Mindfulness. A term we are hearing more and more frequently, no longer being associated only with the more spiritual of individuals, but is now commonly accepted and embraced even by those who believe in science, facts and figures. Mindfulness involves the practice of taking time to be aware of your current situation, of your surroundings and of your current state. It means taking stock of what you have right now, via a type of meditation, whereby you put some ‘space’ between how you feel and your reactions. What is really cool, is that mindfulness teaches you that there is a difference between how you feel, and how you react, and your reactions are a conscious choice powered by you (no longer do we have to be the person that blows up at the Papa John’s man when they forget our BBQ sauce…).
The current trend overtaking the fitness industry, slowly but surely infiltrating our lives, even being taken on board by some of the most generic or old school coaches, PT’s and fitness professionals around, is mindful eating. After all, mindfulness brings awareness to yourself via your senses, and what has more taste, texture and smell than food? We all know the power of an empty lift with only the remnants of your neighbours pizza, to make your chicken casserole seem far less appealing. You will have seen me spread the message of mindful eating for a while, and clients of mine are introduced to the concept or mindful eating at exactly the same time as the concepts of macros, lifting to failure and calorie deficits. I truly believe that mindful eating is crucial in improving relationships with food, and that it allows us to realise the potential of food to nourish us, and to re-establish our need for food, versus our emotional want. So what is mindful eating? And what can it do for you?
I am the first to admit that, when I first started studying nutrition, I was so obsessed with the science of metabolism, fuel use and food composition, yet somewhat belittled (albeit gently in my mind) the psychology behind food intake, food choice, obesity and under-nutrition. Unfortunately, we still have those thousands of ‘fitness professionals’ who shout loudly about how ‘all diets work due to a calorie deficit’ (which of course is true), but pay little attention to the various other influences on nutritional intake and energy expenditure, the predominance of which are related to mindset: how someone feels, the food choices that they make, how and when they choose to eat, the list goes on…
Ad yet, we’ve all been that person. Sat in front of Bridget Jones, eating Cookie Dough directly from the tub, whilst messaging our friend exclaiming that we are indeed Bridget, feeling incapable of life in our 30s, wearing granny pants and eating just a little too much cheese… And alas! The whole tub of ice cream is gone, and although it feels like it filled a hole inside, you have no real recollection of eating it. Remember when your parents used to make you sit at the table as a family, with no mobiles (ah Nokia 3210, I miss you and your Snake-filled days), no TV and just family conversation to accompany dinner? Consider that your introduction to mindful eating. And thank your parents for allowing you to focus only on the food in front of you as a child (and maybe the odd fight with your brother over the tomato sauce). How many of you still sit down and enjoy a meal at a dinner table? In fact, how many of you still own a dinner table? And I don’t mean you sat at the table with your own kids, ensuring that they eat, behave and tell you about their day. I mean taking time for you, by yourself, with your partner or flatmates, how many times do you sit down and enjoy a meal without any other distractions?
We all have to eat. We all (yes, I do too) eat mindlessly at points. But when this is a consistent process within your diet, maybe it’s time to think about how you can incorporate more mindfulness in to your eating, and even in to your day.
WHY MINDFULLY EAT?
Mindful eating has a lot of benefits when it comes to your eating habits, and potentially body composition. Some have some scientific backing, some don’t. But not everything needs a scientific publication and a P value of less than 0.05 (fellow science geeks you know), to add value to someone’s life.
Mindful eating may be used in the treatment of eating disorders to minimise restriction. Indeed, mindfulness-based eating awareness training (MB-EAT) is a group intervention that was developed for the treatment of binge eating disorder (BED) and other disordered eating conditions. MB-EAT as been used to help people lose fat, minimise compulsive eating and ultimately improve individuals relationships with food. It is on this method, that I base my mindfulness techniques with my clients.
As I said, this can also be implemented to assist fat loss too. A mindfulness programme was implemented in overweight and obese women, consisting of weekly structured mindfulness classes which included mindfulness meditation and guided meditations which introduced mindful eating practices (feelings of fullness, cravings, emotional triggers, self-acceptance and inner wisdom). After 4 months, mindful practice was associated with reduced fat content, as compared to a group of women who did not practice mindfulness.. So this is cool for people who are overweight or obese, but currently science doesn’t have enough support for mindful eating to reduce body fat in ‘normal’ weight individuals.
A really recent review of published articles suggests that mindfulness techniques work well with binge-eating and emotional eating, but are not yet supported scientifically in relation to fat loss in healthy weight individuals (although may help minimise weight gain). It also suggests, unsurprisingly, that the positive influence of mindful eating occurs through greater acknowledgement of internal cues i.e. fullness, hunger etc. Interestingly, the review also suggests that currently, there is little evidence to support intuitive eating for similar outcome measures (fat loss, binge eating etc.). Lots of you know I promote this in certain situations, with certain individuals and it is something that I follow myself, so if anyone wants to hook up for some research, you know where I’m at! Either way, the fact that mindful eating techniques and intuitive eating are now gaining momentum in the world of evidence-based practice (how all Nutritionists should be working) is really cool, and highlights just how effective these methods can be in improving peoples’ relationships with food, alongside their heath, well-being and body composition.
