When we think about changing our eating patterns, the focus is almost always on what we should eat, and having enough willpower to avoid everything else.
However, behind those choices are some important psychological factors that influence these choices. It really doesn’t have much to do with willpower at all.
Earlier this year, someone brought an amazing chocolate cake to work. I didn’t feel like any but I was keen to see what it tasted like so I had one spoonful. It tasted good but I wasn’t hungry, so one spoonful was enough for me. Someone at work said to me; “OMG, I wish I could be like that, you have such willpower.”
But it was nothing to do with willpower, and what I did is something everyone can learn. It’s called mindful eating.
What is mindful eating?
Michelle May, a US physician and mindful eating expert, describes mindful eating as eating “with intention and attention – eating with the intention of feeling better when you’re finished than you did when you started, and with the attention necessary to notice food and its effect on your body and mind.”
A big part of the mindful eating experience is tuning in to your appetite and hunger signals, enjoying the eating experience and noticing when you’ve had enough. That’s what I was demonstrating above. I wanted a taste, I really enjoyed it, and just a taste satisfied me.
As well as listening to your hunger and fullness signals, mindful eating is about enjoying the eating experience – noticing the flavours, textures and taste of the food. People often find they’re satisfied with less when they do this.
Mindful eating isn’t only about the eating experience though, it includes our thoughts and feelings about food. It’s recognising the reasons why you may eat when you’re not hungry and learning to meet those needs in a more helpful way.
Learning the skill of mindful eating has been shown to reduce binge eating and emotional eating (examples here and here if you’re interested to read more) and some studies have found it has assisted with weight loss.
Here are some tips for how to be a more mindful eater
It takes up to 20 minutes for the signals from your stomach to reach your brain. If you stop eating only when you’re full, 20 minutes later, you’re likely to feel overly full. Eating slowly gives your body time to tune in to how you’re feeling.
Stop when you’re satisfied, not when there is nothing left
Most of us are taught to eat everything on our plate, and it’s a habit that sticks. Practice eating until you’re satisfied, rather than stopping when your plate is empty. You may find your portions are actually bigger than you need!
Eat with minimal distraction
In a busy world, sometimes this is easier said than done. Take small steps. Turn the television off at dinner time. Take time out for meals, even if it’s only 10 minutes – get away from your computer and eat your lunch without the distractions of work. Then take time to enjoy your food and eating experience.
Tune in to your reasons for eating
Choose to eat because you really want to, not because it’s there, you’re bored or feeling down. Eating may make you feel better briefly but often you feel worse afterwards and this counteracts why you ate in the first place! Try to comfort yourself in non-food related ways – it takes practice but you can get there!.
Nicola Jackson is a NZ-registered nutritionist with a passion for helping people to develop a healthier relationship with food. Nicola’s blog Eat Well NZ tells you why you don’t need to quit foods, follow rules, or go to the extreme to be healthy. Her blog showcases a balanced approach to eating well, with plenty of healthy recipes and other tips on nutrition, fitness and wellness. You can also find Nicola on Facebook and Instagram.