How Mindful Eating Can Help You Lose Weight

    
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD

One of my favorite “experiments” to try is something I like to call the mandarin orange effect. When talking to a group about dieting and mindset, I will bring a bag of mandarin oranges (or some other seasonal fruit that people enjoy). Before I even say a word to the group I go around the room and place one mandarin in front of each person; I provide no instructions, no cues, just place the fruit before them and move along.

I’ve done this experiment countless times, and every single time there are a few people who will immediately eat the orange - sometimes before I even finish passing them out to the group. Some will ignore it, and others will stare intensely at it waiting for permission to consume it.

The magic happens shortly after I introduce myself to the room and finally acknowledge the mandarin. Immediately, those who ate it get a look of panic on their face. Likely thinking to themselves, “oh crap, I wasn't supposed to eat that yet”!

I tell the group they have been tricked... sort of. "I placed the mandarin in front of you so that you could enjoy it. But, I also did it to teach you a lesson about yourself and how you eat".

  • Did you notice the orange?
  • Did you stop to think about it, why it was there or whether or not you should eat it?
  • Or did you automatically just throw it down the hatch without a single thought about it?

It is difficult to understand our relationship with food from our own perspective, often times it takes moments like these to really understand our eating habits and how we think about food. If you believe you are someone who would automatically eat the fruit or take too much time to stress over why it was there in the first place, you could likely benefit from practicing more mindfulness.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the art of being more aware and acting with intention.

When applied to food, being more mindful simply means paying more attention to what you’re eating, how it tastes, smells, looks, and taking more time to be present in the experience of your meal. It also means eating a little more slowly and purposefully.

Mindfulness can help you make better food decisions, feel less stressed about your diet and promote a more positive outlook in general. It really is just paying attention to what you are putting into your mouth and making a conscious effort to eat when you are hungry, stop when you are full and avoid food situations that lead to guilt and emotional eating.

The Mind-Gut Connection

We know that losing weight requires calorie control and eating better, but it’s not the what that we all struggle with, it’s the how. And learning how to lose weight, ultimately starts in the mind.

It’s no secret that we’ve attached a lot of weird feelings and beliefs to our diet and food choices - how many times has something you ate made you feel guilty? And how many times have you turned to food for comfort?

There is a scientific reason behind why we do these things, it’s not just the society we live in. Our brain chemistry is strongly linked to our gut. Through a series of hormones, we can trigger hunger, fullness, and digestion cues. And because food is fuel, we can experience psychological triggers like stress, that can also affect how we utilize our food and what we crave.

Just the thought of eating something can cause your stomach to release digestive enzymes before you even eat anything. 

Our food intake is connected to our mood, and our mood is connected to our cravings (1). Stress and anxiety can impact our digestion, leading to heartburn, diarrhea, and GI distress (2). And calories, especially carbohydrates, play a major role in regulating your emotions, and being so hungry that you are angry is a real thing. Carbs are linked to your self-control - which is why we cannot control our temper when we have low blood sugar, and we get hangry. Even your gut bacteria is linked to your mindset and emotions (3). 

In addition, when looking at studies assessing how attention and memory affect food intake, researchers found that being distracted while eating tends to lead to increased calorie intake while paying attention to your food more it could cause you to eat less throughout the day.

Benefits of Mindful Eating for Weight Loss

It's no surprise that mindless eating is associated with increased calorie intake, unhealthy food choices, and weight gain. If you are eating mindlessly, you really aren't paying attention to your diet at all. 

And on the other end of the spectrum, strict dieting does some interesting things to our mindset. It is human nature to go towards what is more comfortable, and any time we feel restricted (like on a diet) our body’s naturally want to revolt. This drains our willpower, messes with our self-esteem, and makes losing weight that much harder. So instead of going into your diet with an “all-or-nothing” approach, find a happy middle ground and start to work on your relationship with food. This will do wonders in helping you achieve your health goals and makes the journey much more enjoyable.

Changing the way you think about food, by eating more mindfully, can be an effective approach to weight management for a lot of people. Here are some of the top reasons why you should consider eating more mindfully: 

Better Appetite Control

Eating quickly has been linked to weight gain in a number of studies, and on the flip slide, slowing down your eating speed may help you lose more weight (4,5). This is directly linked to your ability to recognize when you are full and it is time to stop eating. 