It’s a load easier to eat mindfully when you are eating something that makes you feel good, that you know is filling your body with nutrients that will improve your health, wellbeing or how you feel about yourself. In contrast, eating mindfully of foods that are not so nutritious, may in fact highlight that you need to focus more on increasing the nutrient density of your foods. Being aware of the fact that you are eating predominantly nutrient-weak foods, may increase your desires to reach for the fresher stuff instead.
MINDFUL EATING PRACTICE – the mindful raisin
*imagines raisin meditating*
If mindful eating is relatively new to you, try this task to help you get started. Even if you do currently try to practice mindfulness with food, this is a method that might enhance your ability to do so, or refresh your mind about what it should be doing when you eat. This little mindfulness practice should take 5 minutes or so to complete. So sit down with no distractions and give it a go.
So this is traditionally done with a raisin, but blah that’s a little boring since raisins are basically shrivelled up little wannabe leather balls of mush. So take one small piece of food, be that a raisin, a nut, a Malteaser… For the purpose of this, let’s imagine we are using an almond.
- Take the almond in the palm of your hand. Notice the colour, shape and texture of the almond. What exactly does it look and feel like, and how much does it weigh in your hand?
- Think about where the almond came from. Was it grown on a tree? In the ground?
- Place the almond in your mouth and let it sit on your tongue. Closing your mouth, notice how it feels on your tongue. What is the initial flavour?
- Start to chew the almond. How does it feel as it breaks down in your mouth? Notice it coming apart in your mouth.
- Pay particular attention now to the taste. Is it sweet, sour, bitter?
- Now it’s time to think about what the almond can do for your body. Does it provide energy to fuel your training? Protein for your muscles? Fats to help with hormonal control? Salt to restore hydration levels? A valued source of micronutrients? What does that particular almond do for you?
- Swallow the almond. Take time to appreciate that you have provided your body with something that will help it be stronger, better, and to support you more. You have treated your body well.
MINDFUL EATING TIPS AND TASKS
Now, no one expects you to practice that mindfulness technique with every single mouthful of every single meal. But there are some pointers to take forward that you can practice with each meal that you consume, to encourage mindfulness with eating and hopefully minimise over- or under-eating, and encourage a more positive relationship between you and your food.
- Be mindful of every bite. Follow the procedure as demonstrated by the mindful raisin, but maybe not so slowly (there’s mindful, then there’s taking 4 hours to eat every meal, ain’t nobody got time for that). Notice the smell, the texture, the taste. Notice how it feels when you swallow. Is it warm? Does this bring you comfort? Is it refreshing? TASK: use the mindful raisin technique for one meal per day this week. Let’s call this, your ‘mindful snack’. This will help you develop mindfulness as a daily practise. And let me know via my social media what your mindful snack is.
- Avoid eating the same foods for every meal, every day. We all have our favourite foods to eat daily (protein ice cream anyone?), and to an extent, that’s fine. But being in a routine where you don’t get excited for foods, can’t plan anything new or you eat a specific meal because you know the exact breakdown of macros, leads us in to routine where a lot of the thought is taken out of the meal prepping and eating. When was the last time you actually chose something that you wanted to eat, was nutritious and NOT something that you always have? TASK: choose a new food in the supermarket next time you shop, and introduce it in 3 different ways this week
- Stop shoveling your food in! Pick up some chopsticks and try eating your meal with these, since it forces you to look at your food and focus on getting said food in to your mouth. If chopsticks are no good (I challenge anyone to eat ice cream with two wooden sticks), then go for a teaspoon. Smaller mouthfuls means slower, more mindful bites. TASK: eat at least one meal with chopsticks every day this week.
- Remove all technology. Put down the phone (after you’ve taken your Insta picture of that perfectly placed fruit) and turn of the TV. Pay attention to the food on your plate instead of on the screen on someone else.
- Notice cues. Notice feelings of fullness vs. hunger, satisfaction vs. stuffed. And ask yourself, how should you respond to these cues?
You may read this and think, what a load of airy fairy nonsense. And that’s cool (but maybe my blogs aren’t for you…) But if you have ever experienced issues with food, be that restriction or over-consumption, have used food as an emotional crutch, or just simply want to enjoy food more again, then I strongly suggest that you give mindfulness a try. It may just slowly revolutionise the way you see food forever…
Albers, S., 2010. Using mindful eating to treat food restriction: A case study. Eating Disorders, 19(1), pp.97-107.
Daubenmier, J., Kristeller, J., Hecht, F.M., Maninger, N., Kuwata, M., Jhaveri, K., Lustig, R.H., Kemeny, M., Karan, L. and Epel, E., 2011. Mindfulness intervention for stress eating to reduce cortisol and abdominal fat among overweight and obese women: an exploratory randomized controlled study. Journal of obesity, 2011.
Warren, J.M., Smith, N. and Ashwell, M., 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, pp.1-12.