We all know what mindless eating is. It’s reaching into a bag of chips, and finding—to your surprise—that it’s empty. Or that sleeve of Girl Scout Thin Mints, that pint of Ben ‘n Jerry’s, the tub of buttered popcorn in your lap during your Friday family-night-in. You may remember taking the first few bites, but the rest disappeared in a blur.
The opposite—mindful eating—is the new buzzword in diet circles right now, and that’s a good thing. With mindful eating, you savor every bite without judgment, alert to signals from your body that tell you when you’ve had enough, either because you’re not hungry any more, or because more chips, cookies, or spoonfuls of ice cream just don’t satisfy like the first ones did. Mindful eating means using your body’s cues to tell you what, when and how much you need to eat to be well. It’s based on the practice of mindfulness, which is about paying attention without judgment.
The “without judgment” part is important because if we’re focusing on why we shouldn’t be eating the chips or ice cream, we’re likely to miss those “I’m full” signals our body’s sending us.
Eating in response to our body’s cues are part of normal eating, something that we’re hard-wired to do. But many women who struggle with their weight don’t recognize those cues anymore. The good news, though, is that you can get back in touch with your body and re-learn how to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. And that, my friends, can take you to a great place that supports achieving and maintaining a healthy weight for life. Indeed, research points to mindful eating as a way to end yo-yo dieting and permanently adopt healthy eating behaviors.
Mindful eating may be the hot diet trend of today, but I’ve been teaching the concept for 20-plus years at Green Mountain at Fox Run. These tips can help you get started.
- Eat regularly. Use hunger as a cue to start eating and satisfaction as a cue to stop. If you aren't clear when you're hungry, begin by eating every 3 to 5 hours or so during the day to avoid out-of-control hunger, which sets us up for overeating. Track your eating according to a hunger scale to help understand the different degrees of hunger and fullness and how to eat in a way that keeps you satisfied without overdoing it.
- Eat balanced meals and snacks. Have you ever tried to cut out carbohydrates, only to end up craving them and eventually satisfying that craving with sugary, high-fat foods? The more unbalanced we eat, the more likely we’ll end up making unhealthy food choices that keep us struggling with weight. Plan your meals and snacks around a mix of foods containing whole carbohydrates, protein and/or fat. As a rule, fill half your plate with vegetables or fruit, grains or starchy vegetables on one quarter, and lean protein on the remaining quarter.
- Eat what you like. Feelings of deprivation can force you to think about a food you think you shouldn’t have, often even as you’re eating it. They shift your focus away from deciding whether you really want the food, or if you’re eating it, watching for signals that tell you when you’ve had enough. For mindfulness to work, we need to stay in tune with our bodies.
- Give it time. Taste preferences can change. Start slowly, adding one serving of fruit or vegetables to your daily meals/snacks. After you make that a habit, choose another improvement, such as adding another serving, or getting adventurous and trying different vegetables. The key is to be patient. A year from now, you can find yourself enjoying foods you never believed you would, and find yourself at a much healthier weight.
Marsha Hudnall, RD, MS, CD, is a nationally known nutritionist with more than 25 years experience as a weight management specialist. She is the owner and program director of Green Mountain at Fox Run, a healthy weight-loss spa exclusively for women. She serves on several boards and has authored seven books on healthy weight loss. Click here to view her complete bio.