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MINDLESS EATING--The Hidden Cause of Weight Gain

                                                                                                                      by: Jennifer Kirkpatrick, RD, LD


                                                                                            at Geary Community Hospital

It’s a typical day.  You’ve been working hard at an unpleasant task that you had been putting off.  Maybe it was getting that closet cleaned out at home, or finishing that boring report or at work, or getting the lawn mowed.  Now it’s time to kick back and relax.  You deserve it!  You’ve worked hard!  Maybe you even promised yourself a reward/bribe for getting the unpleasant task finished.  Maybe you’ve been craving a favorite treat for a while and this seems like the perfect time to indulge.  You’re looking forward to the taste of _____________ (fill in the blank with YOUR favorite indulgence).  A piece of chocolate?  A glass of wine?  Fresh strawberries?  A cinnamon roll?  For me right now, it would be a bowl of good vanilla ice cream with strawberries.  Yum!  You take the first bite.  Delicious!  The second bite.  Still good.  You flip on the TV and start surfing the channels until something catches your attention.  Suddenly you look down.  Where did your delicious treat go?  You hardly even remember eating it!  Disappointment and dissatisfaction set in, so you head back to the kitchen to get just “just a little more”.  Next thing you know, you’ve eaten way more than you ever intended to eat and that little voice inside starts badgering you.   “What were you thinking?  You know you shouldn’t have eaten that?  You are so weak!  You’ll never keep this weight off!” 

Eating should be something that is pleasurable.  When did it become such a common source of unhappiness for so many people?  Is our unhappiness really about the scale, or goes it go deeper than that?  The deeper problem is rooted in the mind.  This is why many people continue to struggle with out-of-balance eating even after weight loss surgery!  There is a lack of awareness of the messages our body is trying to send us about hunger and satisfaction.  This is where mindful eating comes in.

So what is mindfulness anyway?  Mindfulness is simply awareness without criticism or judgment.  It is deliberately paying attention to what is happening to you, both inside and out.  In mindful eating, food is simply food.  It is not good or bad.  When eating mindfully, we should not be comparing ourselves to anyone else or judging ourselves in any way.  It is certainly not a diet, or about giving up anything at all. It’s about experiencing food more intensely — especially the pleasure of it. You can eat a cheeseburger mindfully, if you wish. You might enjoy it a lot more. Or you might decide, halfway through, that your body has had enough or that it would feel better if you fed it some salad.   When you eat mindfully, you are more likely to be able to be satisfied with much smaller portions and to choose foods that help your body feel better physically.  For example, you would become aware that you feel more energized after eating an apple and some almonds for a snack that after eating an ice cream sundae. 

The concept has roots in Buddhist teachings. Just as there are forms of meditation that involve sitting, breathing, standing and walking, many Buddhist teachers encourage their students to meditate with food, expanding consciousness by paying close attention to the sensation and purpose of each morsel.  “This is anti-diet,” says Dr. Jan Chozen Bays, a pediatrician and meditation teacher in Oregon and the author of “Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food.” “I think the fundamental problem is that we go unconscious when we eat.”   As a dietitian, I agree with this statement 100%!

If the thought of “meditating with food” leaves you feeling a little silly, consider some simple baby steps.  Sit down in a quiet place with no distractions and think about some of the following while you eat slowly:

Notice the color and aroma of the food before you eat

Think about the temperature and texture as you chew

Do you feel hungry? If so, how do you know? In what part of your body do you feel “hungry”?

At what point do you begin to feel satisfied (not full) and where do you feel “satisfaction”?

What does half-full feel like? Three quarters full?

What impulses begin to come into your mind? Do you want to turn on the TV, pick up your cell phone, read a book, surf the web?

What emotions are you feeling? Are you angry? Are you anxious? Happy? Lonely? Angry?

Once you begin to notice your emotions, which can ONLY happen if you aren’t distracted, you will begin to see how eating affects your mood AND how emotions, like anxiety, influence your eating.  Then you can begin to change these old habits and patterns that are trapping you. 

TRY this: place a forkful of food in your mouth. It doesn’t matter what the food is, but make it something you love. Now comes the hard part. Put the fork down. This could be a lot more challenging than you imagine, because that first bite was very good and you want to eat more NOW. You’re hungry!! However, the goal is to become aware of that reflexive urge to plow through your meal as quickly as possible. Resist it. Leave the fork on the table. Chew slowly. Stop talking. Tune in to the texture, the flavor, the colors, the aroma.

If the thought of eating an entire meal in silence, alone with your food, is a bit intimidating, here are some other baby steps to help you begin to break the old habits of eating mindlessly. 

  • Take the first five sips of a cup of hot tea or coffee with full attention and no distractions. Then go ahead with what you would usually do while enjoying your beverage.

  • If you have a habit of reading and eating, try alternating these activities.Read a page, then put down the book and eat a few bites, then read another page, and so on.

  • At family meals, ask everyone to eat in silence for the first five minutes.

  • Once you’re feeling more confident, try eating one meal per week alone and in silence, or commit to eating all snacks in a mindful manner, which will drastically cut down on grazing behaviors.

However you may choose to begin eating mindfully, remember some of the core questions you are trying to answer are, “Does my body need this? Why am I eating this? Is it just because I’m sad or stressed out or lonely? Am I still hungry or am I feeling satisfied?”   As you begin to identify the times that you are eating not due to hunger, but due to emotions, you can STOP eating and ideally find a better way to deal with your emotions.  When you are truly hungry, eating mindfully will help you identify when you are becoming satisfied or even three quarters full, so that you don’t overeat without realizing it.  In this way, you will begin to be able to love and enjoy food again without all of the guilt and weight gain.  Give it a try!  You might be surprised by the result.