What Mindful Eating is Really About
By: Irina Vanzhula, B.A.
People who come to my mindful eating workshop often say that they want to learn to eat healthier, lose weight, and reduce emotional and stress eating. I help them see that these goals have been imposed on them by society and the diet industry. I also challenge the idea that mindful eating is just another way to diet and then introduce a new way of thinking about their relationship with food. I usually see expressions of disbelief when I announce that emotional and stress eating are not their enemy.
Dieting vs. Mindful Eating
Any diet is by definition restrictive. Dieters deny themselves certain food groups, reduce how much they eat, or both. In addition to hunger, dieting creates a sense of deprivation, which in turn may make us sad or depressed. “I so much want that cupcake, but I can’t have it” (Johnson and Wardle, 2010). Some people may be able to convince themselves that they no longer like sweets and even override their hunger signals, but that takes a lot of mental energy and we can’t sustain it for a long time. Best-case scenario, we can maintain the eating pattern for a while using sheer willpower, but it eventually fails. Worst-case scenario dieting may trigger disordered eating (Stice, 2002) or even lead to weight gain over time.
Cycles of Eating
Many who attempt to forcefully regulate their eating get stuck in a cycle of dieting, overeating, and feeling guilty. Restricting our food intake overall and denying ourselves food we enjoy leads to hunger and intensified sense of craving. As a result, we may end up overeating and eating more of those foods we were trying to avoid in the first place. It is not all about willpower too, in fact, it has very little to do with willpower. When we are very hungry, our bodies are designed to crave fatty and sugary foods because it is a sure way to stock up on enough energy in case there is a shortage of food in the future again (Heshmat, 2011). Overeating is often associated with guilt or what we call “I have blown it” effect. We feel guilty for “breaking the rules” and decide to start all over tomorrow, and the cycle continues. Alternatively, overeating may make us feel depressed and bad about ourselves, which can trigger more emotional eating.
What is the solution? In my workshop, I suggest that my participants abandon food rules and adopt a new set of goals: learn to eat intuitively by recognizing their hunger and fullness signals and satiate their body and mind. The key to achieving those goals is mindfulness. Mindfulness has many definitions and applications, but the one we focus on is awareness. Recent research is discovering that awareness may be the key to successful mindfulness-based interventions for disordered eating (Sala & Levinson, in press). Mindful awareness is paying attention to present moment experiences and is opposite of running on automatic pilot. Many of our eating experiences are indeed automatic. Our eating is a response to multiple environmental cues, such as smells, bowl of candy in the office, snacking while watching television, eating out of boredom or at the social event, and more. Overwhelmed by these stimuli, we lose touch with the true sensations of hunger and fullness, and true taste satisfaction.
Practicing mindful awareness can help us disengage the automatic processes and really tune into our bodies. General meditation practice can help build the skill of paying attention, but mindful eating can be simply slowing down and paying attention to your meal. Next time you are about to eat, pause and take a breath. Notice how you are feeling and what you are thinking. Notice any attitude you have towards this meal you are about to eat. Notice the smell, the colors and shapes on your plate. Also notice sensations of your physical hunger. Hunger may feel different for each person, but in general we get hungry when our energy level is depleted and we need to refill our bodies. Physical hunger may be associated with lower blood sugar, fatigue, stomach empty and growling, and mouthwatering. This is how your body lets you know you need to eat, but how do we know when we are full?
Most people see hunger and fullness as opposite ends of the same scale. If you are no longer hungry, you are full, and vice versa, right? In fact, body fullness and satiety are more complicated concepts. If you were to drink 20 oz of water, your stomach will feel very full, but you will likely still be hungry. Many people describe physical sensations of fullness as feeling bloated, having an extended stomach, feeling heavy, clothes getting tight, and even a lump in the throat. Have you ever eaten very fast when you are hungry and your stomach is full but you still feel hungry? These examples suggest that hunger and fullness are their own concepts and each can be measured on a separate scale. In general, physical hunger is about blood sugar levels, and physical fullness is about filling up the space of your stomach.
Psychological hunger refers to wanting to eat for reasons such as boredom, sadness, food proximity, stress, and habit. You may snack at a party when you are not physically hungry or crave chocolate ice-cream at the end of a difficult day at work. Although we perceive emotional eating negatively, psychological hunger also needs to be satisfied. We call this body satiety. Consider this example: you eat a large portion of bland boiled chicken and rice. Your hunger is down, your fullness is up, but you are still craving dessert. That is because the meal did not satisfy you and you are still low on body satiety. Mindful eating proposes that instead of fighting these feelings, you satisfy them in a mindful way without overeating.
What are you truly hungry for?
The good news is that we don’t need to consume a lot of food to be satisfied. Out taste buds get tired very quickly: third, fourth and later bites won’t taste as good as the first one. This means, that we can satisfy that psychological hunger by having only a small amount of craved food. In addition, it is helpful to ask ourselves: what are we truly hungry for? If we are about to eat out of boredom, maybe we are really hungry for some good company and friendship? And last but not the least is self-compassion. If you do make a choice to satisfy your psychological hunger by eating our favorite food, don’t blame yourself. Be kind to yourself and recognize that this is what you need at that moment.
Mindful eating introduces a completely different relationship with food and navigates you away from food rules. Mindful eating is based on building awareness of external and internal processes that dictate our eating behaviors. Developing eating awareness skills can help you end your battle with food and achieve your behavioral and health goals.
To join our mindful eating group contact us here: http://www.louisvilleeatlab.com/eat.html
To hear more about the negative impact of dieting, watch this TED talk: