binge eating and overall anxiety. Mindful eating – paying attention to the smell, taste, temperature, and texture of the food: being aware of our dining experience; recognising our hunger and level of fullness; and being aware of our surroundings – adds satisfaction, balance, and more intuitive eating.
Why do we need the mindfulness diet?
How often have we sat in front of the TV and emptied a big bag of crisps, or ate a whole packet of biscuits without noticing? It’s too easy to do and eating, without thinking about it, can literally mean we consume thousands of extra calories! When we realise that a few hardly-noticed nibbles a day can add up to over a 100 calories each time, it’s hardly surprising that over a year those little nibbles alone, can add over 5kg of weight and with so much processed and convenience food around there is constant temptation.
Unhealthy eating habits can easily become just that – habits – automatic responses stored in our brains just like riding a bike. When we’re doing something so often every day, we easily switch off and boredom sets in and we then become even more unaware of what we are doing – especially when we use our screens to entertain us whilst eating. Brain chemicals released every time we eat bad food can mean that emotional eating becomes a hard-to-shift habit.
Those of us who have tried to diet know that it’s easy to commit to a healthy-eating plan to begin with, but we soon lose ‘steam’ after a few days or weeks! This is because we don’t give our new, healthier habits the time and attention needed for them to become automatic – it can take an average of 66 days for a new habit to embed and it certainly doesn’t happen overnight for anyone! Creating new, healthy behaviours can take as much time and effort as breaking old, bad ones.
A mindful approach helps us to enjoy forming a healthier eating habit – whether it’s to choose veg over refined carbs for weight loss, to slow down so we can enjoy mealtimes, or to cut out meat for our ethical views. Mindfulness shows us how to connect more powerfully with the brain to change the old, fixed, neural pathways and to build new ones to strengthen.
How does mindful eating work?
Clinical trials have found that practising mindfulness can significantly decrease compulsive eating habits, improve self-control and enable long term weight loss and then maintain the weight loss. Just using some simple mindfulness exercises daily will build our self-awareness, allowing us to think more clearly about what we are eating, instead of being in autopilot. Participants in the trials reported being less likely to overeat and feeling satisfied with much smaller portions than before. They felt that for the first time ever, they were caring deeply about what they were putting into their bodies.
Mindfulness can change our eating patterns as follows:
- It reduces stress – this leads to an improved, healthier relationship with food. A study has shown that non-stressed mice who were fed a diet high in fat and sugar gained half as much weight as mice under chronic stress who were fed the same.
- It heals the ‘mind/body split’ – we give most of our attention to our thoughts and little to our body. We cannot be in full control of our eating without being aware of our body. Mindfulness can mend this ‘mind/body split’, by helping us to be aware of our body’s desire for healthy nutrition and moderate amounts of food.
- It helps us to appreciate food more – by paying attention to the sensory experience of eating, which reduces the effect of food cravings. It helps us to recognise that certain foods are not actually so appealing when eaten mindfully. We can experience more satisfaction from eating healthier and less food through mindful eating.
- Mindful eating helps to reverse the emotional eating habit – up to 75% of over-eating is thought to be ’emotional eating’, but mindfulness can alter the area of the brain related to the processing of emotions and increase positive thoughts.
- Mindfulness helps us to recognise the relationship between our thoughts and our automatic eating behaviours – by understanding the link between our intentions and our desires, before we automatically act on them. We may think ‘I want that biscuit’, but instead of just taking it, we are mindful that it is just a thought and recognise that we have a choice – to eat the biscuit or not.
- The practise of loving-kindness increases our self-respect and self-worth – this is often linked to our relationship with food. So many people with low self-worth try to fill the void by eating, but that can never work because the void is nothing to do with food. Learning loving kindness will help us to eat in a way that respects our body and health.
- It increases your motivation to exercise – when we are mindfully more in touch with our body, and less with our mind, we will become more aware of our body’s need for exercise and it will seem the natural thing to do – shifting from maybe a ‘should’, to being a healthy desire and thus, in turn, reducing our stress.