For most people, it takes about 20 minutes for your brain to recognize that you are full. So if you are eating your food in 5 minutes or less, you likely aren't giving yourself enough time to rely on your natural form of calorie control - your hunger fullness signals. 

A review of the research suggests that mindful eating may help you gain more awareness of your body including your hunger and satiety cues (6). Mindfulness forces you to slow down and think about what you are putting into your mouth, and as a result, gives you more time to digest your food and learn when you are truly satisfied. 

Decreased Cravings

Mindfulness is also associated with decreased cravings and is often used as an effective approach to treating food addiction (6).

Cravings can often be the result of food restriction or from not eating enough in general; poor nutrition intake and stress can also impact your cravings (7,8).

Mindfulness helps solve these by removing some of the emotional aspects of dieting and focusing on more positive eating behaviors (9,10). If you are eating mindfully, you tend to enjoy your food more and feel more satisfied. In addition, you tend to make better food choices overall.

Better Body Image

You're a relationship with food can also impact your relationship with yourself. Research suggests that those who practice mindful eating tend to be more compassionate to themselves and are less likely to reward themselves with unhealthy food, leading to improved body image and more self-love (6).

Self-esteem is a critical factor when it comes to making a health or fitness change. So many people go into a diet thinking weight loss will help them feel better about themselves, and for some, it does due to increased confidence, but it’s not the only thing that matters. There will always be someone better looking, thinner, or stronger than you, and losing weight won't change this. You’ve got to learn to love yourself in the process if you want the best results inside and out.

Improved Nutrition

Awareness of what you eating goes beyond enjoying your food. Not only can mindful eating help you eat less calories, but it might also help you make healthier food choices too. Research suggests that those who practice mindfulness when it comes to their diet, are more likely to choose nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables, have a higher intake of fiber and lower intakes of sugar (11,12).

Increased Willpower and Motivation

The benefits of mindfulness are even seen without intentional calorie counting - meaning just tuning into your body more might help you stick to your diet better.  Not to mention, removing stress and negative thinking around your food can free up some of your willpower for other things, like hitting the gym and avoiding unexpected temptations. Positive vibes also fuel your motivation, leading to a better mindset about your health and your goals.

How to Eat More Mindfully

You can learn mindful eating using a few tricks for slowing down and thinking things through. Let's go back to the mandarin... I'll wait while you grab a piece of fruit (or try this during your next meal or snack). Take a moment to stop and ask yourself the following:

  1. Why are you eating? Are you truly hungry or is it just that time of day? Or perhaps, there is just food around that looks good. Take a moment to think about what is driving you to eat at this particular moment and take note of any behavior that is not helping you move towards your goals. There is nothing wrong with eating when you're not hungry, or eating for pleasure, but make sure you are aware of why you are doing it and do your best to make it a positive experience free of guilt and any negative emotions.
  2. Are you distracted? Many of us eat on the run, at our work desk, or even in the car. Not only does this mean we aren’t paying attention to our meal, but we don't appreciate it either. Try making your meal or snack more of an event. Set a table for yourself, go somewhere calming and relaxing (like outside), and leave your phone and laptop behind.
  3. What benefits does this choice bring you? It can be easy to focus on the negative when it comes to dieting and all the things you should avoid, but you shouldn't ignore the positives. A great judge of choices that works for you at any given time, could be finding a reason to eat it. Is it a source of protein, fiber or key nutrients you'll benefit from? If you're making a choice, does one item have more benefits than the other, even regardless of calories? This is the practice of eating with intention and making choices that improve your overall diet by adding to it.
  4. What does the food look like? Smell Like? Feel like? Taste like? Sound like when you eat it? Take note of all your senses involved and try to experience each one. This is the art of savoring every bite and taking your time.
  5. How does this food make you feel, physically and emotionally? Pay attention to the foods that make you feel great from the inside out. And choose more options that energize you, don't make you feel bloated or weighed down, and make you feel good about the decision you made.
  6. Did you track your intake? Keeping a food diary or tracking your food is a great way to keep yourself accountable and practice mindful eating just from writing it down.

Practice these behaviors when you eat. Remove distractions and train yourself to think differently about your food, to take more time for yourself, and to make eating better more of a priority.

Want to make eating healthy even easier? 

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