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The Power of Mindful Eating

By Janet Helm, MS, RD

Woman Eating

I’m happy to see the concept of mindful eating gain even more momentum. Named after the Buddhist principle of focusing on the present, mindful eating is part of a rapidly growing non-diet movement. Quite literally, being mindful means keeping your mind on your meals. It means being fully aware of your feelings of hunger and fullness, along with the reasons why you’re eating.

Advocates of mindful eating say we should always associate food with pleasure – not fear, anxiety, or other negative emotions. Every eating occasion should be enjoyable, and no foods should be forbidden. I like that. This is what I believe, and a growing number of registered dietitians are helping people become more mindful eaters. Yet, some members of the medical community are divided on this topic.

Some obesity experts believe the growing popularity of mindful eating is making matters worse, while others say restrictive diets are the reasons why our country has an obesity problem and mindful eating is our best solution.  I don’t understand why there’s such a fervent divide between these two camps. I believe that restrictive diets don’t work, yet people who want to lose weight need guidance on what they should do instead. I don’t think it’s enough to say diets don’t work.

Mindful eating is about eating for health – not a number on the scale. Yet, for people who want to achieve a healthier weight, there are principles of mindful eating that can make their journey easier and more enjoyable. Here are ways you can be a more mindful eater.

  • Drop the moralistic language. Do not think of food as “good” and “bad.” If you categorize foods in this way then you’ll judge yourself in a similar way. You’ll not only feel bad about yourself when you eat something “bad;” you’ll likely eat even more of it and then feel guilty afterwards.
  • Say goodbye to guilt. If you have regret after you eat something, then you’ve just robbed yourself of the pleasure of this food. Plus, it’s this guilt that often leads to more overeating, not less.
  • Forget about forbidden foods. Do not try and make a list of foods you’ll never eat. The more you try to avoid certain foods, the more power they gain over you. When you know you can enjoy these foods whenever you want, you’ll find that they’ve lost some of their appeal. The desire to “cheat” will diminish and you’ll lose the urgency to eat them in large quantities.
  • Avoid distracted eating. Be sure you’re devoting your full attention to your food and not eating on autopilot. Savor the taste of every mouthful and make time to enjoy your meal without watching TV, working on the computer, or talking on the phone. A study conducted at the University of Massachusetts found that people who watched TV during a meal ate nearly 300 more calories on average than those who didn’t have the tube on.
  • Honor your hunger. This may take some practice, but it’s important to start paying attention to your body’s cues so you’ll know when you’re getting full or when you’re really hungry – and not eating for other reasons, such as boredom or stress.

Another part of mindful eating is tossing the idea of perfection. It means not being so hard on yourself if you ate something you think you shouldn’t have – or you didn’t plan on eating. If you want a cookie, have one, enjoy it, and move on. Do not punish yourself if you weren’t “perfect” that day. Do not even aim for perfection.  Make every eating occasion an enjoyable experience and make small improvements every day.

Have you taken steps to become a more mindful eater?

Photo: iStockphoto

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