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Diets Deconstructed: Mindful Eating

Paleo, Keto, Low Carb. The types of diets are endless, and new ones seem to pop up every day. In our Diets Deconstructed series, we take a closer look at the diets making news and share the theories, guidelines and foods that drive them – plus, we go to our OhioHealth experts to find out their takes on the popular plans.

Below, Jessica Englehart, LPCC-S, ATR, RYT, a clinician with OhioHealth’s Mindfulness program, gives the low-down on mindful eating, so you can decide if it’s a practice that’s right for you.

Diet theory

Mindful eating is the practice of paying direct attention to the full sensory experience of eating: the smell, taste, appearance or texture of the food you are eating, even the sounds your utensils make on the plate and the physical motions of chewing and swallowing.

As mindfulness as an approach to life has grown in popularity, so has mindful eating. But the practice has been around for thousands of years, and can be distilled to the simple idea of honoring our food. In history, it is seen in celebrations of the harvest, offering grains and fruits at altars and saying grace before meals. Contemplative meals are also an established, formal meditation practice in many monasteries and retreat centers.

Expected outcomes

By opening yourself to the full sensory experience of eating, you can better participate in the present moment, and gain greater self-awareness of how you eat, what you are choosing to eat, where your food comes from, and the journey food takes to get to your plate. Eventually, this awareness widens to a full appreciation for how special the act of eating is, and how important it is as nourishing self-care. You won’t suddenly enjoy everything you eat, but you’ll learn what you like, dislike and are indifferent to without feeling bad about your reaction.

While weight loss is not a goal of mindful eating, some people do see physical benefits because it helps to build a healthier relationship with food. Intentionally slowing down the act of eating allows your body to recognize when it is full earlier in the process (it takes about 20 minutes to recognize this state), so you eat just enough. And by attuning your senses to the natural flavors in food, you may find that you start to use fewer flavor enhancers, like salt or butter. You may also learn to embrace a wider selection of foods and explore new ingredients that are more nutritious.

Discouraged and encouraged foods

Unlike a diet, which is intended to create some physical change, mindful eating is change from within. It is not a practice of self-deprivation; any food can be eaten mindfully, or mindlessly. But you may start to appreciate indulgences more when eating mindfully because the sensory experience of savoring a treat you only have once in a while is powerful. As Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, has said, “Awareness transforms everything it touches.” 

Who it’s for

Mindful eating is a beneficial practice for absolutely everyone. We all have to eat multiple times a day, so the opportunity to practice is always available. And, it won’t cost you extra time or money. It doesn’t have to be a solitary or silent experience, either. You can practice being in the moment with loved ones and friends as you prepare and eat meals together. 

Ease of use

Mindful eating is not regimented. There are no rules or recipes, and as we mentioned before, any food can be eaten mindfully.

There’s even an app for it! You can download Eat Right Now from the Apple App Store or Google Play. It was developed by Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, director of research at the University of Massachusetts Medical School Center for Mindfulness. The app uses interactive mindfulness exercises to help you build healthy eating habits and control cravings. 

Sustainability

You can practice mindful eating as a daily way of life, or stop and start at any time in your life. Start with just a few bites, one meal or a few times each week and see how it goes! 

Exercise

Being more attuned to eating and your body can help you build a healthier relationship with yourself overall. You will begin to realize how important it is to take better care of yourself and celebrate your own abilities. This shift in mindset may reframe how you see other daily activities, including making exercise seem like less of a chore.

Bottom line

In today’s society, we are in a constant state of haste and distraction. Eating is the tether to humanity that slows us down, so many people find themselves turning to fast food, or skipping meals entirely.

But when we live mindlessly, it always catches up to us, whether in weight gain, health conditions or stress. The mantra “slow and steady wins the race” still holds true. The more you slow down and eat simply for the sake of eating, the better off you will be. You’ll begin to eat only when you are hungry, stop when you are full, and find greater satisfaction from food.

If you’d like to learn more about mindful eating, Englehart recommends the following books.

  • Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food, by Jan Chozen Bays, MD, a pediatrician and Zen teacher.
  • Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life,by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist master, and Lilian Cheung, DSc, RD, a Harvard nutritionist.

And if you’re looking for more ways to practice mindfulness, give meditation a try!

 

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