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Train your brain to eat less
Being more mindful of what and how much you eat can help break habits that lead to overeating. Here’s how to do it.
Let’s say you’re trying to lose weight. Your first instinct might be to go on a diet. You set rules about when, what, and how much you eat. You then carefully measure your portions and count your calories. You may lose some weight at first, but eventually, you’ll probably slip back into your old habits.
The truth is that you can’t have absolute control over what you eat. Hunger and food cravings are complex feelings that are influenced by many things, including emotions and hormones. So the key to eating well may be listening to your body instead of trying to control it.
That’s the thinking behind mindful eating. Here’s what to know about the practice and how it can help rewire your brain to eat less.
What exactly is mindful eating?
Eating mindfully is exactly what it sounds like: fully paying attention to every sense while you eat. Mindful and intuitive eating rejects the rigid rules of dieting — and the feelings of guilt and shame that often come with them.
When you eat mindfully, you increase awareness of what you eat and pay closer attention to your hunger and fullness cues. You might chew your food a little more slowly and really tune into the flavors. Or literally listen to your stomach and pause as you eat to notice your hunger level going down.
The problem with contemporary eating boils down to two things, says Ronna Kabatznick, Ph.D. She’s a social psychologist and the author of The Zen of Eating: Ancient Answers to Modern Weight Problems. People eat too quickly, and they overeat.
When eating mindfully, you’ll find that you might not eat as much, she explains. Weight loss isn’t the primary goal of mindful or intuitive eating. But it could help you get a handle on emotional or binge-eating habits that cause you to overeat.
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Mindful eating strategies
Small daily practices can add up to long-term success. Try these simple tips to work toward being a more mindful eater.
1. Eat when you’re hungry. This sounds like a no-brainer, but we often rely on external cues to tell us when to eat instead of listening to our own bodies.
Maybe you always eat at certain times of the day, or you eat when your partner eats. Maybe you often nibble on a sweet snack before bedtime.
These habits can cause you to eat when you’re not hungry (or not eat when you are hungry). Part of mindful eating is following your internal cues to eat, instead of relying on external cues.
Those internal cues are triggered by two hormones — ghrelin and leptin — that control appetite. Ghrelin tells you that you’re hungry and signals the brain when your stomach is empty. After you eat, your body releases leptin, which lets your brain know you feel full.
2. Stop eating when you’re full. If hunger is your cue to start eating, fullness should be your cue to stop eating. (Something to keep in mind: It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to signal to your stomach that you’re full.)
Check in with yourself as you’re eating to assess your hunger level. It’s a good practice to eat only until you’re no longer hungry, not until you’re uncomfortably full. (One helpful tip: Use a smaller plate, which will help you serve yourself smaller portions.)
If your parents scolded you for not clearing your plate when you were a kid, stopping when you’re full can be a lot harder than it sounds. It might feel wasteful to throw away food, but think of it this way: Eating food you don’t need or want is just as much of a waste. As you get a handle on portions, you’ll naturally begin to serve up just what you need.
3. Eat slowly and savor your food. The faster you eat, the easier it is to overeat. A key to mindful eating is to slow down and tune in to your senses:
- Look at your food and notice the different colors and textures.
- Smell the aromas. Try to identify which foods create which smells.
- Feel the texture of the food in your mouth. Is it smooth and creamy? Crunchy? Chewy?
- Taste your food. Move it around different areas of your tongue to see if you pick up different flavors. Can you guess what seasonings are in the food?
When you focus on our meal in this way, you’re exercising your brain’s sensory processing.
4. Turn off the TV while eating. Ever sit down in front of the television with a meal, get to the commercial break, and wonder where all the food went? Watching your favorite show during your lunch break has been shown to increase afternoon snacking. That’s because it’s associated with reduced lunch memory.
“Watching TV distracts us from what we’re eating, which means we have a poorer memory of the lunch, and this is factored into decisions about eating,” says Suzanne Higgs, Ph.D. She’s a research psychologist and the author of the study on watching TV during lunch.
Make the dining table a “device-free” zone — turn off the TV, close your laptop, and set your phone aside. Focus on your meal instead.
5. Have an attitude of gratitude. One reason people experience bottomless hunger is an emotional, insatiable need for more. “You’re never going to get the perfect meal,” says Kabatznick. “But whether you have the best meal or the worst meal, really mindful eating is appreciating what we have and why it’s on the plate.”
Consider how your food was grown, how it was prepared, and what it took to get it to your table. Try regarding food as something more than just fuel, says Kabatznick. You’ll be more inclined to slow down and appreciate what you have without wanting more.
6. Make a mealtime obstacle course. Adding barriers to your meal can help slow you down. Make your next meal interactive, with components that you assemble at the table, such as a taco bar or lettuce wraps. Or try eating with your non-dominant hand, says Kabatznick. The physical difficulty of switching hands forces you to slow down and think about what — and how — you’re eating.
7. Give yourself visual cues. When you’re eating at home, leave yourself clues on the plate to help remind you of what you’ve eaten. Examples: shells from pistachios or bones from chicken wings. Even when you’ve thrown out those scraps, that process will reaffirm that you’ve had a snack or a meal.
Bottom line: Mindful eating can help you focus on your food, eat less, and feel healthier all year long. Bon appétit!
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