Author: Kirstie Lamb – Researcher and Trainer in Public Health/17 January 2018
You may have heard of the terms ‘mindfulness’ or ‘mindful eating’. But what do they actually mean and how can they benefit your health? This week’s blog aims to answer these questions and provide tips to help you to engage in mindful eating!
What is it?
Mindfulness is being fully present. Aware of what is going on inside (both psychologically and physically) and outside (i.e. our environment) of ourselves. Find more information at www.nhs.co.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mindfulness. It can be practiced throughout the day or during a specific period of time set aside, such as meditation or yoga sessions.
Mindful eating is a specific form of mindfulness. It is used to improve control over eating habits and prevent psychological eating. Which means eating for reasons other than true hunger. Such as boredom, as a coping mechanism or through habit. It involves ‘being in the present moment’ through directing your full attention to psychological and physical signals when eating, including physical and emotional sensations (Warren et al. 2017). It is suggested that this will help you to recognise when you are truly (physiologically) hungry, when you are full, and when your emotions are influencing eating behaviours.
How can being mindful help?
Eating behaviours and weight. Mindfulness can help control emotional eating, including binge eating (Warren et al. 2017). Several reviews have demonstrated a positive effect of mindfulness on reducing maladaptive eating behaviours (O’Reilly et al. 2014, Olson and Emery 2015). Therefore, mindful eating may be used to assist with weight loss. This is because it can help individuals overcome psychological barriers to healthy eating and make more informed decisions regarding their diet. These individuals may also cope better with relapses, preventing weight regain in the future.
Stress. Impaired stress control, especially eating-associated stress, may also contribute to weight gain or prevent weight loss. Chronic stress increases the levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, in our circulation. This may in turn influence other hormones that contribute to our weight, including ghrelin (a hunger hormone) and insulin. Meditation is a component of mindfulness and this has been shown to lower levels of stress hormones (Carmody and Baer 2008).
Depression. The use of mindfulness has also been demonstrated to result in reduced depression in individuals with type 2 diabetes (Friis et al. 2016). This study also showed a reduction in HbA1c in these individuals. Reductions in depression and stress (including associated reductions in stress hormones) could have contributed to this reduction.
Eat slowly. If you eat quickly, you may overeat before you receive signals from your body telling you that you are full. It can take up to 20 minutes for your brain to realise that you are full! Chewing each bite of food a few more times (some suggest around 25 times!), taking smaller bites and setting your fork down between bites are all ways that can help with this. You could also try having a glass of water with your meals, taking a sip between bites
Engage your senses. Before (including during preparation) and whilst eating, take time to notice and appreciate the colours, smells, textures, tastes and even the sounds of the food. This can help you to enjoy your food more, eat slower and even reduce stress by focusing your attention on the present situation rather than on other daily stressors
Eat with others at a table. Eating with others can make eating a more enjoyable and social occasion compared to eating alone. This allows you to slow down and savour your food. Try removing any other distractions such as mobiles and televisions from the room whilst you are eating. Eating whilst watching T.V or playing on your phone can reduce your awareness of what and how much you are eating, making it easier for you to overeat
Out of sight, out of mind. When you buy food ensure that it is put away out of sight. Additionally, consider storing hyper-palatable food in portions to reduce the risk of overeating when you are tempted.
When you feel like eating, STOP and THINK.
This will help you to reflect and identify whether you are truly hungry. Or are about to eat for psychological reasons. Have a glass of water or distract yourself for 20 minutes and then re-assess whether you still feel hungry.
Put in place coping strategies. This is especially important if you identify yourself as someone who often eats for psychological reasons. Coping with guilt around eating is also important, as without strategies in place to get back on track, further overeating can incur. This can result in a cycle of ‘overeating à guilt à eating to cope with the guilt à further guilt…’.
Sensible non-food coping strategies, such as distracting yourself with a hobby or keeping a reflection diary, may help you to break this cycle.
By identifying what makes you want to eat, you can develop greater control over your response to these triggers or utilise your coping strategies.
Engage in meditation or breathing exercises before eating.
This is especially helpful if you get stressed around food or eating situations. In his documentary series entitled ‘Broken Brain’, Dr Mark Hyman (Medical Director at Cleveland Clinic’s Centre for Functional Medicine in America) suggests undertaking the following breathing technique upon waking, before every meal and before bed:
1. Put your hand on your belly and allow your abdomen to relax
2. Close your eyes or soften your focus and look at the floor a few feet in front of you
3. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth
4. Breathe deeply into your abdomen and feel it expand as you count to 5
5. Pause for a count of 1
6. Exhale slowly to a count of 5, allowing your body to relax and release tension
7. Repeat for 5 breaths or until you feel relaxed
There are definitely benefits to be gained from incorporating some of these key tips into our daily lives. This includes improved psychological or physical health. And a greater appreciation of the food on our plates!
Carmody, J. and R. A. Baer (2008). “Relationships between mindfulness practice and levels of mindfulness, medical and psychological symptoms and well-being in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program.” J Behav Med 31(1): 23-33.
Friis, A. M., M. H. Johnson, R. G. Cutfield and N. S. Consedine (2016). “Kindness matters: a randomized controlled trial of a mindful self-compassion intervention improves depression, distress, and HbA1c among patients with diabetes.” Diabetes care 39(11): 1963-1971.
O’Reilly, G. A., L. Cook, D. Spruijt-Metz and D. S. Black (2014). “Mindfulness-based interventions for obesity-related eating behaviours: a literature review.” Obes Rev 15(6): 453-461.
Olson, K. L. and C. F. Emery (2015). “Mindfulness and weight loss: a systematic review.” Psychosom Med 77(1): 59-67.
Warren, J. M., N. Smith and M. Ashwell (2017). “A structured literature review on the role of mindfulness, mindful eating and intuitive eating in changing eating behaviours: effectiveness and associated potential mechanisms.” Nutrition Research Reviews: 1-12.