Tag Archives: Mindful Eating

Five Ways to Eat More Mindfully

Back in the caveman days, we spent a good part of our day (and a lot of our energy) looking for food — hunting it, gathering it, picking it. Now, food is literally at our fingertips, whether it’s in the plastic bag in front of you or a phone call away. As a result, eating has become relatively automatic: we’re hungry (or bored, or sad, or happy…), so we head to the pantry and pick whichever snack looks good. Most people no longer think about the short- or long-term impact of that food; they’re focused on the immediate gratification of America’s favorite snack foods: salty chips, sugary cookies, and greasy donuts. So how can we re-teach ourselves to appreciate and select the right foods for us? The answer, according to experts, lies in mindful eating: being present and aware of what you’re eating, its sensations, and its impact on your body and feelings. Mindful eating has multiple benefits: it can reduce the risk of diabetes; it may curb overeating; it could help you lose weight; it can help you manage your emotions. Below are five strategies to eat more mindfully:

Mindful Eating
1. Unitask
Whether you like to watch Food Network, catch up on the news, write emails, or chill out with your Kindle while you eat, unplugging at mealtime can help you focus in on the sensations on your meal. Other sensations apart from those you get directly from food (taste, smell, texture, appearance) can distract Printyou from focusing on those sensations, making it more difficult to register how much you’ve eaten or whether you’re full or not. Sit down at a (preferably set) table and take a minute to appreciate the food you’re about to eat and your surroundings. And at the very least, keep stressful stimuli (like responding to work emails or planning a dinner party) at bay: a study published in the journal Gastroenterology found that attending to two stimuli at once can alter metabolism and halt the digestive process.

2. Eat with your non-dominant hand
Popcorn-eaters who ate with their non-dominant hand ate far fewer calories than Chopsticksthose who snacked with their dominant hand. According to lead researcher David Neal, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, “When we’ve repeatedly eaten a particular food in a particular environment, our brain comes to associate the food with that environment and makes us keep eating as long as those environmental cues are present.” Altering those environmental cues–that is, by eating with your non-dominant hand–removes the “automatic” part of eating, forcing us to pay attention to our intake. For an extra challenge, try eating with chopsticks using your non-dominant hand–research shows that doing so activates both hemispheres of the brain, strengthening neural connections and stimulating creativity.

3. Chew 40 times
In a recent study, individuals who chewed their food 40 times consumed 12% fewer calories than those who chewed each bite 15 times. The mechanism may be as simple as limiting the amount of food you can actually put in your mouth in a certain time, or it may be physiological: chewing stimulates the production of appetite-suppressing hormones like PYY and curbs the production of ghrelin, an appetite-boosting hormone. As a bonus, more chewing means that your food is broken down further, which may lead to better absorption of nutrients.

4. Put your fork down
You’ve heard it before: it takes about 20 minutes for your brain to register fullness. But because most of us can put down a burrito in less than five minutes, it’s important to slow down in order to let your brain catch up with your stomach. Putting your fork down between bites simply prolongs the eating period, allowing you to stop eating when you feel full and not when your food is gone. It also lets you focus on the taste, smell, and texture of your food (as opposed to getting your next forkful ready), so that you can truly taste your food.


5. Identify all the ingredients in the meal
Take a bite of your food and really focus in on the different flavors. Is the overall taste sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or savory? Which herbs and spices can you detect? Identifying each ingredient in a dish helps you stay in the moment and focus exclusively on your meal as opposed to thinking about tomorrow’s deadline.


How To Eat Less: Cut your food into bite-sized portions

Next time you’re at a party with tempting food, steer yourself towards foods that are pre-portioned and already cut up into small, bite-sized pieces.

Research from Arizona State University suggests that humans perceive the amount of food they have in terms of numbers— like 8 pieces of chocolate — as opposed to size, like a chocolate bar. So even if the calories presented in each choice are the same, humans perceive the amount to be greater if the food is portioned into smaller pieces, and thus are more satiated with small pieces rather than one big piece.

In the study, 301 college students were given either a whole, uncut bagel, or a bagel cut into quarters; both portions weighed 82 grams and provided the same amount of calories. Subjects were allowed to eat as much or as little of the bagel as they wanted; twenty minutes later, they ate as much as they wanted of a test meal.

