Elizabeth Mariutto, PsyD
Clinical Director of Partial Hospitalization and Intensive Outpatient Adult Eating Disorder Services and Staff Psychologist, Harold C. Schott Foundation Eating Disorders Program, Lindner Center of HOPE
“Every time I try a diet, I do okay for a while, and then I go back to my usual eating.” According to the National Eating Disorders Association, this is an incredibly common phenomenon, as 95% of those who diet regain any weight lost within one to five years. Despite the ineffectiveness of dieting, those that fall under the overweight category on BMI charts are often encouraged to do so by the medical community. Not only is this ineffective, but dieting has been found to be associated with increased binge eating and greater weight gain.
So what is the alternative? Mindful eating. Research has found that those who struggle with binge eating, diabetes, and/or obesity may benefit from mindful eating. Keep in mind, mindful eating is not recommended for patients in the process of weight restoration or food exposure, specifically for those with Anorexia Nervosa, or those with gastrointestinal symptoms that may complicate hunger and fullness cues.
Author and psychologist Susan Albers defines mindful eating as awareness of the physical aspects of eating, the process of eating, and triggers for mindless eating. Individuals who eat mindfully slow down and take pause in their busy schedules to pay attention to their bodies and cues of hunger and fullness. The emptiness of one’s stomach, irritability, low energy, and difficulty concentrating can all be signs of hunger. When one eats, one should feel full but not stuffed, satisfied yet comfortable. Many who struggle with unhealthy eating have been so disconnected from their bodies that either they do not have awareness of these cues, or they wait until they are famished before eating and eat until they feel as if their stomachs could explode. They may focus on external cues to start and stop eating, such as if others around them are eating, rather than the internal cues of their body. To start the practice of mindful eating, it can be helpful to focus awareness on how long it has been since one has eaten and the content of what one ate at that time. Regular eating should take place within one hour of waking up in the morning, then at three to four hour increments throughout the day. Meals should balance carbohydrates with lipids and protein sources. Starting with these guidelines can help one’s body self-regulate so that the hunger and fullness cues can kick in.
Mindful eating also distinguishes physical from emotional hunger. Food has become tied to emotions in our society. People celebrate birthdays by baking a cake, revel in a promotion by going out to dinner, and calm themselves down after a stressful day by getting ice cream. While all of these can still occur within mindful eating, a mindful eater will be intentional about this, as well as develop other self-soothing strategies. A mindful eater will tune in to the qualities of the foods he or she is choosing and ask him or herself, “Does this taste good? Does this food energize me or make me sluggish? Does my body thrive when I eat this?” A mindful eater will balance cravings with nutrition, allowing oneself to have all foods in moderation. This does not always mean choosing the “healthy” choice, but rather having self-compassion and flexibility around food. Mindless eaters may overeat sweets, chips, or fast food, tell themselves that they are a failure for consuming these items, and fall into hopelessness and despair, only to lead them back towards these foods repeatedly. In fact, many comment that they do not even enjoy what they are eating. In contrast, a mindful eater may pick up fast food on a road trip, have a handful of chips with a sandwich, or try a coworker’s chocolate chip cookies; however, he or she will savor these items and consume them as part of a well-balanced diet. If one is full, one will stop eating, even if there is food left on the plate.
Lastly, mindful eaters set up an environment for success. They sit down at a table for meals rather than eating in front of the TV or grazing in the pantry. They do a lap at buffets prior to plating their food. They fill their house with diverse foods and ingredients and avoid buying trigger foods in bulk. While it takes work, many learn to gain control over their eating with the principles of mindful eating.
Albers, S. (2008). Eat, Drink and Be Mindful. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
National Eating Disorders Association (2018). Statistics & Research on Eating Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/statistics-research-eating-disorders.