Stop Overeating: How to Practice Mindful eating

Stop Overeating: How to Practice Mindful eating March 5, 2024Leave a comment

Have you ever looked down at your plate and wondered what you just ate, let alone where it all went?

It appears you just devoured a meal, a snack, something, yet you have little recollection of how much you consumed, what it looked like, or what it even tasted of.

No wonder you can’t get a grip on how much you eat throughout the day.

We often find ourselves at the mercy of distraction, speed, rigid dieting rules, and mindlessness when it comes to eating.

And, unfortunately, this isn’t helping matters when it comes to managing overall consumption and, ultimately, changing our physiques. 

Having little regard for our desires, the intentions behind eating, the process when chewing and swallowing, and how we feel during a meal is setting us up for failure.

We leave ourselves little room to appreciate the mechanisms behind eating, thereby allowing our subconscious to keep going – and going – until there’s no food left on our plates or we’re past the point of satisfaction and can’t wait to lie on the sofa in a food coma.

What’s the solution, then?

It’s time to adopt a more mindful approach to the way we eat.

What Is Mindful Eating?

Mindful – or conscious – eating is essentially eating with attention and intention.

The act of exploration, reflection, and practice allows us to create a deliberateness behind our actions when eating.

Attention is paid to the foods chosen, both internal and external physical cues, and your responses to those cues [1].

When we’re in control of our behaviours around food, we can make suitable choices aligned with our long-term goals and values, regardless of what’s going on around us or how we feel.

We can bring mindfulness to the experience and choices behind the food we eat and what we drink, without judgement.

It’s no longer about running through a meal with little regard for what we’re doing but, instead, delving deep into the why, what, when, how, and where behind eating.

Mindful eating is one of the most valuable yet neglected skills we can adopt when cultivating sustainable eating habits and a healthy relationship with food. 

The Center For Mindful Eating outlines the following principles behind mindful eating:

It’s important those who practice the act of mindful eating fully believe in the process and their ability to dedicate time and energy to the demands of mindfulness, but when executed appropriately, it can be one of the best tools available to manage the experience around mealtimes. 

It’s not easy, of course, but when utilised correctly – and with intention – it brings a host of benefits to the eating experience.

The Benefits Of Mindful Eating

Author, Michelle May, outlines three types of eaters:

-> Restrictive Eaters

-> Overeaters

-> Instinctive Eaters

Whereas restrictive and overeaters are shackled to rigid dieting rules, emotions, and environmental triggers, instinctive eaters are able to uncouple themselves from these damaging influences.

They’re able to eat with intentionality, purpose, and concentration, allowing themselves to tune into their hunger and fullness cues with ease and, therefore, removing any preoccupation with food.

They’re still aware of their health and bodies, but instead of fixating on archaic dieting patterns, they’re able to cultivate higher levels of non-judgement and self-acceptance when eating.

When it comes to eating mindfully – and, therefore, being able to change our physiques for the long term – we want to eat instinctively.

Doing so:

-> Empowers you to make healthy choices rather than shoehorning you into feelings of deprivation and misery around food selection

-> Shifts the locus of control from external sources (i.e., rules, numbers, and social influences) to your inner sensations and cues

-> Brings recognition to non-hunger triggers when eating, whether that be stress, specific environments, or social pressures

-> Allows you to choose food for both nourishment and enjoyment

-> Ensures you adhere to your values and the life you want to lead without relying on eating to do so

Studies have also shown that mindfulness approaches to eating can be an effective tool in the treatment of unfavourable nutritional behaviours, such as emotional eating and binge eating, that can lead to weight gain and obesity [2].

While other studies have reported that mindful eating interventions can lead to significant improvements in depression, nutrition self-efficacy, and the controlling of overeating behaviours [3]. 

When we eat mindfully, we put ourselves in the best possible position to eat for the way we want and any physique-based goals we have.

Can Mindful Eating Be Used For Fat Loss?

Mindful eating is, in itself, not a tool explicitly used for fat loss.

Being mindful allows us to focus on the present and not necessarily shifting our decisions towards fat loss or the future impact on our bodies.

We can’t necessarily go into a meal fixating on the possible outcomes of the mindful process.

That’s not to say fat loss is a negative, however. There are, of course, benefits to losing body fat – both mentally and physically – and so focusing on behaviours and mindset shifts first and foremost, will, subsequently, drive an energy deficit and, therefore, fat loss.

When we can remove the need for adhering to those rigid dieting rules, whether it be ‘eat this and don’t eat that’ or ‘eat at this time but not at that time’, we can simply focus on the process behind eating. 

