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A Mindful Mouthful Review: Mindfulness is an ancient Buddhist concept. It means being full, intensely aware of what is happening within and around you at the moment. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, MIT-trained molecular biologist, and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the UMass Med Center, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” The idea of nonjudgmental in this context means being aware that some experiences are pleasant and others are unpleasant, without reacting emotionally to either one.
Outside Buddhism, mindfulness techniques have been offered as a way to relieve stress, improve sleep quality, manage pain and alleviate all sorts of physical problems from chronic gastrointestinal issues to high blood pressure. By 2003, with the publication of Susan Albers’ Eating Mindfully: How to End Mindless Eating and Enjoy a Balanced Relationship with Food , the concept of mindful eating burst onto the diet and wellness scene. If you have heard some of the buzzes about mindful eating and want to know more about it, this article is for you. Keep reading to find out the following:
- What is mindful eating?
- How does it work?
- What are the benefits?
- Is there hard evidence to back it up?
- Who can benefit?
What is mindful eating?
Living in a stressful, food and diet obsessed world often means that many of us have become accustomed to a hurried lifestyle that includes mindless, unhealthy, unsatisfying, and guilt-inducing eating. None of which is good. Mindful eating is the opposite of that. In a nutshell, mindful eating is a method for achieving a healthier, happier relationship with food. In the words of Susan Alber, “Mindful eating is not a diet.
There are no menus or recipes. It is being more aware of your eating habits, the sensations you experience when you eat, and the thoughts and emotions that you have about food. It is more about how you eat than what you eat.” To put it another way, mindful eating is eating with the intention of caring for yourself and the attention necessary for experiencing and enjoying the taste, texture, and smell of your food, and its effects on your body.
How does it work?
Following are the basics on how to start eating mindfully, that is, with intention and attention.
- Before you decide what to eat, clear your mind and think about what you really feel like eating.
- Be aware of why you are eating. It is about hunger and giving your body what it needs? Or is it about consoling yourself, or something else?
- Don’t make eating part of a multitasking experience. Sit down and unplug. Get rid of the distractions. Turn off the telephone, the iPad, the TV, the noise. Give yourself the ability to focus completely on the dining experience.
- Eat slowly. Set your kitchen timer for twenty minutes and take that full amount of time for your meal. If you find it hard to stretch it out that long, get into the practice of taking tiny bites. Try eating with your nondominant hand. Or use chopsticks if you don’t ordinarily use them.
- Be fully in the moment while eating. If you find your attention is wandering, take a deep breath,fold and refold your napkin, tap your fork on your leg, anything to get your attention and focus back to what you are doing.
- Enjoy your food with all your senses. Savor the color, aroma, flavor, temperature, and texture of your food.
- Make eating an event. Use a real plate and fork. Relish the experience of dining and enjoy it on every level.
- Be aware of how your mind and body are responding while you eat. Are you feeling anxious, guilty, stressed? Do you like it or love it? Focus on the physical acts of chewing, breathing, and the way your stomach expands and contracts. Ask yourself if you are still hungry.
What are the benefits?
Here are just a few of the benefits of mindful eating that are touted by its adherents.
- You learn to really taste, enjoy, and savor your food.
- You learn how food affects your mood, energy, and cognition throughout the day.
- You learn what foods make you feel better, and which do not.
- You learn to eat when you are hungry and stop eating when you are not.
Achieving all of the above could reasonably be expected to lead to healthier food choices, decreased calorie consumption, and weight loss for those who are overweight.
Is there hard evidence to back it up?
Yes. Harvard Health Publications reports that “A small yet growing body of research suggests that a slower, more thoughtful way of eating could help with weight problems and maybe steer some people away from processed food and unhealthy choices.”
Specifically, the publication mentioned the positive impacts of mindful eating on digestion, binge eating, and feelings of fullness.
When we eat while simultaneously doing other things—working, walking, playing a game, or driving this can slow down or even halt digestion. When the digestive process is disrupted, the body is not able to make full use of the nutritive value of what we are feeding it.
There have been quite a few studies of late to indicate that mindful eating strategies are effective in treating eating disorders. One of these was an NIH-funded study conducted by a team of psychologists at Indiana State University and Duke. The purpose of the study was to identify the efficacy of mindful eating techniques for the treatment of binge eating disorder.
The study involved 150 randomly selected binge eaters who were divided into three groups. The first group received mindfulness-based therapy. The second group received standard psychoeducational treatment, and the third was the control group. The researchers found that both groups who received some kind of therapy experienced decreases in binging and depression in comparison to the control group.
Further, they found that the group who received the mindfulness therapy seemed to struggle less to control their eating, to enjoy their food more, and to get more out of the program overall. The NIH has said that they intend to fund many more research studies of this kind.
Feelings of fullness
The body experiences the feeling of being sated because of messages it receives from the brain. While we are eating, the gut sends a series of hormonal signals to the nervous system which sends them to the brain which decides when the body has had enough food. All in all, it takes about twenty minutes for the brain to register a feeling of fullness. When we eat too quickly that feeling does not occur until we have already begun to overeat.
Who can benefit?
Anyone with a bad relationship with food stands to benefit from mindful eating. By “bad relationship” we mean an unhealthy, obsessive connection with food and weight. We are not just talking about eating disorder. We are also talking about something known as disordered eating , which is only a step or two away from an eating disorder and is, unfortunately, so common in Western society as to be considered normal.
Here are some signs to look for that will tell you whether you are a “disordered eater” who could benefit from eating mindfully.
- You tend to view foods as being all good or all bad. No carbs, no fat, nothing from a box, and so forth. This can cause you to skip meals and/or avoid entire food groups.
- You are always dieting. This is also known as the perma-diet, or yo-yo dieting because your weight has a tendency to go up and down all the time as you cycle between deprivation and binging.
- You weigh yourself once or even several times a day.
- You think about food all the time. Planning, obtaining, preparing, consuming, obsessing about food takes up a lot of your time and causes you anxiety.
- You engage in emotional eating. You eat because you are bored because it makes you feel better(emotionally, not physically) and to reward yourself for good behavior. Almost always you then feel guilty later. If you have an eating disorder, or if you recognize yourself as a disordered eater based on the above warning signs, you could well benefit from mindful eating. But so could everyone for that matter.
Eating with intention and attention connects us with the experience of eating and enjoying our food on a deeper level a skill that appears to have benefits far beyond anything that can be measured on a scale.