I’ve got a great way to remove excess body fat. Eat sloooowwwly. That’s right, slow it down. Recently, I was sitting on a plane in business class and when meal time arrived, I decided to observe how long it took for the folks around me to eat their food. The average time it took to scarf down the salad, entrée, roll and dessert was 7 minutes. That’s not good news since it takes roughly 20 minutes for the stomach and brain to register fullness. By the time your brain can process what’s going on in your stomach, you’re onto your second or third helping. Slow down, folks!
Scientists have noted that people who eat more slowly, referred to as mindful eating, have a lower body mass index (BMI) because they eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. Now most of us can figure out when we’re hungry, but stopping before you’re full is a whole different challenge.
The famous elderly but very healthy residents of the Japanese island of Okinawa rein in the calories by practicing a little mealtime ritual. Before they begin to eat, these octogenarians and centenarians simply say “Hara hachi bu,” which translated means “eat until you’re 80 percent full.” This seems to be a recipe for success since Okinawans eat 10 to 40 percent fewer calories than Americans.
It also helps to practice yoga. A 2009 study done by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that those who routinely practiced yoga did indeed weigh less than even gym-goers and walkers. Yoga practitioners are used to paying attention to every breath, and apparently every bite, too! It pays to be mindful of every mouthful.
I learned this lesson one night a number of years ago, when I found myself catching some very needed R & R at Rancho La Puerta, the famous holistic destination resort spa located not far from San Diego and just over the border in Tecate, Mexico. One night, at the invitation of Phyllis Pilgrim, their yoga leader, I participated in their “Mindful Dinner.”
The rules were simple. You selected all of your food and beverages ahead of time, and you spent the dinner time in complete silence. The dining room setup that night is still a cherished and vivid memory. Candles lit the room in a warm, red-orange hue. The crackling of the burning logs in the fireplace was the only sound that pierced the silence that enveloped the twenty men and women who joined me at the table.
At first it was strange not to be engaging in chitchat with people around you. Initially, we exchanged somewhat awkward smiles and then settled into enjoying our meal. Without the usual meal time distractions – cell phones, radio, TV, conversations – our attention was drawn to the food. The first thing I noticed was that I was more self-conscious about the speed with which I eat. After years of medical training and practice, I’m used to rapid fire eating, gulping what I could in a short time in anticipation of the usual tsunami of interruptions. During this mindfulness dinner, I had time to think about and savor my food, a rare exercise in culinary awareness.
Since there was nothing else to do, I spent more time paying attention to the aromas, texture and taste. I took smaller bites and allowed the food to sit in my mouth for a longer period of time as my taste buds sensed spices and sweetness. As I sipped the wine, I let it roll around my tongue, the woody flavor of the chardonnay rising to the occasion to complement my tilapia.
My first revelation was that by eating more slowly, I felt full and satisfied after having consumed a little more than half of the food on my plate. As I looked around at the end of dinner, I found that every single person had plenty of food still left on their plates, and yet, once we could talk after dinner, everyone noted with astonishment how satisfied they felt.
If you’re a binge eater, mindful eating is the way to go. Jean Kristeller, PhD, is an Indiana State University professor of psychology, creator of the Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training program and co-founder of the Center for Mindful Eating. She notes that her program works for those with a significant binging problem as well as folks who just want to learn how to control total calories through awareness of satiety. You may want to check her out and look at some of the academic work she has done in this newly emerging area of psychophysiology.
What I find interesting about this approach is that instead of concentrating upon what you’re eating, you’re paying attention to how you eat. When you do that, you can’t help begin to question the quality of what you eat, resulting in a shift from the usual grab and go fare to tastier, savory whole foods.
Want to give Mindful Eating a whirl? Here are some simple ways to slow it down as you both enhance your eating enjoyment while shedding some pounds:
1. Meditate for 10 minutes every day. Get into the habit of slowing down your thoughts and impulses and just “be.” This is like an exercise in mental aerobics. You’re training your mind to tune out distractions and pay attention to your breaths, and to inner thoughts of peacefulness.
2. Make the emotion-eating connection. Every day, journal the over-eating triggers you’re discovering as you become more observant of your meal time and snacking habits. You’ll find that the emotional triggers span the spectrum from sadness to elation. Be aware that you are vulnerable and be prepared to neutralize these impulses with mindfulness.
3. Decrease distractions. Turn off the TV and radio, try not to eat while you’re sitting in front of a computer, driving to work, rushing onto a plane or talking on the phone. Yes, I know. Our lives are filled with all of these distractions and more. It’s silly to think that we’re just going to drop all of these interruptions and live like a yogi. I’m just suggesting that you tone it down some and be acutely aware of what this kind of lifestyle is doing to your body as you mindlessly pack on pounds.
4. Be aware of whether you’re truly hungry or your appetite is out of control. True hunger is a biological drive and addresses the issue of “I need food to survive.” Appetite is a psychological drive that revolves around “I want to eat.” When they work in harmony, you’re in luck. For example, when you wake up in the morning feeling good and hungry since you ate a healthy dinner before 8 pm and had nothing to eat after that, you’re now prepared to have a savory, nourishing breakfast. You’re truly hungry (stomach is growling) and you know what you want (oatmeal with blueberries). It’s when appetite wanders off on its own that you rack up extra calories.
5. Before you eat, focus on your stomach. Be aware of how it feels when you’re truly hungry and your stomach is empty. As you begin to eat, pay attention to what your stomach feels like as it begins to fill with food.
6. Act like an Okinawan. Before you eat, just for fun say “Hara hachi bu”, or just murmur “I’m going to eat until I’m 80% full.” When in doubt, eat slowly and eat from half to two-thirds of what is on your plate. Make sure not to load your plate with a mountain of food. Portion control really helps you rein in those calories.
7. Savor every bite. Take time to be aware of the amazing sensations of smell, taste, texture and visual presentation of the food.
8. Bite and pause. Take a bite or two and then simply pause. During that pause, savor your food and reflect on how your stomach is feeling.
9. Practice in challenging situations. It’s amazing how persons, places and things can hasten our eating speed. Meal time conversations, wild music, alcohol, large plates and eating out with others can cause us to speed up our eating. Be aware of these challenges and proactively prepare to neutralize the impulse to eat faster by increasing your mindfulness.
10. Reap the rewards. Practice this new Mindful Eating approach for a month. Monitor your body measurements and I’ll guarantee you’ll see a positive change within those four weeks. For a real win-win, you’ll also probably notice that this mindfulness is spilling into other parts of your life, from how you organize your time to relationships. Mindfulness is all about improving the ability to savor not only your nourishment, but every moment of your life.
Have you tried to put mindful eating into practice? Share your experience on the Diet Exchange.