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Can a New Way of Eating Help You Shed Pounds?

By Collin McShirley ; Updated January 13, 2016

While it may seem new to you, mindful eating is actually an ancient practice that’s getting an increasing amount of buzz. You might have heard of mindfulness in reference to meditation, and, in fact, some of the same theories apply. When I began to repair my relationship with food, one of the most helpful concepts that I discovered was mindful eating.

Fifteen years ago, my journey to stop eating emotionally had me crossing paths with an idea that has a fascinating history. With roots in Zen philosophies and other forms of Buddhism, mindful eating is eating with intention by focusing on each moment of your meal and its effects on your body. When you eat mindfully, you eat with the intention of caring for yourself. While the aim is to improve your relationship with food, many still want to know: Can I lose weight this way?

What Does the Research Say About Mindful Eating?

In 2011, Harvard Health Beat determined that mindful eating may help with weight loss, because if you eat slower you give your brain the proper amount of time to register fullness (it takes approximately 20 minutes). Meanwhile, Jean Kristeller, a professor of psychology at Indiana State University, hypothesizes in an article for Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center that this way of eating makes it easier for people to cognitively process their desire to eat, rather than feeling victim to the emotional center that often drives eating. According to her theory, in addition to eating slowly and thoughtfully, you must also deal with the emotions that are causing you to overeat, instead of pushing them to the back rooms of your mind.

However, not all experts agree. Some scientists state that more research is required to determine whether or not mindful eating results in weight loss. For instance, in 2014, Charles Emery, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University, said, “Our review of the research shows we still have a long way to go to provide convincing evidence of the benefits of mindfulness for weight loss and, especially, how it may work.”

Although more research may be required for widespread agreement within the scientific community, a paper in Obesity Reviews, which evaluated 21 papers regarding the topic of mindfulness-based interventions for obesity-related eating behaviors, concluded that it is effective in changing those behaviors, specifically binge eating, emotional eating and external eating.

Then there’s the concept of “intuitive eating,” which includes mindful eating, but is a broader philosophy. Intuitive eating includes three central factors: Eat because you are physically hungry, not because your emotions are causing you to eat; listen to your body in order to assess when you’re hungry and when you’re full; and give yourself unconditional permission to eat. The key is to not restrict the timing, amount and type of food eaten according to some external standard.

A research study in the Journal of Counseling Psychology on intuitive eating surveyed 391 women ages 17 to 61. The study suggests that listening to body signals in determining what, when and how much to eat is associated with lower body mass.

How to Practice Mindful Eating

It turns out that we are often not physically hungry, but rather we are hungry emotionally for something that isn’t being fulfilled in our lives. The first question to ask yourself is: What am I really hungry for? Follow that up with these questions designed to get at the heart of your hunger pangs.

Is there someone who is making me want to overeat? By identifying this individual, you rob the emotion of its power before it causes you to overeat.

What is it that I’m eating? If you are eating highly processed foods, you may feel unsatisfied and experience low energy levels. Incorporating more plant-based foods into your diet will likely give you the energy you need to feel full and satisfied.

Why do I feel like eating right now? Is it because you are physically hungry, or is it because you want to numb an emotion? More often than not, an emotion is the culprit.

How much is on my plate? Examining the amount of food on your plate will help you understand whether or not you’re eating emotionally.

After posing these kinds of thoughtful questions regarding your relationship to food and examining the emotions in a nonjudgmental way, you are ready to apply the basic physical techniques of mindful eating. Start gradually so you don’t get overwhelmed. Choose some of following strategies that you feel comfortable with, and apply them to one meal a day or a few meals a week instead of trying to do them all for every meal.

1. Take time to eat your meal. Set a timer to 20 to 30 minutes and pace your meal so that you use the entire amount. Once you’ve gotten the sense of what it feels like to eat slowly, ditch the electronics — they provide unnecessary distractions while eating (see below). Another method is to start eating meals using chopsticks as utensils. This literally slows down the process if you aren’t used to using them and helps you take smaller bites. Or use your nondominant hand; for instance, if you’re right-handed, try holding your fork in your left hand when eating. It’s a lot trickier than you think!

2. Avoid stimulation. Turn off the TV and put away the cell phone. Eat in complete silence focused on the task at hand — enjoying your meal.

3. Take small bites. Chew your food 10 to 15 times before swallowing.

4. Think about where your food came from. Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Some of us, while looking at a piece of carrot, can see the whole cosmos in it, can see the sunshine in it, can see the earth in it.” Take an apple, for example. It started from a seed and was tended to until it made its way to the market. Taking the time to appreciate this helps slow down the eating process and engages your creativity too.

While the jury may still be out on whether or not mindful eating conclusively results in weight loss, practicing these techniques will absolutely contribute to a healthier relationship with food — and a healthier you.

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