I tell myself the reason I can’t lose weight is that I love food. But in reality, I often find myself eating so fast I barely taste it. I’ve read a little bit about mindful eating. Can you explain more about it? How can it help me lose weight?
— Lisa, Oregon
The term “mindfulness meditation” refers to a Westernized version of a practice rooted in ancient Eastern spiritual teachings. It often involves things like relaxation breathing, focusing one’s attention, staying in the present moment, and being aware of your thoughts, emotions, and actions as they relate to your current state of well-being. It can be a useful tool for certain people in reducing stress and improving quality of life.
Unfortunately, as is the case with many pop-culture ideas in psychology, mindfulness has become an overused and often over-complicated concept that is hard for the average person to relate to, let alone apply to their daily life. The term “mindful eating” often conjures up images of sitting on a bamboo mat in the lotus position (legs crossed with hands and feet turned upward) with your food while becoming lost in a trancelike and focused state. Of course this is not the case. Nonetheless, the techniques involved in the formal practice of mindfulness often seem a little too complicated and impractical to apply as part of most people’s mealtimes in the context of our busy lives.
In my experience, when it comes to weight loss, simple, uncomplicated concepts work best. While mindfulness may have its place as a relaxation technique or broader self-awareness activity, when it comes to mealtime I prefer to focus on practical, long-standing behavioral techniques that were used long before the “mindfulness” label with all its added bells and whistles was applied to them.
I call what I teach Eating with Awareness:
- Monitor hunger and fullness. Pause before eating and ask yourself: How long since I last ate? Am I really hungry? And in the case of between-meal snacking: Why am I eating? What do I really need (for example, a way to reduce stress or to reward myself)?
- Pay attention to your food. Eliminate unnecessary distractions. Look at the food on your plate and take time to smell it, savor the smell, and notice texture, colors, and portion sizes. Slow down to fully appreciate the experience of preparing to eat as opposed to just racing to consume calories unnoticed.
- Eat slowly. Take the time to cut up your food or take smaller bites. Chew your food, notice its flavors, and pause between bites. Make eating a complete experience.
- Monitor hunger and fullness again. Check in with yourself periodically so you will know when to stop eating based on fullness — not “empty-the-plate-ness.”
These longstanding and simple behavioral techniques will add a substantial level of control and self-awareness to your eating experience and can reduce your calorie consumption — after all, that is the main goal.