- It positively affects our mindless relationship with the media – we know that trying to constantly compare ourself with the images with which we are bombarded via the media has undesirable effects on eating behaviours ranging from anorexia to weight gain and obesity. Mindfulness helps us to find a more balanced and conscious relationship with the media, which helps our long-term weight management.
- It shows us that ‘quick fix’ dieting is ineffective – 95% of us who lose weight this way will regain the weight again and sometimes even add more. The mindfulness ‘way of life’ allows us to recognise that quick fixes never work, but that awareness of mind, body, emotions, and behaviour can make impressive changes.
Mindfulness and the various eating behaviours
We need to pay attention to why we eat and how we eat, to learn about our internal and external triggers and to listen to what’s happening in our body and mind. We can use mindfulness to slow down our automatic behaviours and help us make wiser, healthier choices and learn some details about a good diet and how it will ensure weight loss and help us stay at a healthy weight for life. Regular practise will develop our skill of paying attention, which will help us block the lures of mindless eating. We might still be attracted to the smell of freshly baked bread, but our developed skills should allow us to pause before acting and that can often be enough to choose to make a healthier choice.
Mindful eating can help beat:
- Binge eating – this can be substantially reduced by resolving common triggers; increasing awareness fullness; reducing self-criticism; developing a wiser relationship with eating, our body and self; enhancing emotional control skills; increasing motivation to change behaviour; and reducing depression and anxiety.
- Cravings – these can be caused by low serotonin levels, hormonal changes and emotional management needs, such as wanting to reduce stress. Cravings are often related to emotional and stress eating (see below) and can be reduced by helping to satisfy a craving with less of the food craved; recognising that some craved foods are not that nice when eaten mindfully; blocking the link between urges and eating behaviours; and recognising that cravings are often brief and could disappear when not acted upon.
- Emotional and stress eating – this can be reduced by improving our mood states; reducing feelings of psychological distress and overall stress; enhancing our ability to detach from, and reduce our overall experience of, negative emotions and increasing brain activity associated with happiness and optimism. The more we practise mindfulness, the more we will reduce our stress, allowing us to enjoy deeper states of calm. It interrupts the cycle of stress connected to negative thinking, whereby the negative thoughts feed back into more stressful thoughts, which then causes more stress in the body. Mindfulness reduces both mental and bodily stress and as a result stress eating reduces.
- Lack of motivation for exercise – this is vital for successful weight management and overall good health and mindfulness has been proven to reduce our stress, thus increasing our desire to exercise; to enhance our mental serenity and concentration; and to develop our intentions to exercise.
- Negative or distorted body image – this is common for those who struggle with eating and leads to anxiety, shame, unhealthy dieting habits and eating disorders. Mindfully limiting our exposure to media images can encourage healthier eating habits and increase self-esteem, which will reduce our stress, (preventing us from mindlessly scanning the media); enhance our ability to manage challenging emotions; help us to recognise that being mindfully ‘present’ for our life is better than media distractions, which can make us depressed.
‘Eating well is a form of self-respect’
- Struggles with weight management – effective, long-term weight management can be achieved through mindfulness in numerous ways by reducing our stress; putting us more in touch with our body’s needs; helping us appreciate our food more, so we eat less; disrupting the emotional eating habit; interrupting the relationship between our thoughts and the automatic behaviours caused by those thoughts; increasing our motivation to exercise; and disrupting the ‘mindless’ relationship with the media.
- Problems with yo-yo dieting – this can cause various health risks including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and gallbladder disease. Mindful eating can overcome the habit of yo-yo dieting, by providing a healthy foundation for a longer-term, healthier approach to eating.
Tips on cutting out junk food without noticing
The more fruit and vegetables, wholegrain and legumes we eat, the less room there is for refined and processed foods. Here are some ideas for simple additions to our regular dishes to increase our intake of these valuable foods :
- Add chopped up spinach and tomatoes to scrambled eggs
- Eat some leafy greens and curried lentils for lunch
- Add grated courgette, carrots, cauliflower or broccoli to sauces, casseroles, salads and sandwiches
- Replace some or all of the meat in burgers or meatballs with mashed black beans
- Make some fruit-based smoothies with added baby spinach or kale
- Use silken tofu, amaranth or millet to thicken creamy sauces and soup
- Add chopped nuts to salads, porridge, yoghurt, biscuits and casseroles, or substitute nut flours for some or all of the wheatflhour in recipes
- Use avocado slices in sandwiches, or use as a spread instead of mayonnaise, or mix into an egg salad.
