Let me start with this. As long as you’re healthy, luscious curves are gorgeous and something to be celebrated. Too much of a good thing though is too much of a good thing and when curves get too curvy, it can be a sign that physical health is on a downward slide. Excessive abdominal fat can be particularly worrying. According to Harvard Medical School, it is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, metabolic disturbances, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes and gallbladder problems.
The relationship between food and people can be … complicated. Food has become a therapist, a stress reliever, a relaxant, a social bonder, a medicator, an entertainer – so many jobs! Food was never meant to be all of these things and although in small doses it can perform all of these tasks beautifully, there will always be trouble when it’s called upon to do too much more than what it was ever meant to do – nourish us.
True, there are many foods that are delicious bad for us, but there isn’t any food that wrestles its way into our bellies all on its own. We’ve tried to change food so that it doesn’t have such a punch – we’ve stripped calories, sugar, fat and fun from food. It hasn’t worked. That’s because the problem isn’t food, it’s what we do with it.
It’s not what you do it’s the way that you do it.
When eating is done ‘mindlessly’, it becomes an automatic response to a number of different emotional, physical and mental cues. It’s becomes the go-to in response not only to hunger, but also to boredom, frustration, stress, exhaustion, anger … name it.
There is an alternative to this, and it’s eating mindfully. Mindfulness is all about being aware of your own physical, mental and emotional being in the present moment.
Mindful eating. The research.
The research around mindfulness is robust, giving us plenty of reasons to praise mindfulness and practice it.
A recent study found people who are more mindful have less belly fat and are less likely to be obese than those than those who aren’t as attentive to their present thoughts and feelings.
This type of mindfulness (dispositional mindfulness) is different to mindfulness meditation. As explained by lead author of the study, Eric Loucks, dispositional mindfulness involves, ‘Being aware of each and every moment and how that’s related to what we do and how we feel.’ It’s more about an everyday awareness of thoughts, emotions and physical sensations rather than a period of meditation. Interestingly, the vast majority of the people in the study were not meditating
The researchers assessed the levels of mindfulness of 394 participants using questions such as, ‘I find it difficult to stay focussed on what’s happening in the present’, or ‘I could be experiencing some emotion and not be conscious of it until some time later.’ The participants were all a part of the New England Family Study, a long-term study that had been following them since before they were born.
The study found that people who had lower levels of mindfulness had a 34% higher prevalence of obesity than those who were more mindful. Those who were less mindful also wore on average about a pound of extra belly fat. Those participants who weren’t obese as children, but become obese adults were also more likely to be lower on mindfulness.
The relationship between mindfulness and weight control.
Further research is needed to understand more about the relationship between mindfulness and weight but the authors of the study have a number of theories to explain their findings.
It may be that people who have higher levels of mindfulness are more aware of what they are thinking and feeling. As well as this, they would also be more attentive to certain cues in their body and mind, such as whether or not they need to eat and the positive way their bodies respond to exercise.
The findings can also be understood in evolutionary terms. We are wired to store calories when there is food available and rest when we can. Our circumstances have changed – the availability of food isn’t so sporadic and unreliable that we have to stock up – but our wiring hasn’t. What this means is that we may tend towards storing too many calories and not moving enough.
People who are more mindful are more likely to act deliberately rather than be rolled along by instinctive tendencies. This would see them resisting the temptation to eat whenever there is food available and to exercise, rather than rest.
Mindfulness has previously been shown to be useful in helping people beat cravings and be generally healthier with their diet, but according to this research, it may also be useful in helping to overcome our instincts around the way we store or use food.
So how do I practice mindful eating?
Mindfulness is all about paying attention. So much of what we do is done through habit without a lot of deliberate thought given to what we’re doing. Here are some ways to turn that around:
Just start by being mindful for one meal or snack a day. It might feel awkward at first, but the more you do it, the more automatic it will become.
Tune in to what your body is telling you.
Before you reach for something to eat, pay attention to what’s happening in your body and your mind. Are you eating because you’re hungry? Because you’re bored, tired or stressed? Or because the food is there in front of you? This is one way to interrupt the automatic nature of reaching for something delicious or available that you might not really need.
Enjoy the experience.
Pay full attention to the food and your experience with it. Before you start eating, notice the smell, the texture and the appearance of the food. As you eat, move your attention to that. What does the food feel like in your mouth? Against your tongue? What can you taste? What happens as you chew? Don’t judge or analyse, just observe. The more you engage with the experience of eating, the less you’ll need to eat to feel satisfied.
Pay attention to your emotions, thoughts and physical sensations after you eat.
Are you able to enjoy the experience without guilt or regret? Are you able to stop there? Or do you want more? What would happen if you stopped? Wait for two minutes before a second helping or a second handful and see if things change.
Do one thing at a time.
Rather than eating while you’re reading or watching tv, try just eating. It will be easier to focus and will expand your capacity to be mindful. You’ll be more likely to get the full experience, and will start to realise the things you might have been missing.
Food is meant to be fun, but too often it becomes something done automatically, without a lot of thought or engagement. The more present and attentive we can be to the actual experience of eating – the more mindful we can be – the less likely it is that food will be called on unnecessarily. That doesn’t mean that we don’t eat for the fun of it – of course we do! What it means is that we will have a greater capacity to act more deliberately and exercise choices that are more nurturing of our needs, our health and our own well-being.
Like this article?
Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly round up of our best articles