Eating is natural and necessary for survival. Although the main reason for eating is to nourish our body, we also eat for pleasure. For many individuals, however, the seemingly simple act of eating becomes complicated. Food restriction for fear of weight gain causes many people to become chronic dieters, which can often have the opposite effect.

Mindful eating vs. mindless eating

Recent studies have shown the key to sustained weight loss lies in developing a positive relationship with food through mindful eating. What does this mean? To understand mindful eating, it may help to provide some examples of mindless (or distracted) eating. You’ve likely done it yourself if you’ve ever finished a bag of chips while driving or watching TV, snacked while catching up on emails, or simply indulged in one too many holiday desserts at a party. When we eat mindlessly we set ourselves up to overeat and often when we aren’t even hungry. Mindful eating is about fully paying attention when having a meal or snack. It involves using all your senses to explore, savour and taste your food.

Be mindful of your hunger and fullness cues

We don’t gain weight because we eat what we love, we gain weight when we eat too much of what we love! Check in with your stomach when you’re about to have a meal or snack. Rate your hunger on a scale of one to five (see scale below). Don’t wait until you’re starved; do your “belly check” before meals and aim to eat when you’re between a 3 or 4 on the hunger scale. During meals, eat and chew slowly and pause between bites. Remember it takes about twenty minutes for our bodies to recognize the feeling of “fullness”. The best time to stop eating is when you are neither hungry nor full. Take a little break at the half way point and check in with your stomach again to see if you’re still hungry. Notice how the taste of food actually changes when you start satisfying your hunger. It may still taste good but the enjoyment you receive from each bite decreases until finally eating is no longer pleasurable. In fact, eating past the level of fullness becomes painful both physically and emotionally. The ability to find a comfortable level of fullness is a skill we were all born with. With enough practice, you can reclaim that skill; you just need to listen to your body cues.

Slow down and be in the moment

If we are not “in the moment” when we eat, where are we? Often with food, we are everywhere else. We are thinking about the calories, about our busy day, watching TV or even judging ourselves. Being in the moment and taking the time to enjoy our food is extremely important, both for our mental and physical well-being. Our fast-paced life prevents us from noticing the simple things about a meal: color, texture, smell, or even the effort it took to prepare it. When we eat mindfully, everything slows down. We stop to notice how we are feeling. Are we tired, stressed out, overworked? The more we connect with ourselves, the more likely we are to re-center ourselves throughout the day. Running on auto pilot and rushing through our day causes our body to be in constant “stress mode”.

According to some researchers, stress hormone such as cortisol can promote weight gain. Not only does cortisol secretion promote weight gain but it can also affect where you put on the weight. Research shows that elevated cortisol tends to cause weight gain in the abdominal area. Taking some time aside to practice deep breathing a few times a day can be very beneficial. When things get out of control and you feel your stress level rising, stop whatever you are doing and notice how your entire body is feeling, take a few deep abdominal breaths. Let each breath detoxify your body and calm your body. Acknowledge your emotions and move towards a new direction. Act in a more thoughtful and caring way towards yourself and work towards getting your mind and body on the right track!

Connect with your emotions and embrace the cravings!

We all experience cravings. The best way to deal with them is by learning to respond with a nonjudgmental observation. A craving usually has a beginning, a peak and a moment when it subsides. If you constantly avoid the foods you crave the most, you will most likely binge on those foods at some point which will leave you feeling guilty and defeated. Therefore, the best thing would be to have the food you are craving but eat it mindfully. Take the time to fully enjoy that piece of cake. Instead of telling yourself that “I shouldn’t be eating this cake” tell yourself that “I choose to eat this cake”. Also, try to tap into your feelings. Are you craving a certain food because you are trying to numb or cover up your emotions? Some people find comfort in food, especially fatty, salty and sweet foods. If that is the case, consulting a psychologist and/or a nutritionist can be helpful.

We know that maintaining a healthy weight is not easy as our weight is influenced by so many factors: some related to the food choices we make and some related to external factors that have nothing to with food, such as exercise, stress and sleep. There is no such thing as a “perfect weight”. However, we know that individuals who do eat mindlessly will inevitably pack on some extra pounds. There is tremendous power in bringing our body and mind together. Mindful eating is a skill that develops over time. Commit to eating at least one meal or snack per day mindfully. You will have many opportunities to experience savouring your food as you continue on your journey to mindful eating.