- Add ground flaxseed to smoothies, yoghurt and porridge for omega-3
8 tips for eating mindfully
‘The best project you’ll ever work on is YOU’
As we practise our mindfulness skills and healthier eating habits, they will slowly become what we do and part of who we are. To apply mindfulness to everything we eat we need to do as follows:
- Before we put anything in our mouth we should stop and ask – what is our hunger level? Why are we eating this? Is this food going to support our health? How will we decide when to stop eating? Be aware of how we feel and any emotions we are experiencing? Bringing mindfulness to our approach helps us to avoid mindless or emotional snacking and provide our body with only the nourishment it needs – when it needs it.
- Pick a small plate/dish – it’s amazing how just this simple trick can fool the brain into thinking we’re eating more food than we are. Ask for a smaller portion and check how our meal divides the plate – half should be vegetables, a quarter protein and a quarter starches.
- Practise mindful breathing and then when we are about to eat something we shouldn’t, we can use the breathing to give us a moment of reflection to calm our emotional justification and really question whether we want the unhealthy treat, or whether there’s a separate emotional trigger happening. Eat with intention: Nourishing food and meditations for mindful eating (Ebay book)
- We need to give our mind and body the chance to be truly nourished – instead of making eating just another item on our to-do list – by enjoying our food without distractions. No multi-tasking – turn off the TV, computer, phone etc. – this will allow us to be more relaxed and focused whilst eating and enjoying our food.
- Slow down our eating – before we start the meal we should practise a short meditation and stop our meal after ten bites to check our hunger and fullness signals. Take time to savour our food, enjoy the flavours and chew well. Halfway through the meal we should take a break to decide whether to eat more – what are our sensations of decreasing hunger and increasing fullness? Try eating with our non-dominant hand or with chopsticks if we don’t normally use them or even chopsticks in our non-dominant hand! Do whatever we can to just slow the meal down – of course, this is more difficult when eating out with friends etc., but we can do this whenever the opportunity presents itself. Our stomach doesn’t tell our brain we’re full until up to 20 minutes after we eat, so this will help us realise when we’ve had sufficient.
- We should consider at every meal: can we choose wholegrain instead of refined varieties? What protein do we have (fish, nuts, lentils, cottage cheese, eggs, lean beef or poultry)? How many servings of fruit and veg do we have? How colourful is our food (a good mix of red, orange, yellow, greens, blues provides the range of antioxidants we need)? Do we have some healthy fat (olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds)?
- Practising mindfulness will transform eating our food into a sensory experience – it teaches us to appreciate the colours, textures and aromas – turing it into a more vibrant experience.
- Get in touch with our own body’s needs and become our own hunger expert. We will then recognise what food, and how much, our body really needs instead of how much we think we should be eating. We are our own best expert and only our body can tell us what and how much we need to eat.
How to resist the naughty snacks
We easily snack and graze on auto-pilot, but instead of snacking on biscuits etc, we should replace them with fruit or veg. If we are tempted by a biscuit we can bring our awareness to our body sensations, thoughts and emotions and think:
- Why are we eating this food?
- Are we bored?
- Are we actually hungry? And if so, what’s a healthier choice?
- What will make our body feel good?
Snacks are as important as meals, with regards to the calories and nutrition and if you need to eat more frequently, we need to change our mindset and adjust the portions, so that we eat five or six mini-meals, all with a balance of lean protein, slow-boring carbs and healthy fat. Use each mini-meal to increase the servings of fruit and veg. Keep cut-up celery,carrots, sugar snap peas etc in the fridge (and at work if possible) for grazing.
We are three times more likely to eat the first thing we see when we look in the fridge or cupboard and should therefore stock up on healthy foods, displaying them prominently and stop buying the unhealthy stuff!
