From calorie counting apps and to endless meal plans and diet books, the nutrition and weight loss industry is largely fixated on what we should eat, and how much of it. That’s where mindful eating offers a refreshingly different perspective, instead focusing on why and how we eat.
No good food, no bad food
Based on the broader mindfulness practice of being fully present and in the moment, without judgment, mindful eating avoids labelling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. There are no rules or restrictions around what we should or shouldn’t eat. Instead, it’s about reconnecting with the sensory experience of preparing and eating food. Rather than inhaling your meal, it’s an opportunity to slow down and tune in to your body’s hunger and fullness cues.
It’s also about being curious (rather than self-critical) about what drives your habitual eating behaviours, such as emotional eating, bingeing and mindless grazing. “Often, we are not present with what we are eating or even why we are eating,” says Sherisse Cohen, a psychologist specialising in mindfulness-based approaches. “Learning to eat mindfully involves developing skills to become more aware of our body’s sensations, our thoughts and feelings, and also becoming aware of our urges to eat, which can be quite habitual and very powerful.”
What science says
The concept of mindfulness has its origins in Buddhism, but despite its spiritual roots, it has science on its side too. Just ask science journalist and ‘self-experimenter’ Michael Mosley, who in SBS's Trust Me, I'm a Doctor (watch it on SBS On Demand) dons electrodes then subjects himself to a barrage of distressing images, to test whether a brief mindfulness exercise influences brain activity. “What we found was that after mindfulness, there was a much less pronounced response to the images,” he says. “The interpretation is that mindfulness enables us to control our emotional responses to [stressful] stimulus.”
So, how does mindfulness impact our responses to the magnetic pull of chocolate, chips and other food-based ‘stimulus’? Encouragingly, research suggests that mindfulness can help us develop a healthier relationship with food and our bodies. A 2014 University of Missouri study of women who took part in a 10-week mindful eating program found the women reported greater body appreciation and lower levels of disordered eating behaviours such as bingeing, purging and fasting. Another study of binge eaters found that just four months after completing mindful eating training, 95 per cent of the group no longer met the binge eating disorder criteria, and if binges happened, they were likely to be significantly smaller. Plus, many volunteers reported a lessened desire to scoff sweets and high fat foods.
All this sounds promising for our waistlines, but trimming down isn’t the true goal of mindful eating. “That misses the point of becoming curious about your present moment experience and how your body is going at any one point in time, because you’re driving for a particular outcome,” explains Fiona Sutherland, accredited practising dietitian, mindful eating specialist, and co-director of Body Positive Australia.
Helps you shed bad habits
So, mindful eating doesn’t promise weight loss. However, it can help you loosen the vice-hold of unhelpful eating habits and develop healthier ones. It also puts you back in charge of your food choices, allowing you to decide what works for you personally. “Our culture is saturated with ‘right and wrong’, ‘good and bad’ and when we pay more attention to that than what our body needs, we can become disconnected and confused,” says Sutherland. “One of the most common things I hear from people is ‘I’ve forgotten how to eat.’ Their body hasn’t forgotten, it’s just that their mind has taken over, so we need to strengthen the connection between the two.”
Part of this is learning to differentiate between body hunger and ‘heart hunger’ or emotionally-driven hunger. “The first step is awareness; being able to notice and name your emotions and understanding what they feel like, where they are in your body, and what they are communicating to you,” says Cohen. Next, is finding more constructive ways to deal with those emotions. “To be honest, it’s much easier to follow a clean eating meal plan than it is to say ‘what’s actually going on here with my eating?,” says Sutherland. “But that’s the invitation; to do the work in order to be more well and feel more connected.”
These practical strategies will help you adopt a more mindful approach to eating.
Rate your hunger
Before you eat, gauge how physically hungry you are on a scale of 0 to 10. “I help people discover what hunger feels like for them, for example it might be a gnawing sensation or emptiness in their stomach, they might become distracted, or some will feel a pulling sensation,” says Sutherland. Both Sutherland and Cohen also suggest taking a mid-meal pause, where you pause halfway through a meal to check in with your body about how hungry or full you’re feeling.
Notice your first bite
“Your first mouthful is an opportunity to notice the flavours and textures and really enjoy it,” says Sutherland. “This trains us to connect with that present moment experience, and if you continue to stay connected for the rest of the meal, that’s great.”
Switch off the TV
“The worst possible thing you can do is eat watching the telly; it’s the ultimate form of mindlessness,” says Mosley. He cites an experiment where volunteers were asked to watch TV, with tempting snacks within reach. “One guy ate nearly 2000 calories in just half an hour,” he reflects. “That’s what mindfulness makes you realise; that you can scoff vast amounts without paying any attention.”
Create an activities box
It’s easy to reach for food as a panacea when we’re stressed, anxious, lonely, bored or simply tired. “I get clients to brainstorm a list of activities and create a box including things like crayons, a manicure set, music they love or inspirational quotes,” says Cohen. “The idea is to try to sit with the urge to eat, understand where it’s coming from and then distract oneself in a sensory way.”
Download an app
Smiling Mind and Headspace get our experts’ tick of approval as general mindfulness apps, while the Am I Hungry? Virtual Coach app is their pick in the mindful eating space. If you’d prefer a more tangible tool, check out the Mindful Eating Inspiration cards (available at http://bodypositiveaustralia.com.au/).
Watch Trust Me I'm A Doctor Mondays 8.30pm on SBS, then watch it on SBS On Demand.