Frustrated with Dieting? Try Mindful Eating Instead
Updated: Jul 16, 2019
The Problem with Diets
Despite body positivity being on the rise, everywhere we look we are face to face with societal pressures to be thin and fit. Advertisements on the latest weight loss tea, ab machine, or fad diets confront us daily. It can be an emotional roller-coaster trying to navigate through a world where our body is seen as the enemy and diets our saving grace.
However, the truth is that the majority of diets do not work and never have. Research studies have shown that diets can negatively impact our relationship with food, lower self-confidence, and cause weight gain. For example, according to a 2018 article by the American Psychological Association, participants who started diets lost weight in the first 9-12 months, but this weight loss was short-lived. In the following 2-5 years participants regained the weight they had initially lost. Other studies confirm similar findings, with dieters being more prone to binge-eating and weight gain than non-dieters. If dieting is not the answer then what is?
Within the mindfulness movement, mindful eating has become especially popular. People who are sick and tired of counting calories or giving up the food they love, find mindful eating a great long-term solution to maintaining healthy weight. Even the new 2019 Canadian Food Guide agrees that, “Healthy eating is about more than just the foods you eat. It is being mindful of your eating habits, taking time to eat and noticing when you are hungry and when you are full.”
What is Mindful Eating?
Mindful eating is like being a food detective and asking the important questions such as: What are you eating? Where are you eating? When are you eating? Why are you eating,? And finally, how are you eating? When we practice mindful eating, we slow down and fully pay attention to the food in front of us. When we pay attention to what we are eating we can experience a meal or snack as if for the first time. Studies have shown that mindful eating can aid in weight loss, body self-acceptance, and improve our unhealthy relationship with food.
Mindful eating is an example of informal mindfulness, which is when we choose a daily activity in our routine and use it to anchor us back to the present moment. Some other examples of food-related informal mindfulness practices include: mindful grocery shopping, mindful cooking, mindful fruit picking, and mindful farming/gardening.
Practicing Good Mindful Eating Habits
On the internet and beyond, there is a lot of advice on mindful eating and the “dos and don’ts”. However, unlike a diet, there are no hard and fast rules for mindful eating. Instead, it is our job to find out what works best for us and our family. After careful research and feedback from my students, I have come up with a list of habits to keep in mind when you begin experimenting with mindful eating.
1. Explore Preferences: Take the time to try out different food that you like and dislike, pay attention to the experience. Notice if your food preferences change when you eat a particular food slowly. Some people find that certain foods they had been eating for years like chips or junk food, were being consumed out of habit or stress instead of preference.
2. Utilize 5 Senses: Use your 5 senses to experience food as if for the first time. Try to spend 1 to 2 minutes on each of your senses as you eat, look at the food with open curiosity, pay attention to its texture, take in any aromas, listen for any sound or lack of sound, and taste with small mouthfuls and careful chews, noticing how the taste changes over time. The 5 senses can bring a universe of taste even to the simplest of foods and can help us eat less and enjoy more.
3. Practice Non-Judgement: When you are exploring food preferences make a mental note of being non-judgemental towards yourself and what you eat. Being non-judgemental can be challenging, especially when were are so quick to label or categorize everything in our periphery. Always remember that it is okay if you love chocolate fudge cake or eat pickles in your ice cream. They are your food preferences and should not be labeled as good or bad. Also, never feel shame if you ate more than you intended during a meal, guilt will only further destroy your relationship with food.
4. Notice Physical Cues: A large part of mindful eating is paying attention to your body when it is hungry and when it is full. It takes at least 20 minutes for your brain to process the feeling of fullness. Before you begin a meal or snack try listening to your body, how hungry you feel, if there are any noises associated with your hunger. Also, notice how you feel physically and mentally after you finish your meal. Ask yourself whether you feel satisfied, still hungry, or stuffed. Try to only eat when you hungry and stop when you full. Listening to our body’s physical cues can be challenging at first, it just takes time.
