For many people, it’s incredibly easy to eat without paying much attention to portion control, feelings of fullness or even flavor after the first few bites. Often, this is because we’re concentrating on other tasks — from watching TV while snacking, to eating lunch at our desks.
When this happens, the calories stack up. If calories aren’t tracked, we already tend to consume more calories than we estimate, according to Brian Wansink, author of “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.” He believes multitasking can make the situation worse.
“The distraction of the television or other focus of attention causes us to lose track of how much we’re eating, causing us to overeat,” he says. That, in turn, can lead to weight gain over time, especially if sedentary behavior is also involved. To combat this tendency, Wansink and many other experts advocate “mindful eating” instead — a strategy that can help with weight loss but also provides many other advantages as well.
BENEFITS OF PAYING ATTENTION
Mindful eating techniques, which incorporate more deliberation and awareness, can help derail these snack-without-thinking habits.
Think of it as using all your senses to eat. You begin with looking at your food, noticing each curl of a lettuce leaf, for example, or the way the colors on a piece of fruit are different on one side than the other.
Bring a forkful or portion to your nose first so you can smell the food’s aromas, then listen for the crunch as you bite. Chew very slowly, and don’t browse social media or watch TV as you’re chewing. Finally, really taste the flavors and focus only on those until you swallow.
To be honest, it might feel pretty weird as an exercise. Most people — if not all — aren’t used to that level of focus when it comes to eating, and it requires a good deal of effort, according to New York-based registered dietitian Vanessa Rissetto.
But it’s worth the attempt, because not only can you reset those mindless eating habits, but you also aid digestion by chewing more thoroughly and give your body time to signal fullness, which often prevents overeating.
Developing awareness while eating sounds simple. But, like meditation exercises, it can feel challenging when you’re just starting. That’s why it’s a good idea to see the technique as a fun experiment rather than a daunting task.
Rissetto counsels clients to begin with a cookie — a food many people tend to eat quickly and then move on to the next one. She advises them to really look it over, note how it smells and to eat it slowly.
“Most important is to make sure you’ve swallowed that bite before taking another one,” she says. “Usually, people realize that they can do with just one cookie and not a sleeve of them from this exercise.”
Once you’ve mastered this technique, you can do more mindful eating long term, she suggests, by putting the fork down between each bite, as a reminder to finish one mouthful before taking the next.
Many people find resolutions that take an “all or nothing” approach tend to sputter quickly after they’re made. So, vowing that you will now eat mindfully for every single bite of food might become overwhelming — also, it can set you up for disappointment or frustration if you’re successful only part of the time.
Instead, consider increasing your mindful eating gradually. Maybe today it’s mindfully eating one bite. Some experts even advise starting with a single blueberry, and really focusing on everything about that tiny fruit’s flavor, texture and aroma.
As you begin to incorporate more of these mindful moments into your meals and snacks, it will likely lead to greater awareness about what you’re eating, and most important, why you’re eating it.
“Are you eating because you’re actually hungry or is it because you’re bored, stressed, or tired?” asks Rissetto. “Are you feeding into that habit loop where a sugary item makes you feel good, so you just grab one because you’re on autopilot? Understanding why you’re eating makes a big difference.”
With that much awareness, it can lead to healthier eating habits without feeling deprived along the way, says Rissetto. You’re more likely to give your body time to send fullness signals — a process that takes about 20 minutes — with more efficiency. In many ways, weight loss may be a side effect instead of the primary benefit of developing a better relationship with food.
“When people start adopting these practices, they’re more aware of how food makes them feel,” says Rissetto. “They learn about whether or not they’re using food as a coping mechanism.”