Armed with these simple tips, you can painlessly shed pounds. (Photo: Stocksy)
Mindful eating may not be a mainstream weight-loss tactic (yet), but that doesn’t mean it’s unsupported by science. In a 2013 Kent State University study, researchers found that mindfulness strategies — for example, paying close attention to the taste and smell of food, and attending to hunger and fullness — significantly increased people’s satiety after a meal. Another study showed that dieters who still practiced mindfulness techniques after completing a weight-loss program continued dropping weight. So how can you bring these skills to the table to drop pounds? Start with these secrets to success, gleaned from the new book 20 Pounds Younger.
We live in a world where the ability to multitask is considered résumé-worthy. But eating while working, answering e-mails, or doing other tasks can make you consume more than you need. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who played solitaire during lunch felt less full than undistracted eaters and ate significantly more when offered cookies just half an hour later. So make your meal strictly about eating: Banish the TV, iPad, smartphone, or book from the table—period.
Pay attention to portions.
People who eat mindlessly often prefer to remain in a state of ignorance, with no knowledge of serving sizes or the number of calories in foods. But in order to give your body what it needs, you need to face the facts. “How many M&Ms is a portion? How many chips?” says Lesley Lutes, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at East Carolina University. “Take it out, put it on your plate.” In her experience, people are often surprised — in a good way. “They thought a portion was just three or four chips,” she says. “They felt so guilty about what they were eating that they’d just stick their hand in the bag and keep eating. But we want you to celebrate food.” The first step? Understanding — and consciously choosing — what you eat.
Put your food on display.
When you eat straight out of the bag, what happens? (1) You don’t stop eating until the bag is empty, and (2) you have no idea how much food you actually shoveled in. “People consume a lot more calories if they’re not focused on the food,” says Lutes. “Seeing the food — and seeing the portion size — actually helps you feel more full.” So regardless of how much or how little you’re eating, use a plate or a bowl. That way, your mind will register that you’re eating — and you’ll expand the sensory experience (and pleasure) of your meal. “We eat first with our eyes,” says Katie Rickel, PhD, a clinical psychologist and weight-loss expert who works at a weight-management facility in Durham, North Carolina. “We have to gain some pleasure from the visual appearance of food — otherwise, watching Food Network shows would be totally boring.” (This is also why we like to post our meals on Instagram.) Another trick that helps some people: Leave a bit of food on your plate. By conditioning yourself to stop eating before the empty plate signals that you’re “full,” you’ll gain the confidence that you can overcome visual cues to keep eating.
Appreciate your food.
I know it seems hokey, but before or during your meal, take a moment to think about where your food came from — for example, “This piece of fruit started as a seed, which was planted by a farmer or blown by the wind. Sunlight gave that seed the energy to grow, then someone tended the plant as it matured, harvested the fruit, and delivered it to me.” “This makes the experience more whole, rather than just stuffing food into your mouth without thinking about it,” says Rickel. Plus, it’s much easier to trace the path of “real” food than it is the heavily processed stuff, which may actually be a little gross to think about in too much detail. “This could probably help you choose cleaner, more whole foods,” she says.
Start off eating slowly.
You probably think eating mindfully means eating at a snail’s pace. But that’s only true in the beginning. “For teaching purposes, we slow it down,” says Jennifer Daubenmier, PhD, an assistant professor at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. “But with practice, you don’t necessarily have to eat in slow motion.” As Rickel points out, “If you took every single bite of every single meal mindfully, then you wouldn’t get anything else done during the day.” So sure, when you’re learning to be mindful, it’s helpful to slow down your shoveling. But eventually, tuning in to the experience of eating will become so second nature that you won’t have to dine at a grandma pace. One easy way to help you keep a reasonable pace: Put your utensils down and your hands in your lap between bites.
Pretend you’re a food critic.
Your job isn’t just to hoover down the food on your plate — you have to take note of the presentation, the nuances of every flavor, and how satisfying each item is. “When you bite into a grape, all of these juices come out — and there are sensations you’d totally miss if you just stuffed a handful of grapes into your mouth,” says Rickel. “Try to follow the first bite down your esophagus and into your belly, and take a moment to notice whether you feel one grape more energetic.” In mindful eating workshops, people first practice this with just three or four raisins. “That really brings people’s attention down to their sen- sory experience,” says Daubenmier. “They really notice the texture, the smell, and the thoughts that come up.”
Observe your inner experience.
You can drag out your meal for two hours, but all of that extra time doesn’t mean a thing if you aren’t paying attention to what’s happening inside your body and mind. To truly be mindful, you need to take note of every sensation and urge: How do I know when I’m hungry? What sensations do I experience? What does it feel like when I’m emotionally, but not physically, hungry? How do I know when I’m full?
Eat how much you need — not how much you think you should.
A lot of factors probably contribute to the size of your meals: how much you put on your plate, what others around you are eating, and — if you’re dieting — guilt about what you think you should do. But the truth is, only your body can tell you how much you need to consume. In mindful eating programs, “people think the idea is to get them to stop after one bite,” says Lutes. “But we want you to eat what you want, but be mindful of it, actually enjoy it, and not feel guilty about it.” In other words, if your body’s signals are telling you to continue eating, then you have no reason to feel bad about doing so.
Try to be mindful every time you eat.
You can eat mindfully at a buffet, a birthday party, or during Thanksgiving dinner. The key: Let your friends or family members do the talking at the start of the meal, buying you a few moments to take a mindful bite or two. Mini meditations are perhaps the easiest way to put this into practice. Before you eat, analyze your level of hunger and any emotions you’re bringing to the table, and take a few deep breaths to help you focus on the food in front of you. (Some people find it helpful to close their eyes, but you don’t have to.) About halfway through the meal, check in again, noticing the decrease in hunger and increase in fullness you’re experiencing. This is a good time to answer the questions, “Do I really need to keep eating?” and “Am I satisfied?”