Mindful eating is an increasingly popular strategy to help people regulate their food intake, make better food choices, lose weight and generally be healthier. Like all diet strategies for maintaining a healthy weight, or encouraging weight loss, the success of mindful eating comes down to ensuring we are eating the right amount of calories for our goals… but what is mindful eating? How does it help promote weight loss? And what are its strengths and weaknesses compared to other diet strategies?
What is Mindful Eating?
When we talk about mindfulness generally, it is about being present in a specific moment, especially one that might cause us a specific emotion or response. These reactions are often pre-programmed, and taking time to be aware of this emotion or response, and if it should be acted upon or if another course of action is more appropriate can really help. Mindfulness then could be suggested as some kind of internal control to ensure our decisions are well thought out and we do not become victims of emotions and habits that may not lead to the best ‘result’ in the long term.
Mindful eating, is about taking stock of our own eating behaviours, the environments in which we might overeat and to be able to place into context the food choices we make. There are many examples of this that we probably don’t often consider which could be derailing weight loss success no matter how ‘good’ you are trying to be.
When is Mindful Eating Important?
When people start to diet they are generally highly aware of the food choices they make, but often a certain environment or emotional situation can completely undo their good work.
Many people eat as a response to stress or negative emotional states, some people go into autopilot in certain environments and intuitively make less than ideal food choices, and some people just do not take time to stop and assess the foods they are eating; including things like portion size and overall food quality. A few examples we commonly come across include:
- Going to the cinema and automatically going for the sweets and popcorn (or being peer pressured into it) even though you are not hungry.
- Rushing for lunch and automatically going for the ‘meal deal’ including highly calorific snacks and drinks without contemplating other options.
- Eating out at a restaurant and going straight to our previous food choices without consideration there may be better options (some people view even entering a restaurant as failure, and let this influence food choices).
- Shopping when hungry, making you choose more calorie dense foods that will be calling to you from the cupboard later on.
- Eating whilst watching TV and being unaware of what you are eating, or at least the amounts of food consumed.
- General grazing behaviour such as nibbling on foods when cooking or having biscuits or treats at work, which all adds up to make weight loss more difficult and weight gain much easier.
- Having a stressful day and reaching for some ‘junk’ that will make you feel better… at least in the short term.
- Feeling full and not being aware of it… or being aware of it but it’s rude not to finish your meal or those last few sweets, right?
That’s not to say we can’t have foods we enjoy, and this is one reason why flexible dieting; calorie and macro counting, has become popular. However, even if people do like to track their nutrient intake and hit their daily goals, it is probably still wise to be mindful of what they are eating.
Although calories matter, food choices are also important to keep you feeling fuller, healthier and keep cravings at bay. It is also important as, without being mindful of what we eat, tracking can fall short because some people are not mindful of the bites, licks, nibbles and tastes they have over the course of the day.
Mindful eating then isn’t just about the bigger picture of emotional eating, or taking control over our food environment, it is also about awareness of the little things that add up that can make our weight loss efforts effective or derail them completely despite thinking we are trying our best and doing everything right.
How Do We Mindfully Eat?
Like any habit we have to practice. The majority of our eating behaviours are determined over many, many years so they are pre-programmed in any give situation. I think the key word here though is awareness.
We need to be aware of our triggers, the bites, the nibbles, the when and how we make food choices that might derail our efforts. This might take time to sit and think it out, write down our thoughts and feelings about food and how we respond in certain situation and, most importantly, what we can do about it.
For example, at home stop eating in front of the TV where you’re distracted from the amount you are eating, if you make bad food choices on the go then prepare meals, start attempting to make better food choices when eating out, don’t shop when hungry and generally being more ‘present’ whilst you are eating… do I need that big a portion, am I now full or am I eating for the sake of it?
We can’t be ‘perfect’ all of the time, but we can increase our chance of weight loss success by making sure we can rationalise our eating behaviours and practice making better choices.
Anything Else We Need to Consider?
Firstly, mindful eating is not a diet as such; it is an approach that may help dieting be more successful if applied correctly. Mindful eating alone may not be enough if we are still unaware of what food choices we should be making.
For example, nuts are often described as healthy (and they are rich in healthy fats, fibre and micronutrients) but they are still highly calorific so we might be mindful to snack on ‘healthy’ foods instead of biscuits or chocolate. This does not mean that eating large quantities of any food, no matter how mindful you are or healthy it’s perceived to be, is still going to impact negatively on your efforts.
Therefore, we also have to be mindful across the board, not just in terms of food choice and avoiding emotional/environment driven eating, but we also require education of nutritional values and portion control, at least initially, in order to make mindful eating work.
The ultimate goal of nutrition education, which food logging/tracking can be great for, combined with mindful eating leads to a condition of intuitive healthy eating where we have educated ourselves on food values and have created better lifestyle habits and reprogrammed our food response to specific ‘high-risk’ environments and emotional states. This gives us the capacity to maintain a healthy weight whilst not having to track or miss out on foods we enjoy because we have the capacity to know our individual limits and regulate foods accordingly.