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NEWSLETTER

Mindful eating


Is this something you've heard before?

You're sitting at your computer, staring at a wall of e-mails. You hit "send" after finishing your response and reach for the bulging tuna wrap on your desk. You set the wrap down, grab a handful of chips, and open the next message after a few bites, chewing while glancing at the screen. Before you know it, you've finished your meal without even realizing it.

A small but growing body of research suggests that eating more slowly and thoughtfully may help with weight issues and may steer some people away from processed foods and other less-healthy options.


This alternative method is known as "mindful eating." It is based on the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, which entails being fully aware of what is going on inside and outside of you at the time. Mindfulness techniques have been proposed in other areas as a way to relieve stress and alleviate problems such as high blood pressure and chronic gastrointestinal issues.

What is Mindful eating?
Mindful eating (i.e., paying attention to our food intentionally, moment by moment, and without judgment) is an approach to food that emphasizes sensuous awareness of the food and the experience of eating. It is unrelated to calories, carbs, fat, and protein.

Mindfulness in eating entails noticing the colours, smells, flavours, and textures of your food; chewing slowly; eliminating distractions such as TV or reading; and learning to cope with food guilt and anxiety. Some aspects of mindful eating appear to be influenced by the ideas of Horace Fletcher, an early twentieth-century food faddist who believed that chewing food thoroughly would solve a variety of health problems.

The mind-gut relationship
Digestion involves a complex series of hormonal signals between the gut and the nervous system, and it appears that the brain takes about 20 minutes to register satiety (fullness). If someone eats too quickly, satiety may occur after overeating rather than stopping it. There's also evidence that eating while distracted by activities like driving or typing may cause digestion to slow or stop, similar to how the "fight or flight" response works. And if we don't digest well, we may be missing out on the full nutritive value of some of the food we eat.

In her 2010 book Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, co-written with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, nutritionist and Harvard School of Public Health lecturer Lilian Cheung lays out the rationale for mindful eating as a way to lose weight. The book, which combines science and Buddhist philosophy, has spawned a thriving Facebook page where people share recipes and other healthy living advice.

Stephanie Meyers, a dietician at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, uses mindfulness techniques to assist cancer patients with their diets in a variety of ways. For example, she will encourage head and neck cancer survivors to meditate on food as they make the sometimes difficult transition from a feeding tube back to eating. Patients could practice this meditation by biting into an apple slice, closing their eyes, and focusing on the sensory experience of tasting, chewing, and swallowing.

A starting point
Experts recommend beginning with mindful eating gradually, eating one meal per day or week in a slower, more attentive manner. Here are some pointers (and tricks) to get you started:

Set your kitchen timer for 20 minutes and eat a normal-sized meal during that time.

Try eating with your non-dominant hand; if you're a righty, lift food to your mouth with your left hand.

If you're not used to using chopsticks, try them out.

For five minutes, eat quietly, reflecting on 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 thoroughly.

Take a deep breath and ask yourself, "Am I really hungry?" before opening the fridge or cabinet. Do something else, such as read or go for a short walk.


Treatment for binge drinkers
Several studies have found that mindful eating strategies may aid in the treatment of eating disorders and may aid in weight loss. An NIH-funded study of mindful eating techniques for binge eating was conducted by Indiana State University psychologist Jean Kristeller and colleagues at Duke University. The 150-person randomized controlled trial compared mindfulness-based therapy to standard psychoeducational treatment and a control group. Both active treatments reduced bingeing and depression, but mindfulness-based therapy appeared to help people enjoy their food more and feel less struggle in controlling their eating. Those who meditated more frequently (at mealtimes and throughout the day) benefited more from the program.

According to Kristeller and others, mindfulness helps people distinguish between emotional and physical hunger and satiety, and it introduces a "moment of choice" between the urge and eating.

The NIH is funding additional research on the effectiveness of mindfulness-based approaches for weight loss and maintenance by Kristeller and Ruth Wolever of Duke. Several other studies on mindful eating are being conducted across the country.


Disclaimer:

No content on this site, regardless of date, should be used to replace direct medical advice from your doctor or another trained practitioner.
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