Have you ever been told to “slow down” when eating? Or maybe you finish a meal feeling completely stuffed but don’t really remember how much you ate? If so, maybe you’re leaving out a very important part of what should be done at every meal and snack – mindful eating. Mindful eating is focusing completely on what you are eating without distractions which allows you to pay attention to the act of eating from biting into the food, the taste, the mouthfeel, chewing and swallowing. Mindful eating is also paying attention to the feeling of fullness that builds throughout the meal and allowing yourself to stop eating once you begin to feel full.
When you practice mindful eating it becomes a useful tool aiding weight loss and weight control. It can also be used to determine the difference between a food craving or actual hunger. To understand this you need to know the difference between a physical food craving (actual hunger) and an emotional food craving. The key is to trust yourself to know the difference and to use this information on a daily basis.
1. Physical food craving will have the following qualities:
· You are physiologically hungry – stomach signals – growls, gurgles, pangs or a hollow feeling. Brain signals – headache, fogginess, lack of concentration or fatigue
· The craving does not go away if you try to wait it out
· The craving intensifies over time
· Nothing you do will take away the craving except to eat
If you are experiencing a true food craving, by all means, go ahead and eat. You need to eat when you are truly hungry and keep eating until you are satisfied but not overstuffed.
2. Emotional food craving will look like this:
· You are not physiologically hungry
· It does go away if you try to wait it out
· The craving does not intensify over time
· Doing something else satisfies the real need and the craving disappears
Mindful eating and using the hunger/fullness scale
Being aware of your body’s signals helps give you the confidence to satisfy your food cravings. Hunger signals can come from your stomach while it is informing you that it is empty or it can come from your brain as it informs you that it is lacking an energy supply. Using the hunger/fullness scale can help you assess your hunger level:
10 – Absolutely, positively stuffed
9 – So full that it hurts
8 – Very full and bloated
7 – Starting to feel uncomfortable
6 – Slightly overeaten
5 – Perfectly comfortable
4 – First signals that your body needs food
3 – Strong signals to eat
2 – Very hungry, irritable
1 – Extreme hunger, dizziness
There are two ways to use the hunger/fullness scale throughout the day:
1. At each meal – When eating a meal, pay attention to how you are feeling physically. Setting the fork down between bites helps to determine what point you are on the hunger/fullness scale. Many of us multitask while eating – we’re checking our cell phones, computers or doing work without pausing between bites and before we know it, we’re stuffed and have overeaten. Practicing this awareness without distractions will help you become better attuned to your body’s response to food. It takes about 20 minutes for the brain to register satiety or fullness. Set a timer for 20 minutes allowing yourself that time to eat a meal.
2. Between meals – We all get food cravings throughout the day but are we physiologically hungry or is it an emotional craving? Before searching for something to eat, assess at what point you are on the hunger/fullness scale.
Ideally try to be between a 4 to 6 throughout most of the day. The best time to eat is at a level 3 or 4 when you are experiencing physical hunger but you still have enough control to eat healthy foods and control your portion sizes. If you let your hunger level get to a 1 or 2, you will be so hungry you’ll be more likely to overeat and make poor food choices.
Learn to stop eating once you get to level 7. Even if food is still left on your plate, you need to put the fork down and push yourself away from the table. Most leftover foods can be eaten the next day and the next time that happens, you’ll learn not to have as big of a portion size.
Handling emotional food cravings
Food cravings are a very normal part of our lives. We all get them. The key to controlling cravings and triggers is to learn to recognize them and then set up an action plan to help you deal with them. Triggers can be the sight and aroma of food, a commercial on TV or just knowing there are certain foods in the house. Emotional triggers can be stress, boredom, loneliness, anxiety, etc.
Recognizing what triggers eating or cravings is the first step in learning to control them. Have an action plan of things to do when a craving calls:
· Make a list of other things to do when you get a food craving.
· If there are certain times of the day when you find yourself seeking out food but you’re not really hungry, break up your routine or figure out what is triggering the craving.
· Keeping trigger foods out of sight equals out of mind.
· Practice meditation to help get your mind off the food.
· Go outdoors, breathing in fresh air focusing on the beauty around you.
Putting mindful eating into practice
Becoming a mindful eater takes time – it won’t happen overnight. But the more you practice this concept, the more it’ll become a part of your lifestyle. That’s when the days of feeling overly full or bloated, rushed or distracted when eating will have been minimized. Then suddenly, one day, you realize how much more you are enjoying your food and that’s when the act of eating becomes what it was always meant to be – pleasurable.
ABOUT CHERYL MUSSATTO
Cheryl Mussatto has over 30 years of experience as a Registered Dietitian and has worked in a variety of settings that cover a wide span of nutrition experience. Currently she works as an adjunct professor for two community colleges, Allen Community College in Burlingame and Butler Community College in Council Grove, Kansas teaching two courses, Basic Nutrition and Therapeutic Nutrition. Cheryl also is a contributing author for osagecountyonline.com, an online newspaper and Edietitians, a global free nutritional and health magazine. Her articles for both publications pertain to nutrition topics that cover a diversity of health and nutrition interests for the general public. She is also certified as a health and wellness coach.