Can Mindful Eating Help you Lose Weight?

Our Eating Experts

What is mindful eating? Can it help you lose weight?

Do you eat while scrolling through Twitter or watching YouTube? What about when you’re stressed, tired, anxious, or upset?

With an abundance of food options, and with so many screens and other distractions vying for our attention, it’s no surprise that, for many of us, eating has become a mindless and hurried activity. We often don’t register what or how much we’ve eaten, or understand when we’re full.

Mindless eating may contribute to obesity and other health issues, on top of making you feel lousy. But mindful eating brings you to a place of awareness in both your body and mind. Mindful eating can reduce binge eating behaviors and offers control over your eating habits. Mindful eating can also address problems like anxiety, depression, and disordered eating.

Mindful eating can help you become more aware of the emotional and other triggers that prompt you to eat even when you’re not hungry. This practice offers the time and space to decide how you want to react to those triggers and cravings.

Without distraction or urgency, mindful eating allows you to recognize your body’s fullness and satiety cues. When you pay attention to what you’re eating and how your body responds, you’re less likely to overeat. If you’re otherwise prone to overeating or binge eating, this alone can help you lose weight.

Mindful eating isn’t a short-term weight loss gimmick. While weight loss is possible, that’s not the primary goal. Instead, it’s a holistic approach with life-long benefits, including transforming your eating habits and improving your overall well-being.

How is mindful eating different than dieting?

Research shows that dieting doesn’t lead to sustainable weight loss: 5- to 10-percent of initial weight loss comes back once the diet ends.

Worse, fad diets encourage maladaptive eating behaviors and can be bad for your health. When you restrict calories or eliminate entire food groups, you’re likely depriving your body of needed nutrients. There’s also the possibility of bone and muscle loss.

Then there’s the frustration, guilt, and shame so often associated with dieting, because who can reliably stick to calorie restriction, day after day? When you’re famished, it’s easy to overeat, often making you feel like you’ve lost control. 

Stress has been shown to be a key ingredient in overeating, and challenges with cravings, emotional eating, binge eating, and external triggers are associated with gaining weight back again. 

You end up feeling powerless over food, and out of touch with your body.

Mindful eating is basically the opposite of dieting.

There aren’t any “good,” “bad,” or “off-limits” foods in mindful eating, nor are there restrictive rules or calorie counting. This practice instead encourages you to find your own rhythms and rely upon your intuition to develop the eating habits that work best for you.

Your hunger is not something that should be forced into submission, nor should mindless eating rule your life. Mindful eating can help you identify and address food cravings, which tend to lose their power as you pay more attention to your body’s needs at the moment.

Any judgment or negative feelings you used to bring to the table are replaced by awareness, peace of mind, and a sense of calm empowerment. And, yes, this can increase your chances of losing weight.

How does mindful eating work?

Based on a Buddhist concept, mindfulness encourages you to focus on the present moment.

At its core, mindful eating is being present and paying attention when you eat. This includes eliminating distractions — like smartphones and television screens — so you can be aware of every action and every bite of food, instead of defaulting to mindless eating.

With every meal, mindful eating engages all of your physical and emotional senses — including the aroma, taste, and texture of your food, how it feels in your body, and any thoughts and feelings that arise. 

When was the last time you truly tasted a strawberry, or really heard the crunch of an apple? By drawing your attention to your choices, this practice encourages real satisfaction and gratitude. You might even re-discover true pleasure in eating.

The first step is to notice your appetite. Are you hungry? Ravenous? You’ll probably find that sometimes you only think you’re hungry. Many of us have the habit of reaching for snacks when we’re bored, tired, or stressed. As you learn to recognize your body’s hunger cues, you might discover that what you really need is a glass of water, a brisk walk, or a nap.

Mindfulness invites us to set aside enough time to eat, instead of grabbing something in a hurry. You can learn to savor each bite with the use of a kitchen timer — for instance, allowing yourself 20 minutes to enjoy your meal. You can slow down and switch things up by holding your fork in your non-dominant hand, or by giving chopsticks a try.

Your meal should be free from distractions so you can notice the colors and shapes of what’s on your plate. What does your meal smell like? What are the sounds and tastes of each bite?

Taking small bites and chewing thoroughly make it easier to truly taste your food and recognize what it feels like when your body is full. Choosing a smaller portion helps, as does paying attention to your taste buds — when you’ve had enough, your food might lose its flavor, because your taste buds have been satiated.

What thoughts and feelings come up when you’re eating? Mindful eating offers the opportunity to notice any negative thoughts and replace them with more supportive and healthier thinking. Mindful eating is also about paying attention to how the food makes you feel. Does a particular food energize you, or make you feel sluggish? 

It’s okay to indulge a little. Denying yourself particular foods can lead to feelings of anxiety and shame, or even to patterns of disordered eating. With mindful eating, the focus is on moderation but also enjoyment. Be kind to yourself when reaching for a comfort food by savoring each bite and taking care to ensure that your overall diet is balanced.

If you’ve been on a restrictive diet or skipping meals, mindfulness can be a challenge when you feel like you want to eat literally everything. As with any new habit, it’s best to start small. You can try the mindful approach with one meal each day and then build from there.

The benefits of mindful eating

While there is the potential for weight loss with a steady practice of mindful eating, there are many more important benefits. For instance, a 2017 review of studies from Nutritional Research Reviews found that mindful eating can “rewire” your brain to promote better eating habits.

Mindful eating may promote heart health and help control blood sugar. When you’re more conscious and present in the moment, emotional eating and the influence of external cues — like the impulse to eat just because everyone around you is chowing down — can be decreased.

Additional benefits include reduced anxiety, reduced shame and guilt around eating, better overall dietary choices, improved well-being, and an improved ability to differentiate between real hunger and other physical and emotional cues. When you’re paying more attention, it’s easier to spot both positive and problematic patterns around eating and your relationship with food.

There’s also the significant benefit of freeing yourself from thinking about food as much. Imagine eating when you’re hungry. Stopping when you’re full. Letting go of eating “rules,” calorie counting, and labeling foods as “good” or “bad.” Imagine allowing yourself to enjoy all foods in moderation, and accepting your value as a person, separate from your eating habits and your body shape. These are the hallmarks of a healthy and mindful relationship with food.

Being more attuned to your body promotes better balance, reduced anxiety and depression, improved pain management, and greater self-acceptance.

Basically, when you learn to trust your body, you’re better equipped to meet your own needs from moment to moment, which makes for a better and healthier experience all around.

When you focus on what makes your body feel good, your mindset shifts to an attitude of optimism and possibility, and this can carry over to every aspect of your life.

The bottom line

The goal of mindful eating is overall well-being. This practice might be right for you if you’ve been struggling with conventional diets and are ready to give up the diet mindset.

But don’t expect the transformation to be instantaneous. It’s important to manage your expectations so you don’t end up with more disappointment and self-judgment. Beginning such a journey can feel intimidating, but your health and well-being are worth it.

If you want help getting started, one resource is the Center for Mindful Eating, which offers a list of coaches and other professionals across the US and around the world. You can look for an online workshop or seminar on mindful eating, or pick up a copy of Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life by Buddhist spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung.

Mindful eating can help you lose weight, but its primary value is found in bringing you back to yourself. You will have a healthier relationship with food, and you will feel better — and that’s what’s most important.

Our Eating Experts are Clinical Psychologists at NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy that specialize in combining hypnosis and therapy for issues surrounding food. To get in touch or learn more about how combining therapy and hypnosis can help you, please contact us here.

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