-> It’s no longer about the number on the scales but the experience of eating. 

-> It’s no longer about changing your body shape but discerning the ‘what’ and ‘why’ behind your food choices. 

-> It’s no longer about physical progress but utilising food at the right moments and for the right reasons.

Then – and only then – can we reap any potential benefits of fat loss.

Mindful Eating Is Part Of The Process

It’s important to remember that mindful eating – and all its encompassing strategies – is simply part of the process behind eating.

It isn’t always sufficient on its own to help regulate cravings and emotions. And is perhaps why some of the mindfulness practices you’ve attempted before haven’t always worked.

The intention is to bring mindfulness to your current experience and not just the meal you’re about to consume. 

Mindfulness must be combined with vital emotional regulation techniques to be effective. How do you feel before eating? How do you feel during eating? How are you going to deal with those emotions? How are you going to understand those emotions?

Start by identifying and labelling these feelings.

Research suggests that increasing our emotional knowledge can help us differentiate between negative emotions, allowing us to respond more effectively.

By spending time identifying, labelling, and interpreting emotions, you can reduce stressful reactions to situations and make better decisions. 

Decipher what emotion you’re feeling, its intensity, any beliefs or assumptions you have about it, and the bodily sensations you’re feeling.

Use the ‘Emotions And Feelings Wheel’ to help:

Repeatedly tuning in to emotional experiences may facilitate increases in emotional granularity – the ability to differentiate between the specificity of your emotions. 

Also, think about practicing defusion.

Allowing yourself to feel a desire enables you to then act independently of the experience. 

When you’re ‘fused’ with your thoughts and feelings, you automatically act on them (for example, craving, then immediately also devouring the chocolate). When you’re ‘defused’ from your thoughts and feelings, you can act independently from them (craving but not devouring the chocolate). 

Defusion is simply separating yourself – and your actions – from your thoughts. 

Essentially, facing your feelings, learning about them, and regulating them effectively will minimise your chances of eating unnecessarily.

How Can We Eat Mindfully Then?

Question Your Eating Process

Individuals who struggle with overeating and yo-yo dieting will gradually move toward ‘instinctive eating’ when they begin to gain insight into their eating decisions. 

Take the time to consider these questions:

Why Do I Eat?

-> Why do you think you eat? Are you aware of any situations or emotions that trigger you to want to eat when you aren’t hungry? 

When Do I Feel Like Eating?

-> When do you feel like eating? How can you tell if you’re hungry? What could you do to cope more effectively with emotional triggers?

What Do I Eat?

-> What do you eat on a typical day? Do you restrict yourself from eating certain foods and then later overeat those very same foods? What types of food do you want to eat when you’re eating for emotional reasons? 

How Do I Eat?

-> Do you eat while distracted (i.e., watching a screen)? Do you eat slowly or rapidly? Do you eat differently in private than you do in public? 

How Much Do I Eat?

-> How do you typically feel after eating? How does it feel when you’ve eaten too much food? What situations or emotions trigger overeating for you? 

Where Do I Invest My Energy?

-> Where do you spend (or invest) the fuel you consume? Are you physically active? Do you limit your ‘screen time’? Do you exercise? What do you like to do in your spare time?

Recognise Your Hunger

Unfortunately, we’ve grown up under the rules of always ‘cleaning our plates’ and ‘only being allowed dessert if we finish our dinner’. 

All this does is override our hunger and fullness cues, meaning we confuse true hunger with other reasons for eating, such as boredom, stress, and time of the day.

Through reconnecting with your instinctive signals, you can manage your consumption without restrictive dieting and obsessing over every bite of food you put in your mouth.

When you can recognise true hunger, you’re less likely to feel guilt around eating and stop eating just for the sake of it.

You’re more likely to choose foods that will nourish you and will feel more satisfied with your overall choices.

Before you jump to eat, consider the following questions:

-> Do I feel a hollow feeling in my stomach?

-> Am I hungry for a ‘balanced’ meal (and not just chocolate, crisps, snacks, etc.)?

-> Has my hunger built up over time (rather than coming on ‘instantly’)?

-> Which part of my body is feeling this supposed hunger? Is it actually in my stomach, or am I just experiencing a craving that will eventually fall away?

-> What am I feeling right now? Is it stress/tiredness/excitement? Is this influencing my eating decisions?

-> Will eating this make me feel better or worse?

-> Is there anything else I can do instead of eating more? 

-> Can I wait for just ten more minutes?

