Mindful eating tips avoid all of the diet fads and scientific confusion when it comes to food. It actually simplifies it in a way that makes our relationship to food much easier than we ever imagined it could be. You eat when you’re hungry; you stop when you’re full. That’s it, even if it is harder than it seems. What is mindful eating and how can it help chronic pain patients manage their pain, especially as the holidays approach?
What is mindful eating?
Mindful eating refers to paying attention to your body: eating when and how much you need to. Mindful eaters also pay attention to the food they eat and how it makes them feel. It can be a natural way for your body to let you know what it can or can’t tolerate when it comes to nutrition. In the case of mindful eating it doesn’t really matter when you answer your body but that you do as soon as you determine what you need.
It’s best explained in a short clip from neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt’s TED Talk. In it, she discusses the idea of mindful eating and the dangers of dieting. She described the way the brain works in relation to body weight. As she notes, we are all programmed with a “set point” that your brain believes is a healthy weight. It works like the thermostat for your house. Your body will make adjustments when you try to make changes to your weight. When you diet, your brain reacts as though you are starving. A diet doesn’t lower your set point. Instead, it causes your muscles to burn less energy. The unfortunate truth is that set points can go up but they rarely ever go down.
The science community recognizes two types of eaters. Aamodt describes them as intuitive eaters and controlled eaters. Intuitive eaters are less likely to be overweight and only eat when they’re hungry. Controlled eaters, on the other hand, are vulnerable to overeating and binge eating. She suggests that people focus on being mindful, or intuitive, eaters rather than relying on diets to lose excess weight.
The basics of mindful eating tips
The idea is to listen to your body. When you eat, see how it makes you feel. What foods make you feel better or worse? What changes can you make?
Aamodt also points out that weight doesn’t always correlate with a high risk of death. She describes the four healthy habits that all people should have. These are:
- Eat more fruits and vegetables
- Exercise regularly
- Don’t smoke
- If you drink, only do so in moderation
In the graph from her presentation, it is interesting to note that when overweight or obese people engage in these four healthy habits their risk of death goes down dramatically, practically matching that of people with healthier weights.
Mindful eating tips for maintaining weight
What people have recognized over the years is that our relationship with food is subjective. Our ancestors ate to survive. At various times, food could be scarce so the body learned ways to conserve energy. However, as we developed farming and food-based infrastructures our bodies didn’t change the way they responded to food. Mindful eating is a way to reclaim the natural rhythms of our hunger and work with our brain rather than against it.
The Center for Mindful Eating is a great resource and offers a number of mindful eating tips that can help someone just beginning on this journey. They suggest:
- Deliberately paying attention to the moment without instilling judgment
- Understanding both internal processes and external environments
- Being aware of thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations
- The ability to free yourself from habits that influence reactions in thinking, feeling, and acting
- Promoting balance, choice, wisdom, and acceptance
The Center describes mindful eating tips those that as allow you to acknowledge the positive and nurturing aspects that are part of the food we eat. They suggest we respect our own inner wisdom to guide us toward the right food choices. Use all of your senses to choose the food that is satisfying and nourishing and don’t judge yourself when you like or dislike something. And, most importantly, you must understand the physical cues of hunger and fullness to regulate your food intake.
Mindful eating takes the focus off eating the “right” things and allows a person the ability to follow their own natural rhythms to eat what is right for them at the right times. While not many people lose weight after they begin a mindful eating practice, they also do not generally gain additional weight.
Mindful eating tips and pain management
Because many factors influence the pain caused by chronic conditions, mindful eating may have a role to play in reducing painful symptoms. By beginning to focus on the way you eat you can remove focus from other aspects that are creating discomfort. It may also help you track your pain symptoms. For instance, do you experience greater pain when you’re hungry? Do certain foods trigger pain responses?
Studies have shown that there are beneficial effects for patients with chronic illnesses. For instance, one study looked into how mindful eating could help patients with diabetes manage their disease. Patients were asked to acknowledge their “inner wisdom” about their hunger and information about nutrition and how it impacted their condition. It was determined that mindful eating could enhance the experience of a patient who also acknowledged the nutritional impact of their diet.
Mindful eating as an alternative to counting calories
Because calories are consumed in food and spent in exercise many health experts advise a simple formula to determine weight gain and loss. Consume fewer calories than you spend.
But the simplicity of burning more calories than you consume isn’t always accurate or efficient. Everyone needs a different amount of calories a day. Ideal caloric consumption is based on a number of factors including height, weight, physical activity, overall health, gender, health conditions, and body shape. In fact, no two nutritional authorities have managed to agree on an established number of recommended calories per day.
