When you sign onto a diet plan, you’re inevitably given a set of marching orders: Count your calories, weigh your portions, limit your carbs, avoid gluten, shun dairy, don’t eat out. At first, the boot-camp approach seems stellar. Finally, a plan that’ll whip me into shape!
But soon enough, all the weighing, measuring, and avoiding starts to feel like, well, boot camp. (Ever tried gluten-free rice bread?) When you follow your orders, you feel miserable and deprived. When you go AWOL, as most of us eventually do, you feel guilty and defeated. Want to step off the dieting roller coaster? Try mindful eating.
“Mindful eating is about slowing down, reconnecting with your body’s hunger and fullness cues, and noticing the colors, flavors, and aromas of your food,” says Meredith Milton, M.S., C.N., Mazlo’s mindful-eating expert.
Rather than follow a strict, pre-fab plan for as long as you can stand it, you start to intuitively make wiser food choices. That’s when the pounds start dropping off.
“When you tune into your body, let go of your guilt, and honor what your body is asking for,” says Meredith, “you find that you don’t actually want ice cream all the time.”
What “Mindful Eating” Really Means
Have you ever scarfed down a burrito without noticing whether it was spicy or crispy or overloaded with sour cream? Whether you enjoyed the burrito or were even hungry when you ordered it? Maybe you gave the burrito no thought at all – until 30 minutes later, when you noticed your bulging belly pressing painfully against your waistband. You can reverse that entire scenario by applying the concept of mindfulness at mealtime.
Mindfulness simply means directing your full attention to what you’re sensing and feeling in the present moment. Distraction and judgment fall by the wayside. This might sound like a bunch of hoo-ha, but it’s no exaggeration to say mindfulness can transform how you respond to life’s events – including the event of eating a burrito. In reconceiving the eating experience, you set yourself up to reap an array of benefits, including weight loss.
A good place to start is spending 5 minutes of quality time with a raisin. Yes, one raisin.
“Pick up the raisin and look at it with an attitude of curiosity, like, I’ve never seen this thing before,” Meredith says.
Examine the ridges. Feel the rough texture. Smell the raisin. Place it on your tongue. Feel the saliva gathering, and observe your desire to chew. Then, as you chew, notice how the flavor and texture evolve.
Now take this exercise a step further: “Follow the raisin down your throat and into your stomach and imagine it being converted into fuel your body will use,” says Meredith.
What is the point of going through this rigamarole? The raisin exercise is just for practice, not something you need to do regularly. However, learning to be mindful on a more modest scale – even just a few minutes a day – can transform your relationship with food.
The Benefits of Mindful Eating
Not only do most of us eat on autopilot but we also make our food choices subconsciously. We scoop out just the amount of ice cream that fills our bowl. We eat 17 chips because that’s how many fill a package. We eat lunch at 12:00 because that’s the company’s lunch hour. Our actions have nothing to do with how delicious the ice cream is or how hungry we are, and we tend to later regret them.
But when you use your senses to guide your food choices, everything changes. Here’s how:
- You prime your brain to make wiser and more deliberate food choices. Over time, gray matter increases in the part of the brain that controls executive functioning – the ability to plan and to choose long-term gains over short-term rewards. So rather than scarf down a handful of M&Ms at a party, you might stop and think: I’m going to regret this. I’ll have grapes instead.
- You begin to enjoy healthy, whole foods over highly processed “food products.” Many of us don’t even know what lettuce tastes like because we habitually drench it in dressing. We have no idea whether we like plain yogurt because we buy varieties heavily sweetened with sugar or aspartame. Eating mindfully triggers epiphanies like: Wow, I didn’t realize frozen yogurt has such a chemical taste. Or, Carrots are sweet! Eventually, you realize you don’t need a tablespoon of ranch dressing to enjoy a piece of broccoli.
- You’re satisfied with less food. “When you’re not fully present for the first bites of your food,” says Meredith, “you miss out on the flavor, so you keep going back for it, even well after you are full.” By slowing down, you may find a single piece of chocolate does the trick – and you can squelch that internal battle over whether you should even be eating the chocolate.
- You enjoy improved digestion, with less gas and bloating. The more you chew, the more enzymes are released in saliva, Meredith explains. “You’re helping the digestive process start earlier, so your stomach doesn’t have to work as hard.”
- You can control binge eating and emotional eating. “We have this pull to eat when we’re anxious,” says Meredith, “but if you can sit with your anxiety for 10 seconds, ride the wave of it and take a few deep breaths, you may find your anxiety softens.” Over time, binge eaters and yo-yo dieters who practice mindful eating become aware of their triggers and respond more skillfully to them. You realize that what you really need, rather than a slice of cake, is to call a friend, go for a walk, take a nap, write in your journal, or address a problem that needs solving.
- You feel empowered by your eating choices rather than guilty about them. If you’re in the habit of obsessing over what you eat and judging yourself – “I shouldn’t eat those cookies” or “I have no willpower!” – eating mindfully will bring you peace around food and your body. “You find yourself saying, ‘No, I don’t want to eat that cookie,’ or ‘I’m savoring three bites of this cookie, and then I’m going to walk away.’ ”
How to Practice Mindful Eating
Don’t fret if eating mindfully sounds daunting or tedious. Adopting this habit takes practice! Start with a few bites at one meal each day, and experiment with the following tips. Working with a mindfulness coach can help a lot, too.
- Minimize distractions while you eat. Turn off the TV, and when you have dining companions, make a point of being present when you talk to them and then switching your attention fully to each bite. If you’re reading at mealtime, read a few paragraphs, then push aside your reading material and take a few bites.
- Try various tricks to slow your eating pace. Use smaller utensils, put down your fork between bites, use chopsticks, eat with your non-dominant hand, chew each bite 15 times before swallowing. Use the extra time to put your senses in play, noticing the food’s textures, flavors, and aromas as well as your feelings of hunger or fullness.
- Notice your thoughts and emotions but don’t judge them. If you catch yourself thinking, I shouldn’t be sucking down this smoothie, simply observe: I’m rushing to eat between meetings. Don’t tell yourself, I should be eating carrots. The idea isn’t to value carrots over cupcakes; it’s to bring full awareness to the eating experience.
- Try a salty-savory-sweet experiment. Take one bite of a salted cashew, a carrot, and a cookie. Notice how your tongue feels different with each flavor or how a flavor lingers in your mouth for a while. The point is to bring curiosity to the experience of eating. You might think, Hmm, there’s a film in my mouth after I eat donuts.
Mindful eating is a simple practice but can prove challenging if you’ve bounced from diet to diet or habitually eat on autopilot. When you find your mind wandering, shift your focus back to your senses, and you will inevitably slow down and stay present. Over time, you will find that the benefits of eating with intention go beyond losing weight and feeling better physically, Meredith notes.
“It’s amazing to see shifts in people who are used to being restrictive or obsessive about their eating. Eating mindfully frees up more mental and physical energy and space for them to do other things in their lives.”
This article was originally published on blog.mazlo.me.
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