Researchers found that subjects who received the uncut bagel consumed more calories from both the bagel and the lunch than those who received the quartered bagel. According to Devina Wadhera, lead author, “cutting up energy-dense meal foods into smaller pieces may be beneficial to dieters who wish to make their meal more satiating while also maintaining portion control.”

Other animals — rats, specifically — behave the same way. In a similar study, hungry rats were trained to associate one arm of a maze with 30 10-mg food pellets, and another with 1 300-mg pellet. When given free reign to choose which arm they ran to, the rats preferred, and ran faster towards, the arm with the 30 10-mg food pellets.

While the research is still preliminary and experts haven’t commented on the evolutionary significance of these findings, the tendency to perceive food in this way may simply be due to an optical illusion whereby the brain tricks the stomach into believing that it’s getting more food. Says Keith Ayoob, associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, “Sometimes being ‘full’ is a mind game. It’s not always just what’s in your stomach.” Perhaps: according to a study from Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, we perceive portions to be bigger if they’re served on smaller plates or on plates with more color contrast between plate and food. Or, the phenomenon may simply be due to the fact that eating more more pieces of smaller food slows us down, allowing a person to stop eating before he is too full.

So, besides cutting up your bagel into fourths, how can you take advantage of this research? Here are some small ways it might add up:

  • Cut your fruit into slices – bananas, apples, kiwi, mango, watermelon – or, in the case of oranges and other citrus fruits, portion them before eating. Berries are already bite-sized, so there’s no need to break them down smaller.
  • Make sure the food you’re cutting into small pieces is all visible: it’s just as important that you consciously see the amount of food you’re getting as it is to eat the food piece by piece. Single-serve potato chips, for instance, are already broken into bite-sized pieces, but if you can’t see your entire portion (because they’re obscured by the bag), your brain might not perceive the actual amount of food you’re eating. The pile of food you’re about to eat serves as a visual cue as to how much food you’re consuming.
  • Instead of taking bites of from a chocolate bar, break off several small pieces. Most bars already come with divisions; instead of eating a row, eat each square independently.
  • Instead of cutting your sandwich in half, cut it into fourths. When it’s just cut into halves, you may feel like you have to finish the second half; with quarters, you can put away the fourth quarter for later. It might seem small, but you could be shaving 200 calories off your lunch!
  • At parties, steer yourself towards already pre-portioned foods, like shrimp cocktail, caprese skewers, sliders, and edamame. Stay away from casseroles and entree-sized meals, like burgers or huge pizza slices. With the smaller appetizers, you’ll also be able to sample more foods.

On another note, you may be able to use the reverse corollary — that if humans perceive full-sized foods to contain fewer calories and are less satiated with them, they will consume more of that food — to your advantage. Keep your vegetables in their full-sized form (a whole carrot vs. carrot sticks; a whole bell pepper vs. bell pepper strips) and you might end up eating more of them!

Pictures of High-Calorie Foods Increase Cravings: How to Stop Them

Maybe it’s time to give up the FoodGawker obsession: a recent study from the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine found that viewing images of high-calorie foods increased cravings for those same high-calorie foods.

In the study, brain responses were measured by fMRIs in 13 obese participants who looked at photos of high-calorie foods, like hamburgers, cookies, and cakes, and low-calorie foods, like fruits and vegetables. After each viewing — high-calorie and low-calorie — the participants rated their hunger and desire for sweet or savory foods on a scale of 1 to 10. During the scans, the participants were given drinks with 50 grams of glucose or of fructose.

The researchers found that, as predicted, the reward centers — the ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens — were more activated when the participants were viewing high-calorie foods, and, as a consequence, the participants had higher cravings for the high-calorie foods. The researchers were surprised to find, however, that when the participants consumed the sugar-heavy drinks, their hunger and cravings for savory food increased even more dramatically (and specifically, that the fructose-filled drink increased cravings more than the glucose-based drink).

According to lead researcher and assistant professor of clinical medicine Kathleen Page, “Our bodies are made to eat food and store energy, and it prehistoric days, it behooved us to eat a lot of high-calorie foods because we didn’t know when the next meal was coming. But now we have much more access to food, and this research indicates added sweeteners might be affecting our desire for it.”

What does this mean for humans, obesity, and our eating habits?

