What if some of our health problems stemming from food didn’t come from what we are eating but how we are eating it?
According to the Brigham and Women’s Hospital (a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School), when our minds are distracted while we eat, digestion may become 30 to 40 percent less effective, potentially adding to issues like bloating, gas and irregularities.
There has been new attention paid to the practice of “mindful eating” as a way to alter one’s relationship with food, and potentially improve one’s health.
The Philosophy of Mindful Eating
Mindful eating is the idea of paying complete attention during meals, savoring the bites and flavors and devoting your entire attention to the act.
Brigham and Women’s Hospital describes the practice as being aware of the experience of eating, and “being present, moment by moment, for each sensation that happens during eating, such as chewing, tasting and swallowing.”
The Center for Mindful Eating (CME), a non-profit organization, has created a list of “Principles of Mindful Eating,” which include such factors as acknowledging your reactions of like and dislike to flavors, without judging these responses.
Reflection on the origins of the food and how it was grown and prepared are also emphasized.
According to the CME, through this habit, people who practice mindful eating often “become aware of the interconnection of earth, living beings, and cultural practices and the impact of his/ her food choices has on those systems.”
Learning about when to start and stop eating by becoming more aware of physical cues is another important aspect of mindful eating. It is this factor of the practice that many tie most directly to potential health gains.
Testing the Theory
A study led by Gale Timmerman, Ph.D, from the University of Texas at Austin explored how mindful eating and weight management could be tied.
The six-week study followed 35 women aged 40-59 years who ate in restaurants at least three times a week and divided them into a control group and an intervention group.
It should be noted that the intervention group did have a significantly higher body mass index than the control group at the beginning of the study, but the authors reported no significant differences on daily caloric or fat intakes.
The intervention group attended group sessions twice a week that the authors say “focused on reducing calorie and fat intake when eating out through education, behavior change strategies, and mindful eating meditations.”
These meditations included both focusing closely on the sensations of eating (thought to increase enjoyment and satisfaction with smaller portions) and guided meditations aimed to increase awareness of hunger, eating triggers and the sensation of fullness.
At the end of the six weeks, the intervention group had lost more weight (3.74 pounds on average compared to 0.2 pounds in the control group), lowered their average daily caloric intake by more (357.1 calories on average as compared to 24.2 in the control group) and lowered their average daily fat intake (19.7 grams on average as compared to 4.3 grams in the control group).
Though this study followed a small number of subjects over a relatively short period of time, it did show that practicing mindful eating techniques have potential for improving weight management. More in-depth research is needed before conclusions can be made.
Tips for Mindful Eating
The Brigham and Women’s Hospital recommends a few easy ways to start incorporating mindful eating into your mealtime.
An easy first step is eating sitting down without any distractions, meaning no books, computers, TVs or iPhones. If eating alone, focus instead on the food, and if eating with others, use this distraction-free time to enjoy both the meal and their company.
Tricks like eating with chopsticks or eating with your left hand if you are right-handed (or vice versa) can also help bring focus and awareness back to the task at hand.
Brigham and Women’s recommends taking time to slow down and really chew the food - between 30 and 50 chews per bite of food. This will not only help the digestion process, but also help you really savor the flavors.
Making sure that the meal lasts at least 20 minutes is another way to make yourself slow down and enjoy the experience of food. Try to think about the moment at hand, and when you notice your mind beginning to wander off, simply bring it back to the sensations of eating.
Guided mindful eating exercises can be found online and can be a helpful way to try it out.
Though the tie between mindful eating and improved health and weight loss is still being studied, it is an easy, risk-free method to try. At the very least, perhaps it could lead to a greater enjoyment or appreciation of your meals.