5. Identify Personal Triggers: Many of us eat for reasons other than hunger such as boredom, stress, or social obligation. It is important to be able to identify why it is you want to eat a particular food? What the situation is? And whether it will make you feel better or worse? Some people find it helpful to keep trigger food (like chocolate) outside of the house while others eat small amounts of their favourite food twice a week. When the trigger food is no longer seen as a treat, forbidden, or bad the urge to eat it lessons. Identifying why we eat can help us combat emotional eating habits.
6. Quality Over Quantity: As with most areas in life, quality over quantity is key especially when it comes to what we put inside our bodies. Make an effort to try to purchase nutritious, fresh produce when possible, buy food with fewer ingredients and preservatives, and find food that satisfies your hunger. Stop eating diet foods or special low-fat snacks, it is better to eat food that you desire in healthy portions than consuming unhealthy diet food. Interestingly in a recent study, they discovered that those eating "diet" or "light" drinks and snacks are likely to eat 13% more calories than those eating full-fat snacks. So next time, go for that full-fat ice cream but remember to take your time and really enjoy it.
7. Food as Pleasure: We often overlook the fact that eating should be a pleasurable activity. If a particular food or meal does not satisfy you then do not continue to eat it. Try to silence the inner mom that tells you to “finish everything off your plate” because if you eat a meal that does not satisfy you, you are more likely to look for something else to eat. Ironically, in France, where the emphasis of eating is on pleasure instead of health, they have lower rates of obesity and food related health problems.
Mindful eating is not a quick fix solution to weight loss, instead it is lifestyle change that can help you maintain a healthy weight and put an end to yo-yo dieting. It can also help bring you closer to accepting your body as it is, not as how you want it to be. Practicing mindful eating is hard, I can attest to that myself as someone who has struggled with being overweight since childhood, and even more so now that I have limited mobility due to my autoimmune disease. However, by adopting mindful eating, I have finally put a stop to dieting. It is comforting to know that I do not need to give up chocolate cake forever nor continue to see my body as the enemy. Of course, integrating mindful eating into our daily lives is challenging, but give it a try, maybe even just start with a raisin. Say goodbye to dieting and hello to mindfulness.
**Disclaimer: If your doctor has you a special diet related to your chronic illness or disease, ask your doctor if mindful eating is for right for you. In my experience, even those on special diets can incorporate mindful eating practices into their daily lives and get more enjoyment out of each meal.**
Brownwell, Kelly D. “Dieting and the Search for the Perfect Body: Where Physiology and Culture Collide.” Behavior Therapy, Elsevier, 14 June 2006, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0005789405802394
Burfoot, Amby. “More and More Research Points to Mindfulness - Not Certain Foods - for Weight Loss.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 6 Mar. 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/more-and-more-research-points-to-mindfulness--not-certain-foods--for-weight-loss/2018/03/05/2aa25d48-1c00-11e8-b2d9-08e748f892c0_story.html?utm_term=.d97e91a2f645
Dalen, Jeanne et al. “Pilot study: Mindful Eating and Living (MEAL): Weight, eating behaviour, an psychological outcomes associated with a mindfulness-based intervention for people with obesity, Complementary Therapies in Medicine, Pub Med, Dec. 2010.
Feldman, Jamie. “Why Reaching For Diet Snacks Can Seriously Backfire.” HuffPost Canada, HuffPost Canada, 17 May 2016, www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/diet-snacks-bad-for-you_n_5739ee9be4b077d4d6f39032.
“Healthy Eating Recommendations.” Canada's Food Guide, 17 Apr. 2019, https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/healthy-eating-recommendations/be-mindful-of-your-eating-habits/
Janssen, Lieneke K, et al. “Greater Mindful Eating Practice Is Associated with Better Reversal Learning.” Scientific Reports, Nature Publishing Group UK, 9 Apr. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5890263/
Spencer, Mimi. “Mimi Spencer Takes a Look at French Women's Eating Habits.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 7 Nov. 2004, www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2004/nov/07/foodanddrink.features11