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Food for Thought: Strategies for Mindful Eating

Author: Patricia Nicholson

Eating is about more than providing nutrients and calories. We eat for many reasons other than nutrition, including celebration, boredom, habit and stress. ‘Mindless’ eating – chronic dieting, overeating or undereating, feeling guilty, obsessive or out of control about food – can sustain not only poor eating habits, but also an unhealthy relationship with food.

Eating mindfully means having a healthy relationship with food. It means being aware of nutritional needs, but also enjoying food, being flexible about diet and accepting your body and yourself in a non-judgmental way.

It also means being aware of the things that influence our relationship with food and things that trigger mindless eating, and finding strategies that encourage enjoyment of food and a diet that provides both nutrition and peace of mind.

Mindful eating was the topic at a packed presentation at Women’s College Hospital on March 18, 2010. Registered dietitians Kinga Balogh and Nancy Bradshaw from Women’s College Hospital, and dietetic intern Hanna Sheehan, based the talk on the principles presented in Craving Change, a program designed to help people change their eating habits by exploring the biological, psychological and social forces that affect what we eat.

Hungry?

Craving Change isn’t just about what we eat; it’s about why we eat. Obviously we eat to fuel our bodies, but we also eat for other physical, emotional and social reasons.

At the Women’s College Hospital workshop, Sheehan described three types of hunger: stomach hunger, mouth hunger and heart hunger.

Stomach hunger is physical. It’s the body’s way of telling you it needs fuel.

Mouth hunger is more about cravings. Usually, it is focused on a particular taste or texture, such as salty, crunchy potato chips.

Heart hunger is the impulse to eat for emotional reasons, or from learned behaviour. For example, eating for comfort after a bad day. Heart hunger can be one of the most significant triggers for mindless eating.

Mindful strategies

Strategies that can help encourage mindful eating include nurturing yourself, thinking about triggers and ways to defuse them, and using tools such as journaling and setting goals.

To avoid eating for comfort, think about the types of situations in which you feel bad, such as stressful work situations or getting bad news. Think about ways to comfort yourself other than with food. Some immediate options include listening to a favourite song, calling a friend, or doing some stretches or yoga breathing. If you’ve got more time, consider a walk in the park, watching a TV show or movie that makes you laugh, a bubble bath or curling up with a good book.

Keeping a food journal is a good way to become more aware of what and why you eat. Balogh said many of her clients find journaling to be a real eye-opener that increases their level of mindfulness around food choices.

Journaling can include everything you eat, or it can focus on problem areas such as lunch or after-dinner snacking. Don’t just write down what you ate – track the details of situations, foods and feelings. For example, list the time of day and the situation, such as a mid-morning coffee break, or watching TV in the evening. Then record what you were feeling before you ate, and what you chose to eat. Finally, write down how you felt immediately after eating and how you felt 20 to 30 minutes later.

This should help you identify ‘triggers’ – why and when you tend to make certain food choices – and how those choices make you feel both immediately afterwards, and after the initial effects of feeding a craving have passed.

Triggers

You may be able to dodge some of your triggers by planning around them. If you can identify situations or times of day that are risky for you, try to address them by planning to be busy at that time, or by making it easier to make a healthy food choice. If the break room at work is always laden with snacks you might like to avoid, try going for a walk instead.

Using a grocery list when shopping can help, as can planning meals and snacks at the beginning of the week. Balogh suggested organizing your refrigerator and your shelves so that healthy options are close at hand and easy to grab (ready-to-eat washed fruit and trimmed veggies, low-fat yogurt), and treats are out of sight and harder to reach.

When a craving does strike, try putting it on hold for a moment. Tell yourself it’s OK to eat that food, but that you are going to wait one minute first. When the minute is up, you can choose to go ahead and eat the food, reminding yourself that you controlled your craving for one minute, or you can decide to wait another minute.

By putting cravings on hold, you can increase your sense of control over your eating habits, avoid feeling either deprived or guilty, and find out how long it takes for a craving to pass.

Are you full?

Remember that once your stomach is full, it takes about 20 minutes for that information to reach your brain. Balogh suggested using pre-set portions and a timer to remind yourself how long it takes your brain to understand that your stomach is full. Serve yourself a meal or snack with appropriate portion sizes, and set a timer for 20 minutes. If you want more food, tell yourself to wait until the 20 minutes are up before deciding to have more.

Make your own goals a priority, and try to identify situations in which being more assertive might help you have a better sense of control over your eating habits. Examples include saying no to office treats, or to sharing a bag of buttery popcorn at the movies, or to adding a side of fries to your restaurant meal.

Managing stress and controlling negative thoughts can also help promote mindful eating. Bradshaw recommended relaxation techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, tai chi, exercise and yoga. She also discussed the ‘cover letter’ approach to positive thinking. This technique includes consciously listing positive things about yourself, such as things you are good at and things you are proud of. When negative thinking strikes, take out the list for a positive reality check.

Finally, it’s important to remember that mindful eating isn’t about banishing treats. All-or-nothing thinking about food, such as adopting an austere diet, sets people up for failure. A good way to find a balance between nutrition and treats is to follow the 80/20 rule: make healthy food choices 80 per cent of the time, and choose treats 20 per cent of the time. For example, if there are 21 meals in one week, choose healthy options 16 times and enjoy less-healthy options five times. 

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This month's topic: The Health Gap: why focus on women's health when men get sick, too? One of the goals of Women’s College Hospital's Health Gap campaign was to start a conversation about important issues in women’s health. We’re very excited about the feedback we’ve received and the opportunity to talk about what we’re hearing. Several people asked why Women’s College focuses on women’s health when men get sick, too – often with the same conditions.

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