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9 steps to mindful eating

Have you ever devoured your dinner and then had little recollection of having eaten, aside from a faint aftertaste and a few crumbs? Sometimes we eat mindlessly—with very little conscious awareness of what, or how much, we’re consuming. That may be especially true over the holidays, when so much socializing revolves around food.

Overindulging is often blamed on a lack of willpower, but resisting temptation may be easier said than done. One speaker at a conference I attended put it this way: “Willpower is simply the absence of hunger”—meaning that resisting a favourite food is easier when you are completely full. Willpower as a long-term diet tool is usually not sufficient.

Mindful eating means learning to be more in tune with your habits, and setting up your environment to encourage healthier choices. It means paying attention to your body’s signals—eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full.

Here are nine steps to becoming more mindful about your eating habits as the holidays approach.

1. Opt for smaller plates

It takes about 20 minutes after we’ve eaten for the feeling of fullness to kick in, and most of us have long since cleared our plates. That means that the amount of food we consume before we feel full is not determined by our hunger at all, but rather by the amount of food that’s left on the plate or in the bowl—when the plate is empty, we’re done. Research shows that if you put the same portion of food on a smaller plate, your brain is tricked into thinking you’ve eaten more food.

2. Take care when eating out

It’s easy to overeat when you’re dining in a restaurant. Portion sizes can be generous, and as we just learned, what we see is what we’ll eat. Consider sharing a meal, or ask for a half portion and take the rest to go. Avoid or limit appetizers; eschew the bread basket and sugary beverages.

Buffets can be a danger zone; avoid them altogether, or use a small plate and limit yourself to small portions of a few of your favourite options.

3. Don’t get more than what you bargained for

We all love a good deal, but be careful about which foods you’re trying to save money on. You may be tempted to snag a deal when a small bag of chips is $1.49 and the large bag is just 99 cents. In reality, the more chips you have on hand, the more you’ll eat, despite the fact that your craving would probably be satisfied with a smaller portion. Bottom line: keep the “bigger is better” mentality for deals on healthier items, and switch to saving calories on the not-so-healthy items.

4. Out of sight, out of mind

Availability is often a determinant of what we choose to eat. Have you ever caught yourself eating more candy than you meant to, just because the candy dish was in front of you? One study showed that women ate 5.6 more chocolates when the dish was set on their desks than when the chocolates were placed two metres away. It’s important to try to distinguish between a true craving and “just because it was there” mindless eating.

At best, don’t bring these foods into your home, office or car. If a craving hits, you’ll have to make a trip to the store, which will probably put a crimp in your impulsive eating. If others in your household won’t play by these rules, have them hide those items, or store them in a spot where you don’t frequently look.

Place healthy foods front and centre, with fruit on the counter and pre-cut vegetables at eye level in your fridge. You’ll be more likely to choose the healthier options and you may help your family make healthier choices, too.

5. Avoid eating from the package

Watching television with a bag of chips at your side is not a good idea. You’re engaged in the program, your hand and mouth are on autopilot, and suddenly the bag is empty—you’ve mindlessly eaten the entire bag.

Make a rule to avoid eating directly from the box or bag. Prepackage your portions, or just take a small portion in a bowl.

6. Love what you eat

We often end up eating foods because they are available, not because we enjoy the flavours. Make a point to taste and enjoy every bite you eat, especially if you’re eating a not-too-healthy item—at least you can justify the high calories if you’re truly enjoying the delicious taste.

And get rid of the “save the best for last” rule. You could end up eating a lot of unnecessary bites as you work toward indulging in your favourite bite—and besides, the first bite always tastes the best.

7. Avoid ravenous hunger

We are most likely to engage in mindless eating when we are very hungry. This enforces the importance of regular meals and snacks. Always have a snack on hand so you can avoid the temptation of processed and convenience foods.

8. Ask yourself why you’re eating

Sometimes we eat for reasons other than hunger. Be aware that stress and boredom can lead to eating for emotional comfort, and be mindful of habitual and situational eating—eating in front of the TV, eating popcorn at the movies, having a donut with coffee. Think of alternative strategies—stress management through exercise or meditation, or keeping your hands busy with crosswords or knitting while watching TV. The best diet is the one you don’t even know you’re on.

9. Stop and smell the roses

Mindful eating means taking the time to enjoy your food. It requires conscious thought, and it takes practice.

Try this exercise: away from all distractions, take a piece of fruit, a cracker or a nut. Acknowledge its appearance, its colour, size and smell. Take a bite, close your eyes, stay focused and don’t allow your mind to wander. Note the texture and taste. Chew slowly.

Make an effort to apply these principles every time you eat. And slow down: set a timer and take a full 20 minutes to complete your meal. Use chopsticks, eat with your non-dominant hand, put your fork down between bites, or try to be the last person to finish the meal.

The biggest step to eating mindfully is becoming aware of your mindless eating habits. Change your surroundings, replace old behaviours with new ones—and, most importantly, enjoy the foods you eat!

Sweet and sour meatballs are a classic dish, and the green and yellow peppers in this recipe provide an additional sweetness. I suggest using extra-lean ground beef, but you can also use ground poultry. I serve meatballs with brown rice, whole wheat egg noodles or couscous, and with a side salad or steamed vegetables.

Maureen Tilley is a Registered Dietitian and Author of Hold the Salt! and Hold that Hidden Salt!


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