Do you find yourself snacking in front of the TV or making numerous trips to the candy machine at work—and you’re finding it hard to stop?
The good news is that you can learn to change your relationship with food, and it doesn’t require anything besides the power of your own mind.
The secret? A technique known as mindful eating.
Why You Eat When You’re Not Really Hungry
For many people, disordered eating arises frommindlessness, such as when you habitually grab a big bag of chips on your way to the sofa, especially after you’ve had a trying day…and find the bag empty by the end of the evening.
This carelessness regarding our bodies often arises from spending too much time in our heads.
“Most of us listen to our minds all day long without hardly checking in with the body from the neck down,” says Lynn Rossy, PhD, author ofSavor Every Bite (New Harbinger). “The mind is often telling us to override the signals of the body that tell us when it’s time to eat, rest, move, play, connect and create.”
This mind-body disconnect can lead you to eat because the clock tells you to, or because you’re anxious or bored. As a result, you may eat more than you intended to.
You may also eat out of stress, such as when five more emails just showed up, your phone is buzzing every two minutes…and you suddenly need chocolate. Like. Right. Now. (True hunger, on the other hand, tends to build slowly the longer you go without food.)
It appears that women are particularly prone to food cravings triggered by stress.
“Studies show that women with high chronic stress levels tend to engage in emotional eating,” say the folks at Johns Hopkins Medicine. This leads to the release of a hormone calledcortisol; cortisol levels that remain high for too long “can lead to increased food consumption, fat storage and weight gain.”
Cravings can also occur because you haven’t eaten enough, such as when you gulp down a coffee breakfast before leaving the house: Your blood sugar may crash in four or five hours, causing that uncontrollably hungry, “hangry” feeling. In addition, hormonal imbalances can cause sugar cravings as your body attempts to boost levels ofserotonin, a feel-good brain chemical.
Learning to eat mindfully can help your body distinguish cravings from healthy, natural hunger.
How Mindful Eating Works
The way to counteract mindless eating is with mindful eating, which Rossy describes as “paying attention to all of your senses before, during and after you eat.”
Mindful eating doesn’t mean “going on a diet.” It means looking closely at what’s going on in your body as you eat and learning to truly enjoy your food instead of eating on autopilot.
To eat mindfully:
- First, sit down and take a quiet moment to yourself—put your phone away, don’t open your computer and don’t turn on the TV. “It is crucial to give your mind and body a break,” says holistic nutritionist Kristin Dahl.
- Before you start eating, take several deep, slow breaths, inhaling into the abdomen and exhaling completely. “This relaxes the nervous system and enhances blood flow to the digestive organs,” says Dahl. “It also lets you tune into your body so that you can connect to what your body truly needs.”
- Continue this tuning-in process by paying close attention to what’s going on in your stomach. As Rossy puts it, “Starting a practice of listening and responding to your belly is a great way to practice self-love.”
- As you begin to eat, take in the sight and smell of your food: the rich aroma of garlic, the yellows and reds of bell peppers. Chew slowly and thoroughly, noticing the textures and flavors on your palate.
- Check in with yourself: How does this food make you feel? Take a moment for gratitude towards all of the work and energy it took to make this food, from the farmers who grew it to the many hands it passed through before arriving on your plate.
- Pause between bites, putting down your fork several times to gauge your satiety—you should stop eating when you’re about 80% full. “Did you know it takes the brain approximately 20 minutes to know that you have had enough food?” says Dahl. “The goal is to be satisfied and energized, not overly stuffed.”
- After eating, notice how you’re feeling: Energized? Light? Sleepy? Sluggish? Happy? Do you have any digestive symptoms within a few hours of eating? This can be a great tool to identify foods that make you feel good or that do not agree with you.
Mindful eating works best as part of an overall approach to meals; that means balancing out carbs with healthy fats and proteins, and not going long periods of time without eating. You should also drink plenty of water and get eight hours of sleep a night.
Using Mindful Eating to Control Cravings
One reason cravings can occur: When you feel mad, sad or just generally upset, your brain may be hijacked as your body goes into the protective “fight or flight” state. This can trigger food cravings out of a need for safety.
Here’s a mindful approach to craving control:
- Pause: Get out of the fight-or-flight state with three deep breaths.
- Change: Shift your environment by getting up and moving around a little. If you can go outside, even for five minutes, so much the better.
- Check in: Ask yourself, “Am I really hungry? What do I really need?”
- Get curious: Then ask, “What was that craving trying to teach me? Why am I reaching for this food?”
When you understand what is happening when a craving hits and how to counter that process, you can take charge of your decision making.
This means you don’t always have to eat “perfectly”: It means you are in control of food instead of food being in control of you. You want to enjoy a piece of chocolate? Go for it—but do so with the awareness that you’re eating chocolate for the pleasure of it, not because your mind is panicking you into it.
The Benefits of Mindful Eating
Scientists who have studied mindful eating report that it may help you eat less and make better food choices. And although this may help you lose weight, that really isn’t the goal.
Mindfulness is “based on an individual’s experience of the moment,” says psychologist Joseph Nelson, LP. “The intention is to help individuals savor the moment and the food, and encourage their full presence for the eating experience.”
Eating mindfully can give you the tools you need to tell the difference between cravings and true hunger while helping you relate to food in a healthier manner. That, in turn, may help reduce your stress (and cortisol) levels, making it easier to not overeat.
Mindful eating can also help you feel better physically. Digestion starts in the mouth, not the stomach; chewing your food thoroughly and eating slowly can help you avoid gas and bloating while improving overall digestion.†The information provided is not an endorsement of any product, and is intended for educational purposes only. NaturesPlus does not provide medical advice and does not offer diagnosis of any conditions. Current research on this topic is not conclusive and further research may be needed in order to prove the benefits described. The conditions and symptoms described may be indicative of serious health problems, and therefore should be brought to the attention of a qualified healthcare practitioner.
What’s more, “feeding the body when it experiences physical hunger and not overfeeding it when you do eat will help you have more energy and less fatigue,” says Rossy.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of mindful eating? Eating less can actually help you enjoy food more.
†The information provided is not an endorsement of any product, and is intended for educational purposes only. NaturesPlus does not provide medical advice and does not offer diagnosis of any conditions. Current research on this topic is not conclusive and further research may be needed in order to prove the benefits described. The conditions and symptoms described may be indicative of serious health problems, and therefore should be brought to the attention of a qualified healthcare practitioner.The information provided is not an endorsement of any product, and is intended for educational purposes only. NaturesPlus does not provide medical advice and does not offer diagnosis of any conditions. Current research on this topic is not conclusive and further research may be needed in order to prove the benefits described.
The conditions and symptoms described may be indicative of serious health problems, and therefore should be brought to the attention of a qualified healthcare practitioner.
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**These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.