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Diets Mind-Body

Mindful Eating

If you eat while reading or watching TV you may recall an experience of surprise when you reached for a morsel to only discover the bowl was empty. Once again you had finished a meal sized snack while hardly noticing it.  Unfortunately this inattention to food can put on pounds and lead to gastrointestinal difficulties.  What we need is a slower, more thoughtful way of eating.

An alternative approach to distracted eating is called mindful eating.  With mindful eating, attention shifts from the distraction to the nuances of the food experience which may include the smells, colors, flavors, and textures of your food.  Eating slowly becomes a necessary part of mindful eating because of the time delay in hormonal signaling between the gut and mind.  Given that is can take up to 20 minutes for the brain to register satiety (fullness), fast eaters can easily overeat before the brain has the message to stop.  Because eating fast is often associated with being in a state of anxiety, digestion may be upset by our “fight or flight” response.  When this happens, food is not digesting well and nutritive value is lost.

If you haven’t discovered the benefits of mindful eating, let me offer a few ideas for getting started.  While the basic concept are easy to understand, the emotional nature of food means we are challenging a habit that may have been with us most of our life. Ok, here is your six step starter kit.

  1. Set a goal of one mindfully eaten  meal a day with all distraction put aside except for the meal.  When that’s working, add more meals.
  • Set you cell phone timer to 20 minutes and measure your bites so that you need the full 20 minutes to finish.
  • Before eating, take a few minutes to feel gratitude for all that was part of making the meal possible (sunlight, rain, farmers, grocers, cooks, etc.)
  • If having difficulty eating slowly, try eating with your non dominant hand. Interestingly, this has more positive benefits than you might expect by aiding neuroplacticity – the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections
  • Take small bites and chew well.
  • Before taking another serving, ask yourself, “Am I really hungry?” Perhaps exercise or a power nap is what your body is actually asking for. A practice of mindfulness can help you recognize the difference.

With mindful practice, you can better appreciate the difference between emotional hunger, physical hunger, and satiety. When that happens, you are in control and food becomes balanced nourishment rather than an emotional response.  As you practice mindful eating, never underestimate the nagging power of old habits.  Of course, never underestimate the value of social support from others involved in the same challenges.  TOPS is one of several community based groups that try to meet this need.

In the resource section below are links to several videos that will introduce you further to why many diets that focus on calorie reduction don’t succeed.  The first video begins with Sandra Aamodt’s story of how she came to understand why most diets don’t work and why they often do more harm than good.  While Sandra Aamodt’s story is an excellent introduction to the challenge of dealing with an evolutionary urge that seems insurmountable, there is more to the story.  In the second video, Michelle DuVal provides helpful ideas about techniques for mindful eating.  Next up is Brian Wansink with tips for moving from ‘mindless eating’ to ‘mindlessly eating’ well.  Finally, two short videos provide step by step practice as you venture into a lifestyle practice of mindful eating.

For those that have followed my weekly ideas about healthful living, you will know there is more to the story of mindful eating.  For success, it will also require moving away from addictive foods and toward nutrient-dense whole foods.  While not emphasized in the videos, exercise remains fundamental to health just as it does for maintaining a healthful weight.  The key is a healthy lifestyle that integrates healthy habits of mind and body into your daily activities.

Speaking of exercise, walking is a great way to get started.  Join me Saturday for a mindful walk. 

Nancy Neighbors, MD

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Video Resources

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Book Resources

  • Eating Mindfully by Susan Albers
  • Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life by Thich Nhat Hanh and Lilian Cheung
  • Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink
  • Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food by Jan Chozen Bays
  • Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes: A Mindful Eating Program for Thriving with Prediabetes or Diabetes by Michelle May
  • Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating by Jane Goodall, Gary McAvoy, and Gail Hudson
  • Meal by Meal: 365 Daily Meditations for Finding Balance Through Mindful Eating by Donald Altman
  • The Self Compassion Diet by Jean Fain
  • Book: Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life by Lilian Cheung

By Nancy Neighbors, MD

... Dr. Neighbors provides a blend of traditional family medicine and evidence-based lifestyle medicine in Huntsville, Alabama. When indicated, lifestyle change is recommended as the first line of therapy.

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