Friday, December 3, 2010

Minding your eating, managing your weight.

It’s not what you eat, but how you eat that matters.

Do you think you eat mindfully already? Are you wondering why I’m dedicating a post to this topic? It’s because it strikes me that most of us have work to do in this area. The benefit of mindful eating is dramatic. You may go off a diet, but if you are focusing on mindful eating there is no “blowing it”. 

You will at times be more or less mindful, but addressing mindful eating is not all or nothing. So you can’t fail at it. And even small changes in your mindfulness can have a major impact on how you eat, and how you feel. And ultimately, on weight regulation.

In my last post I promised to address practical strategies for legalizing forbidden foods.  I didn’t forget. To set the stage, we first need to spend some time learning to eat mindfully.  (I will cover eating chocolate and other forbidden foods in an upcoming post. Really.)

Mindful eating involves taking in food with all of your senses—smelling its aroma, feeling its texture, seeing its beauty and truly tasting it. Ok, you won’t always hear your food unless you are eating something with a lot of crunch or inappropriately slurping down your soup. But you know what I mean.

Mindful eating means moving yourself from auto-pilot, and not simply eating just because there’s food around. It means shifting from selecting foods simply for their nutritional benefit, or because it’s what you always allow yourself, or because they are safe foods, and instead choosing foods you really enjoy. Because if you only have what’s save or allowed, then you will continue to seek what you’d really prefer to be eating.
Mindful eating is also about paying attention to how you feel when you’re about to eat, and to the setting you’re eating in. That includes your internal stress level, and the comfort of your environment, both physical and emotional.

It involves recognizing when you are hungry, and distinguishing hunger from all the other reasons you reach for food—stress, boredom, self-punishment, anger, celebration, comfort, to name a few. 

Rugelach recipe available upon request! Simply the best!
It requires giving yourself permission to eat, when you’re hungry, without waiting until you are so hungry that it is too late to eat in a controlled and mindful manner. And it requires letting go of your judgment of what you are choosing to eat now, and what you ate earlier in the day or week.

Think about your usual setting, the way you typically eat your meals and snacks. Do any of these apply? Are you:

Watching TV?
Reading or doing homework?
At the computer?
On the phone?
Eating in bed?
Being interrupted to meet everyone else’s needs?
Emptying the dishwasher?
Walking around the kitchen?

Are you even aware of when and what you are putting in your mouth? And how much do you really allow yourself to taste your food, to thoroughly enjoy it?

I realize that you are mighty good at multitasking. Really, I know you’re capable of eating while doing lots of other things. I just don’t recommend it. When you’re distracted, you fail to acknowledge what you’ve eaten, and that you may have had enough. Have you ever eaten a meal in front of the TV? It just doesn’t register that you’ve eaten. So then you’re up looking around for more soon after. You miss the satisfying aspects of eating, and ultimately overeat.

Distracted eating also creates unhealthy connections between activities and eating. You go to the movies and you think about eating popcorn, whether hungry or not. And you only know you’ve had enough when the salt and oil is scraped up by your nails! At the ballgame? It’s hot dogs and peanuts. If you start to link an action with eating—for instance, reading blogs—then whenever you sit at your computer you’ll be seeking food. They become linked activities, so that even if you weren’t hungry you’re triggered to eat.

If you’re going to eat, when you’re going to eat, I want you to appreciate every morsel that you take in.

Too late! I’m already stuck in these patterns!

Not so! There’s still time to change your habits and learn to be mindful. Here are some practical tips, each of which can have significant impact:

Limit eating to the kitchen or dining room. And ask family members to help support this plan for everyone at home. Mindful eating is appropriate for everyone, kids and adults, regardless of size or weight!

Move to the table. And make it an inviting place to dine. Do you need to clear off the mail? The laundry? The dirty dishes? Then do so! You don’t need fine china to set a nice table, but a place mat might help. Maybe even candles? Or flowers?

Set your internal table, so to speak and prepare yourself to eat. If you’ve just been racing around, or are feeling stressed or anxious your internal table isn’t set. So sit down and take a few breaths, deep belly breaths, and release some tension. You’d be surprised that something so simple and quick as breathing works so well.

Say an affirmation, quietly to yourself, with eyes closed or open if you choose. An affirmation is a “declaration that something is true”. For instance, stating “ I can taste and enjoy my food” or I will nourish my body and give it what it needs. For some, blessings before meals meet this need. Appreciating the food that will be eaten lays the groundwork for savoring your food.

Use your senses to take in your food. Do you like the smell of the food? The temperature? How does it appear? How does it feel in your mouth? What do you think of the texture? And how does it taste? Does it seem like you are tasting it for the very first time?
Now how is your belly feeling? Are you noticing that you are starting to feel full? If you are unsure, you can stop eating—just for now—and move away from the table. Give yourself permission to come back after 45 minutes or so, enough time to recognize that you are starting to feel comfortably full or satisfied.
To ready you for mindful eating, try the raisin exercise, a mindfulness activity that has been used for decades to make people more present, more aware of their eating.

Raisin Exercise

Take out a raisin from its package, then go and sit in a quiet place. Look at the raisin in your hand. Observe it, its color, smell, texture. Then close your eyes, placing the raisin in your mouth—but don’t chew it! Explore how it feels in your mouth as you move it around. How does it change? After some time (which will feel like an eternity) slowly begin to chew it and again observe it. Note the flavor and the feel. Finally, finish chewing it and swallow. Repeat this again and note any changes in your experience.