Eat Slowly And Without Distraction

We live in a society that encourages speed, quick thinking, and constant action-taking.

Unfortunately, this translates to how we eat, meaning we rush to finish our meal – often in front of a screen – taking little time to appreciate what we’re eating and what the food tastes like.

When we slow down, however, we give ourselves time to recognise when we’re full. Of course, thus meaning we end up eating the right amount for what our bodies need.

Not only does eating slowly improve digestion and prevent disordered eating patterns, but will also increase overall meal satisfaction, too.

One study showed that mindful eating improved eating behaviours, such as slowing down the pace of a meal, and, therefore, was associated with individuals eating less [4].

When eating:

-> Put your knife and fork down between bites

-> Sit in a calm, quiet environment without screens

-> Set a timer to try and eat in alignment with

-> Ensure your meals contain high-fibre foods that take longer to chew 

Implementing such simple actions to execute at each mealtime that doesn’t forbid certain foods but increases fullness will promote an enjoyable yet restrained outlook on food.

Use Five Senses Experiencing When Eating

When we eat mindfully, we appreciate how eating can be an entire sensory experience.

It’s a multi-modal perception, including taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell. 

While it can, at times, seem like a tedious method of eating, engaging all the senses at mealtimes can ensure we reduce that damaging mindlessness and tune into how much food we need to eat.

Taste

-> What can you taste? Human taste can be divided into five basic qualities: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and savoury. 

Sight

-> What can you see? We’ve been biologically conditioned to know what something will taste like by its colour. Address each item on your plate and consider why you chose it – what makes it look edible?

Sound

-> What does the food sound like while eating? Similar to sight, we recognise sounds with food biologically, which is essential when judging its freshness and avoiding spoiled foods. 

Touch

-> What can you feel? Food textures can be felt with your fingers, tongue, teeth, and palate. As food is chewed, it is constantly being evaluated. The teeth, tongue, and jaw apply forces depending on how easily it can be broken down, thus deciding whether it is chewy, brittle, runny or fizzy.

Smell

-> What can you smell? Our sense of smell not only identifies the odour of food but also the flavour. Smell is essential when trying to gain the entire sensory experience. 

(Just consider how food tasted should you have ever caught Covid…)

Practice Mindful Decision-Making

Mindful decision-making involves increasing awareness and intention when making decisions about what to eat, not necessarily just the ‘eating process’. 

-> Stop And Think

Because we often act on impulse, we rarely get to make a decision at all. We’re often at the mercy of our environment or what others dictate we should eat.

Instead, take 20-30 seconds to make a deliberate decision about whether to eat, what to eat, and how much to eat.

Practice calling to mind the phrase: ‘Stop, think’.

This will just remind you to pause and reflect on what is necessary for you and your body at that moment.

-> Pay Deliberate Attention To The Decision-Making Process

Pay attention to the cues around you in situations where eating has become a habit.

Imagine yourself commentating on the situation:

I’m feeling stressed. This means I’m looking for something to cope with this stress. I’m tempted to have a cookie. I know, however, this isn’t aligned with my values. Nor will it fix my stress.

I’m going to try a different act of self-care instead. This will alleviate my stress and mean I’m not eating just for the sake of it’.

-> Vote For Something You Care About

When making decisions about what you want to eat, ask yourself if each decision is a vote ‘up’ or ‘down’ for how you want to live your life.

Imagine that your decisions are votes for or against what you care most about, can help you consider the long-term consequences of your decisions in the moment. 

This will combat the tendency to make mindless decisions that encourage short-term reward over long-term gain.


References

1. Fung, T.T., Long, M.W., Hung, P., & Cheung, L.W. (2016) An expanded model for mindful eating for health promotion and sustainability: issues and challenges for dietetics practice. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(7), 1081-6.

2. Katterman, S.N., Kleinman, B.M., Hood, M.M., Nackers, L.M., & Corsica, J.A. (2014). Mindfulness meditation as an intervention for binge eating, emotional eating, and weight loss: a systematic review. Eating behaviors15(2), 197-204.

3. Miller, C.K., Kristeller, J.L., Headings, A., & Nagaraja. H. (2014). Comparison of a mindful eating intervention to a diabetes self-management intervention among adults with type 2 diabetes: a randomized controlled trial. Health Education & Behavior41(2), 145-54.

4. Warren, J.M., Smith, N., & Ashwell, M. (2017). A structured literature review on the role of mindfulness, mindful eating and intuitive eating in changing eating behaviours: effectiveness and associated potential mechanisms. Nutrition Research Reviews. 30(2), 272-83.

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