1. Essentially, this study is just one more reason to be completely present and mindful when you’re eating. Nutritionists and dietitians often advise their clients to focus completely on their meal while they’re eating, to “be in the moment” without any distractions. Being mindful of what, and how much, you eat helps you slow down and listen to your body, so you know when you’re full or if you’re really still hungry. Mindfulness even helps improve digestion: according to a study in the journal Gastroenterology, our bodies perceive distraction as stress. When we try to do many things at once – eat, listen to the TV, and check email, for example – digestion is put on hold, and our cells’ ability to break down macro- and micronutrients are impaired. Even worse: the stress response causes excess glucose to be released into the bloodstream, thereby upping the need and release for insulin – which may also create cravings for high calorie foods. So if your distraction of choice is watching Paula Deen on Food Network, scrolling through FoodGawker, or even looking at healthy recipes in Cooking Light, its effect on your diet is doubly negative: your digestion is impaired (which may ultimately lead to weight gain), and those mouthwatering pictures result in more high-calorie cravings (again: weight gain).

2. Letting your mind drift by innocently looking at high-calorie, high-fat foods may not be the only stimulus for high-calorie cravings. Restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, food trucks and more food establishments are providing the same stimulus as the pictures – just in real life. Imagine that you’ve just been handed your Caramel Macchiato (with 32 grams of sugar) and are waiting to pay. You find yourself right in front of the bakery case, packed with flaky croissants, buttery scones, and exploding-with-toppings muffins – and, even though you came in only to get a java boost, you suddenly have a pastry in your hand! This situation almost exactly mimics the study’s variables: a drink high in glucose and fructose, plus images of high calorie foods.

Unfortunately, restaurants also take advantage of the power of pictures. Chain restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory place pictures of their most profitable dishes – which are usually the dishes highest in calories, fat and low quality ingredients – front and center, enticing diners to order them. And because waiters ask for your drink order before you’ve even cracked open the menu, you’re likely already sipping on a sugary (read: high glucose and high fructose) drink and primed to order a high-calorie entrée.

So what can you do? First, avoid looking at “food porn” when you’re hungry, before a meal, or during a meal. Planning ahead also helps: set aside a treat you can look forward to (for whenever: mid-afternoon, after lunch, after dinner, even after breakfast!). As long as you plan to indulge in this one treat and you have control over it, you’ll have more self-control over cravings that appear throughout the day. (Self Magazine offers a similar concept with their “Happy Calories.”) And if you’re going out to eat at a restaurant, look at the menu ahead of time and decide what you’re going to order. Stick to your choice: don’t let pictures (or your dining companion’s behaviors) affect your choice! Similarly, if you’re headed to the coffee shop, go with the intention of ordering just your java drink of choice. If you’re truly hungry, head back to the office for those healthy snacks you packed!

Learn How To Snack With A Purpose

Today, Americans snack their way through an average of 580 calories a day, eating an average of 4.9 meals and snacks a day – a 29% increase from 3.8 in 1977. Snacking itself isn’t the problem; a study published by the Nutrition Journal found that scheduled snacking actually led to fat loss. The problem is what people are snacking on: data from Progressive Grocer shows that 94.7% of American households purchase cookies, 89.9% potato chips, 75.2% tortilla chips, and 89.4% chocolate. And everywhere we go, these unhealthy foods are staring us down, from the candy jar at your cube mate’s desk to the bakery samples at grocery stores. Adding insult to injury, Americans tend to eat on the go; such mindless eating has been linked with weight gain. Secondary eating (eating while performing another activity) increased from 15 minutes in 2006 to 30 minutes in 2008; secondary drinking nearly doubled from 45 to 85 minutes.

Snacking, if done right, is healthy – it can lead to weight loss, it adds more nutrients to your diet, it provides energy (physical and mental) between meals, and it contributes to a healthy metabolism. The key is to snack, with purpose, on functional foods – foods that are high in nutrients and that will quash hunger.

1. Choose whole foods over processed foods.
Whole foods – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein – have high nutrient density and low caloric density, meaning they provide lots of nutrients for minimal calories. Processed foods, however, are essentially empty calories. Snack foods like chips, pretzels, soft drinks, and cookies have almost no beneficial nutrients, but still add another 200-300 calories to your diet. Depending on your snacks, you can easily add to your daily recommended intakes for vitamins and minerals and beef up your “five-a-day” for vegetables and fruits.