One of the primary reasons that calorie counting isn’t an exact science is that not all calories are the same, either. As far as consumption goes a calorie is a calorie. However, the source of those calories can interact with your body differently. For instance, a food with high fiber content can make you feel fuller longer. Consuming these fiber-filled foods will have a different effect on the body than consuming the same number of calories from a different food source.
It is also the case that we’re not actually very good at accurately counting calories. It is fine when the label is right in front of us, but when we decide to estimate based on our knowledge of what should be healthy, we oftentimes mistake how much we eat which can cause us to eat more or fewer calories than we should at any given time.
Mindful eating doesn’t put pressure on an individual to make specific choices. The idea is that when you listen to your body you’re not going to binge on chocolate cake in the first place because it won’t make you feel very good afterwards. Instead, you let your body tell you what it wants and when it wants it. There is no shame in the occasional cookie. Mindful eating removes judgment. It gives a person permission to make food choices that work for them.
Individuals who practice mindful eating are much more likely to maintain the weight they currently have and some even lose weight.
Myths about eating times
One of the most prevalent myths about food is told in regards to eating six smaller meals rather than two or three larger ones. It seems that this has been rejected by nutritional scientists for nearly half a decade. Recently, a study with Type-2 diabetics actually demonstrated that two larger meals a day helped these patients with weight loss significantly when compared to individuals who consumed six meals with the same caloric intake. While no one has studied the effects of fewer, larger meals on the rest of the population there may be some wisdom in this information for everyone.
The truth is our bodies respond the same way metabolically whether we eat a little bit or a lot. Eating smaller meals frequently doesn’t boost our metabolism. Your body uses energy to eat food regardless of the size of the meal. Eating more often doesn’t cause your body to use more energy; it still uses the same energy for the same amount of calories you’ve ingested regardless of when or how much at a time.
The most controversial myth when it comes to eating times surrounds breakfast. The problem is, there is both myth and fact wrapped up in this one simple meal time that it is hard to determine which is the right approach. A study by Cornell University demonstrated that people who skip breakfast do not consume more calories than those who don’t. Even those who consumed more at lunch than they would have if they had eaten breakfast still consumed fewer calories throughout the day than their breakfast eating counterparts.
But Dr. Megan McCrory, professor of nutrition at Georgia State University also presented a study which demonstrates that when people eat either breakfast, a mid-morning snack, or both they are less likely to develop type-2 diabetes.
When it really does matter
So, how is it even possible to know what should and shouldn’t work?
Of course, there are situations where time matters. Do you remember the movie Gremlins from the 1980s? In the movie, if you fed the adorable mogwai after midnight it would transform into the hideous and unstoppable destruction machine known as a gremlin. While humans aren’t likely to undergo this kind of transformation, there is evidence that the midnight snack may be extremely detrimental to our overall health.
According to this study, researchers believe that the restriction of eating only during eight to twelve hour time periods during the day can help reduce high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity. In fact, they observed that this was normal behavior for humans just one century ago. With the advancements of technology and changes in our behavioral patterns overall, we seem to have abandoned that simple step when it comes to nutrition.
It is apparent that there are situations where altering the times you eat could also impact the way your body is affected by chronic conditions or pain.
As with the example for Type-2 diabetes, there may be some wisdom in abandoning the idea of six small meals a day. Instead, focus on two that encompass all of the dietary, caloric, and nutritional needs of your day. In many cases, it also depends on your body’s specific needs when it comes to eating times. You can take cues from your pain as well. For instance, if your fibromyalgia pain increases after eating a large meal try eating several small meals instead.
How can you get started with mindful eating tips?
The primary focus of mindful eating is to pay attention to the cues your body provides regarding hunger. It helps you understand the differences between eating for necessity and eating for emotional satisfaction. It also removes the shame many people feel around food.
If you’re interested in mindful eating tips, start with the information at the “Am I Hungry?” website. It provides easy to follow steps to learn about yourself and your current eating habits.
Other resources include:
- A Harvest of Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating by Jane Goodall
- Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life by Thich Nhat Hanh and Lilian Cheung
- Mindful Eating by Miraval
The beautiful thing about mindful eating is that you can start today without any tools. Begin to think about how and why you eat. Recognize when you’re hungry and what foods would satisfy your hunger. Track what you eat and learn from it as you continue this journey to change your relationship with food.
Do you think you might try these mindful eating tips to maintain your weight and better control pain in your life?