A small yet growing body of research suggests that a slower, more thoughtful way of eating could help with weight problems and maybe steer some people away from processed food and unhealthy choices.
This alternative approach has been dubbed "mindful eating." It's based on the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, which involves being fully aware of what is happening within and around you at the moment. Mindfulness techniques have also been offered as a way to relieve stress and alleviate problems like high blood pressure and chronic gastrointestinal difficulties.
Applied to eating, mindfulness includes noticing the colors, smells, flavors, and textures of your food; chewing slowly; getting rid of distractions like TV or reading, and learning to cope with guilt and anxiety about food. Some elements of mindful eating hark back to Horace Fletcher, an early 20th-century food faddist who believed chewing food thoroughly would solve many different kinds of health problems.
The mind-gut connection
Digestion involves a complex series of hormonal signals between the gut and the nervous system, and it seems to take about 20 minutes for the brain to register satiety (fullness). If someone eats too quickly, satiety may occur after overeating instead of putting a stop to it. There's also reason to believe that eating while we're distracted by activities like driving or typing may slow down or stop digestion similar to how the "fight or flight" response does. And if we're not digesting well, we may be missing out on the full nutritive value of some of the food we're consuming.
A treatment for bingers
Several studies have shown mindful eating strategies might help treat eating disorders and possibly help with weight loss. Psychologist Jean Kristeller at Indiana State University and colleagues at Duke University conducted an NIH-funded study of mindful eating techniques for the treatment of binge eating.
The randomized controlled study included 150 binge eaters and compared a mindfulness-based therapy to a standard psychoeducational treatment and a control group. Both active treatments produced declines in binging and depression, but the mindfulness-based therapy seemed to help people enjoy their food more and have less sense of struggle about controlling their eating. Those who meditated more (both at mealtimes and throughout the day) got more out of the program.
The NIH is funding additional research by Kristeller and Ruth Wolever of Duke on the effectiveness of mindfulness-based approaches for weight loss and maintenance. Several other studies on mindful eating are underway around the country.
A starter kit for mindful eating
Experts suggest starting gradually with mindful eating, eating one meal a day or week in a slower, more attentive manner. Here are some tips (and tricks) that may help you get started:
- Set your kitchen timer to 20 minutes, and take that time to eat a normal-sized meal.
- Try eating with your non-dominant hand; if you're a righty, hold your fork in your left hand when lifting food to your mouth.
- Use chopsticks if you don't normally use them.
- Eat silently for five minutes, thinking about what it took to produce that meal, from the sun's rays to the farmer to the grocer to the cook.
- Take small bites and chew well.
- Before opening the fridge or cabinet, take a breath and ask yourself, "Am I really hungry?" Do something else, like reading or going on a short walk.