Now I don’t expect you to start eating your food, raisins or other items, this way. But this exaggerated experience with the raisin makes a point. It is so far from the way we normally shovel in raisins, practically eating them whole, that we barely appreciate their incredible sweetness. Now imagine doing this with a piece of fine chocolate. See where I’m going with this?

Start with one small goal this week, or when you’re ready to address eating mindfully. Choose one something relevant to you from the strategies above. And let me know how it goes.  What did you think of the raisin experiment? Were you able to refer to the experience when eating other foods? Have you been able to catch yourself when not eating mindfully and shift gears? Even that would be awesome progress!


  1. Is it possible that I need to be less mindful of an eater? That I could benefit from taking bigger bites of a Luna bar instead of focusing on the qualities of every morsel? Sometimes, I think that I just need to eat for the energy and stamina instead of for the taste or enjoyment of it.

    Also, could I please have the Rugelach recipe? It looks amazing!


  2. You raise an excellent point that I neglected to address in the post. For you and others in a similar place--those who cut up their food into very small pieces and who take a very log time to finish their food--some of these recommendations do not apply. These behaviors around food are more a starvation response (check out info on the research of Ancel Keys who studied healthy males who were starved for science in the 1940's). They begin to take on behaviors around food like those living with anorexia.
    But once re-nourished,this mindful approach is quite valuable!

  3. Honestly I’m almost too scared to try this. Sounds silly, I know – but it’s the fear of actually enjoying the food I’m eating that puts me off. I can stick to my set quantities of my safe food because it is relatively unappetising and if I were to try to eat something like chocolate I think it would be a case of eating the lot (which would cause weight gain and therefore stress). But I can feel my health slipping (anaemia is creeping in again), so I know I will need to either step-up on my own, or find myself in hospital again.
    I just need to think of something I enjoy eating. The sensible side of me is very frustrated by all this - I mean, seriously, it's just food - why is it such a big deal?? I can't stand the fuss.
    Perhaps I could give cheese on toast a go?? How hard could that be :)

  4. I truly believe in mindful eating. I think it is important to listen to my body, eat when it needs energy and stop when it is satisfied. Restoring weight, however, seems to disrupt this principle. I am suppose to eat more than what my body feels comfortable taking in. I often find my stomach feeling full, but according to my meal plan and/or what professionals are telling me, I need to eat more. I have a list of nutrients that I supposedly need to consume in order to get to a healthy place. Although this is not exactly what my menu includes, it serves as an example: 11 carbs, 9 fats, 10 proteins, etc. How can I be a mindful eater and at the same time restore weight?

  5. P.S. please respond as soon as possible. I am really struggling with what I wrote in my previous post.

  6. You raise a very important point which I neglected to address. When you are at a very low place, having been under eating for some time, the normal hunger signals don't tend to work. Things slow down metabolically, as evidenced by a decrease in body temp (and feeling colder all the time), a drop in pulse and blood pressure, and decreased sensation of hunger. This is further worsened by slowed gastric emptying--food will take longer to move through your system--making you feel full longer. Add anxiety or depression to the mix and the normal signals fall short.

    So if you are at that place in recovery,"leap of faith eating" is what is critical. Follow your plan, and you will see that the signals start to improve, and you can trust them.

    Be mindful of the other things--the improvement in how you feel, concentration, energy, etc.
    Hope that helps set you in the right direction.

    I apologize for any confusion those at this end of the spectrum might have experienced from reading this post!

  7. I am unsure of what you mean by "leap of faith eating"?

    I apologize for my uncertainty

  8. By "leap of faith eating" I meant taking small steps out of your comfort zone, closer to meeting your plan, because you know it is what you are supposed to do. You will see that your worst fears did not come true, and will then begin to trust that eating more is okay.

    At some point, many individuals may need to follow a structured plan, which doesn't appear to fit with being mindful and listening to one's body. But that will change with recovery.

  9. Great blog. Thanks for sharing your insights!
    I would love the rugalech recipe.
    Donna (

  10. Thanks for reading, Donna! If you haven't yet signed up as follower, I'd love it if you did! I will be starting some special features for blog "followers". Photos not required!
    And I have just sent you the recipe. Enjoy, and let me know what you think!

  11. I really need to concentrate on the mindful eating. I am becoming more mindful of just how MINDLESSLY I ate almost all my food/meals! Honestly, I can tell this is something it will take time for me to learn! Just having you plant "the seed" (and reading this reinforces!) that I just need to start taking baby steps. And, I am. I don't always remember, but I am trying to "slow down". Admittedly, I can now see that I generally inhaled my food without giving much thought to how it tasted. I can feel that this approach will be beneficial to me and I will continue to work on developing that mindfulness skill..... in eating and in my life... I need to slow it all down, get more meditative...... mindful.... learning to experience the PLEASURE... I do so much of what I do feeling like there isn't enough time to do it all! Better hurry! (Including eating!) And I do eat at a table (doubling as a desk/work space) surrounded by mail and "stuff" admittedly. Must work on that too!

  12. First step is the awareness! Keep up the good work!
    BTW, for whatever reason you are not in as a follower, fyi! So try again!