‘Remember when your body is hungry, it wants NUTRIENTS, not calories’
- Fruit and veg – we should ideally be having 9-11 servings a day (6-9 of veg and 2-3 of fruit). This shouldn’t be difficult if we eat a couple of servings in every meal and snack. These nourish our body with natural anti-inflammatory compounds.
- Whole-grains – we need 2-4 servings a day of brown rice, oats, buckwheat, quinoa or barley and products made from them, such as buckwheat pancake mix, wholemeal bread, pitta or pasta and muesli etc.
- Lean protein – we should have 6-9 servings a day of fish, lean beef, chicken, turkey or cheese, cooked beans, lentils, chickpeas/hummus, edamame beans, greek yoghurt, nuts, milk, eggs, nut butter and protein powder.
- Healthy fats – we need 9-11 servings a day of olive oil, pesto, ground flax, chia or hemp seeds, avocado, butter, nuts and seeds (walnuts, almonds, pecans, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, flax seeds and nut butters, including peanut, almond and cashew butter). We should choose cold or expeller-pressed sunflower oil (for high-heat uses), extra-virgin olive oil (for baking, roasting and sautéing), walnut oil (for salad dressings) and toasted sesame oil (for flavouring stir-fries).
- Natural sweeteners – if at all possible, we should be trying to stop sweetening our tea and coffee, but if that’s a struggle, then we can use stevia (a calorie-free, plant-based sweetener). Maple syrup and honey is less processed than white sugar, but are still not great for us, so we should use in moderation.
‘When you start eating food without labels you no longer need to count calories’ Amanda Kraft
- Any food containing high-fructose corn syrup as it causes increased weight gain (particularly around the belly) – in fruit, fizzy and sports drinks, biscuits, sauces, dressings etc.
- Any food with partially hydrogenated oil or trans-fats, which raises our risk of heart disease and diabetes – in margarine, biscuits, cakes and granola bars!
- Any food baked with white flour, which causes our blood sugar to spike and crash and triggers cravings – in white bread, pasta, crackers, breakfast cereals and baked goods.
- Binge foods, which we can’t stop eating once we start – crisps, tortilla chips, biscuits.
- Unhealthy oils like corn oil, vegetable oil, vegetable shortening.
Mindfulness will naturally increase our desire to eat good, healthy, natural foods in a mindful way and help us cut out the poor food choices, which is crucial for sustained and effortless weight loss. Mindful eating practises will build up our health and vitality at a cellular level and guide us to a healthy weight. What we eat and drink will either cool or fuel the fires of our bodies’ inflammatory process and maximising our intake of foods that protect our cells from this damaging effect, will help protect us from inflammation-related diseases, along with making it easier to lose weight and keep it off.
Also, for this reason, we should try to cut refined carbohydrates, sweets and artificially sweetened drinks, by switching to wholegrains instead of white bread, rice and pasta. Reducing our intake of all flour-based products, like bread and pasta and eating more intact grains – brown rice, quinoa and barley – is even better than wholegrain breads and pastas. Choosing wholefoods with plenty of fibre, such as vegetables, intact grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds, will help enormously in keeping our blood sugar level stable.
We should eat a combination of slow-burning carbs, lean protein and healthy fat – for example; a small portion of wholegrain pasta, with fish or chicken and broccoli, tossed in pesto or avocado. When eating an apple as a snack, combine it with some peanut butter for protein and fat.
What mindful eating can do for us
Mindfulness heightens our ability to recognise internal cues that signal hunger and fullness, helping us turn the calorific balancing act into a long-term habit of the mindful. Those of us who are more mindful and pay attention to our body sensations will experience fewer weight fluctuations over time. Mindfulness disrupts cravings by reducing the appeal of unhealthy foods. It teaches us to recognise our food craving, when it pops up, as just a mere thought – just like a soap bubble – when we touch it, it disappears.
Basically, we should think to ourselves every time we begin to eat something……’I’ll smell it, try it and decide whether this food is actually causing me any joy – and this will allow me to choose whether to eat it or not’ Which is really a good way to live our lives also isn’t it?!
Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
© 2017 Mindfulness4u.org All rights reserved