Business of Well-being

Mindful Diet: A Different Approach to Weight Loss

Americans spend billions each year on the diet industry. But as bank accounts are decreasing, waistlines are still increasing. Recent surveys show that one-third of American adults are obese (BMI >30), and 64% of adults are overweight (BMI >25). The oft-quoted statistics are that in 95% of cases, the weight lost by dieting is regained within five years.

Many actually end up more obese than before they dieted. Counseling professionals are noticing a significant emotional impact to persons whose dieting attempts seem to fail (over and over again), as "experts" continue prescribing diet as the solution. To make matters emotionally worse, dieters most often hear themselves being blamed by those experts when the diet doesn't work.

Some pioneers in dietary and counseling arenas are introducing new ways of battling the physical and emotional war with obesity. Becoming aware or mindful of what one eats, and more importantly how one eats, is a simple approach to enjoying all foods but controlling one's portions and behaviors which can generate lasting weight loss.

Why Diets Don't Work

Most people who want to lose weight have been on at least five to ten diets, if not more, in their lifetime. They are dieting professionals. The thought of "this time it will work, this time it will be different" is in their mind every time they start a new diet. So the cycle continues of starting a new diet, losing some weight, then, the eventual rebound of weight gain, often to a point higher than pre-diet levels.

Another common downside to dieting is the attention given to food. Dieters are often instructed to focus on and even study their food with tactics like counting calories or carbs, or to eat a certain type of food and no others. This process can actually sabotage their success, because the diet makes the dieter more preoccupied with food. Dieting makes food the enemy, especially when one eats a non-diet food. Dieting slows metabolism! And, lastly, dieting is usually a stepping-stone to eating disorders.

A Different Approach: Mindful Eating

Mindful eating means the person is aware and deliberate while eating. First, the mindful eater responds less to external cues-like the sight or smell of food, restaurant signs, television ads or large bowls and plates. Instead the mindful eater tunes in to their body's natural signals of hunger and fullness, so they stop eating when full and don't start eating unless they are truly hungry.  

Second, the mindful eater limits distractions-like a television-which might prevent them from hearing their body's signals. Anyone can become a Mindful Eater with these simple tactics.

Recognize Hunger and Fullness

Diets convince the dieter's body that famines are frequent, which convinces the body to lower energy consumption to a survival mode, which lowers the metabolic rate. Alternatively, mindful eating is the conscious shifting of attention to the direct experience of one's body, feelings, thoughts and surroundings while eating. Mindful eating involves focusing on one's hunger and fullness and which decreases portion sizes.

First one should gauge how hunger feels.  Is there a gnawing in the stomach, growling noises, light-headedness, difficulty concentrating, irritability, or headaches? This is frequently difficult when dieting has been long-term, or when taught to "clean your plate."Think of hunger on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being totally empty and ravenous, 5 being neutral, and 10 being stuffed and sick.  

Before eating and during the meal, the mindful eater should pause several times and identify where they are on the scale. If they are 5 or above, they are not hungry and do not need to eat. If they are 2 or lower, they are over-hungry, and at risk for overeating!

It is best to satisfy hunger when one is around 3 or 4, and to stop eating when they are at 6 or 7, which means satisfied and still comfortable enough to conduct daily life. Stopping when full saves tons of calories.

Don't Deprive Yourself

When dieters deny themselves the foods they love, they are set up for eventual shame, guilt, and failure. The mindful approach is to eat enjoyable foods, within a balanced diet, but to eat with attention. Why would professionals encourage this?  

When people are deprived of foods they love, they feel punished and will often later binge eat, because they are unsatisfied with substitute foods. The mindful eater may:

  • Select a food they love-candy, pizza, dessert, ice cream-and choose an amount they can enjoy, even if they were previously prohibited from eating it.
  • Disregard calories, carbs, etc.  Completely and shamelessly enjoy the food.
  • Eat each bite slowly, which is key, taking time to chew and experience the taste and texture of the food.  Focus then on hunger and satisfaction levels.
  • When eating a deprived food using this technique, eaters often find a smaller amount very satisfactory.

Limit Portions

One way to practice mindful food portions is to carefully choose portions. Using the 50/80 rule, one can control the amount of food on their plate with a few simple steps:

  1. Mindful eaters may return for as many helpings as they choose. Remember that feeling deprived causes one to actually eat more. Knowing more food is available helps mindful eaters focus more on the food in front of them, instead of worrying about running out.
  2. On the first helping, eaters should limit the food on their plate so that 50% of the plate is still visible.
  3. Eat the food mindfully, paying attention to how it tastes and feels, as well as feelings of hunger and fullness. It is key to make the first serving last a long time. Allow the first serving to be satisfying to hunger.
  4. After finishing the first serving, return for seconds if desired, after considering hunger level. For this serving, ensure that 80% of the plate is still visible. Again this serving should be eaten mindfully and slowly.
  5. Mindful eaters may even have thirds or a fourth, etc, but using the "80" rule, and again eating slowly and mindfully.
  6. If eating dessert, use the smaller plate and follow the 80% rule.

Slow Down!

Finally, Mindful Eaters must slow down. Many dieters and obese persons gobble their food down in a few minutes and head back for seconds. When people eat food quickly, they don't give the body time to naturally signal that it is full. It generally takes up to twenty minutes after eating to feel full. Eating at four bites per minute instead of ten bites per minute can save 1200 calories! Just slowing down can generate great weight loss!

Emotional Eating

Emotional eating, or eating for other reasons rather than true hunger, is a cause of much over-consumption. Recognizing emotional eating helps reduce weight. Emotional eating, which occurs more in afternoon and evening hours and while alone, is the root of much obesity. Some may keep a "food and mood" journal to help with weight loss.

This may include documenting the food and amounts eaten, circumstances around eating, and thoughts and feelings experienced.Occasionally, they may pause to say "I feel," as they identify a feeling, and then add an "I need" something to fill the need, such as "I feel lonely, I need to call a friend."

Remember that in the long-term, diets do not work. Dieting is self-defeating. Diets make emotional eating and binges more likely. Mindful eating means monitoring hunger levels, limiting portion sizes, slowing down, and decreasing emotional eating. This will help dieters become mindful eaters and achieve natural weight loss.

About the Author

Sylvia White, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., L.P.C., is a registered and licensed dietitian, and a licensed professional counselor. She specializes in weight loss, eating disorders, and diabetes. She has a private practice at Cordova Psychological Associates, PLC, in the Memphis/Cordova, TN area, where she provides nutrition and mental health counseling.

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