2. Choose snacks with either protein or fiber, plus unsaturated fats.
The purpose of your snack is to provide energy and curb hunger until your next meal. Fiber slows the rate of digestion, making you feel fuller longer. Studies show that protein may affect leptin, an appetite-suppressing hormone, to improve satiety, also making you feel fuller after a snack. And a 2008 study from University of California at Irvine found that unsaturated fats, like those found in avocados and nuts, triggers the production of oleoylethanolamide, a compound that decreases appetite.

3. Choose low glycemic index foods.
Foods with high glycemic indexes are broken down fast, resulting in a swift rise and fall in blood sugar. Such foods – like white bread, chips, and candy – often lead to cravings soon after consumption.  Foods with low glycemic indexes are the opposite: they are broken down slowly, leaving you with stable blood sugar levels and sustainable energy. Low glycemic index (low is considered to be below 55) foods include whole grains, vegetables, certain fruits (grapefruit, strawberries, grapes, apples, cherries), yogurt, beans and legumes, meat and fish, and nuts (notice that all of these foods are also high in fiber, protein, or unsaturated fats).

4. Choose a snack with 150-200 calories.
A snack should tide you over until your next meal; it should not fill you up like a meal would (If you work out a few hours after a meal, you may need two snacks). Pair energy-boosting carbohydrates (like an apple) with protein or fats (like almond butter or cheese) for lasting satiety.

5. Prepare snacks in advance.
If you know you’re going to be away from your kitchen for a few hours, pack yourself a healthy, homemade snack. You’ll be able to control the ingredients, and since you’re not famished, you can make informed decisions regarding what to snack on. And when you find yourself passing the office vending machine or mall-court Cinnabon, you won’t be tempted to give in to high-fat, high-sugar snack choices.

6. Avoid the “NEEDNT” snacks.
In February, researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand identified 49 “NEEDNT” foods – non-essential foods that should be avoided. These foods are either calorie-dense and nutrient-devoid, contain added sugars, or are prepared using a high-fat method (like frying). The foods may also be “trigger foods,” which are those foods you simply cannot eat enough of and encourage you to binge. Some items on the list include cake, cookies, energy drinks, fruit juice, muffins, and fries. To see the whole list, click here.

7. Be mindful.
Treat a snack like a meal: sit down and savor each bite. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, individuals ate lunch while either playing solitaire or without distraction; 30 minutes later, they were allowed to eat as many cookies as they wanted. The group who played solitaire ate 250 calories worth of cookies (compared to about 125) and had more difficulty recalling the nine items in their lunch. Being mindful while eating helps us remember what we eat, making us less inclined to eat more at a later time.

Try these functional snacks to replace any mid-day cravings you have.

If you’re craving something CREAMY (sweet)
Instead of: Ice Cream
Try: 6 oz Greek yogurt (98 calories) with 2 Tbs slivered almonds (80 calories) + 1 tsp maple syrup (15 calories ) = 193 calories

If you’re craving something CREAMY (savory)
Instead of: Chips and dip
Try: 1 cup cucumber slices (16 calories) with 1 oz soft herbed goat cheese (100 calories) = 116 calories

If you’re craving something CRUNCHY
Instead of: Tortilla chips
Try: ½ large red bell pepper (25 calories) + ½ cup carrots (20 calories) with ¼ cup hummus (100 calories) = 145 calories

If you’re craving something SWEET
Instead of: Snickers bar
Try: 12 medium strawberries (70 calories) dipped in 1 Tbs chocolate chips (70 calories) + 7 almonds (50 calories) = 190 calories

If you’re craving something SALTY
Instead of: Pretzels
Try: ½ cup edamame (100 calories) + 25 pistachios (85 calories)

If you’re craving something CHEESY
Instead of: Mozzarella Sticks
Try: 2 Whole Wheat Wasa Crispbread (100 calories) + 1 wedge The Laughing Cow Light Garlic and Herb (35 calories) = 135 calories

Other snacks to try:

Sliced apple with almond or peanut butter
Berries and almonds/pistachios (if berries aren’t in season, buy them frozen and thaw)
Yogurt and whole grain cereal, sprinkled with cinnamon, ground flaxseed, and chia seeds
Sliced carrots, bell pepper strips, and cucumbers dipped in hummus
A cup of high-fiber soup
A mini-sandwich
Black beans with green onions and garlic
A serving of a grain- or bean-based salad