In neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt’s TED Talk, 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 for your body. 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.
It’s simple: eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full
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 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 principles and definitions that can help someone just beginning on this journey.
They suggest that mindful eating is:
- 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 as allowing yourself 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.
The impact of mindful eating can transfer to a number of conditions that are likely influenced by food as long as it is paired with the knowledge of how food makes you feel.
Mindful eating 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.
How can you get started?
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, 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 mindful eating to maintain your weight and control pain in your life?
Image by Anne McGinley via Flickr