If I offered you a large box of popcorn, that was, unbeknownst to you, actually 14 days old and completely stale, with the first bite, you’d politely decline the rest, right? You’d no doubt notice that the classic movie treat had lost its characteristic light crunch and would have zero interest in consuming even one more of the rubberized kernels, right? Unfortunately, if the research on mindless eating habits holds true, you’d not only continue to eat it, but you’d eat far more than you realized or intended!
What’s more, you’d eat about 34% more popcorn than someone given a smaller box of the same 14-day-old stale popcorn would eat! Brian Wansink, Ph.D., a Cornell University researcher who designed the popcorn study, has conducted numerous experiments like this, documenting that not only do Americans tend to eat fairly mindlessly, without paying attention to the quality of their food or how much they’ve eaten, but that the portion sizes we are given dramatically impact the amount of food we consume.
What about that favorite childhood treat?
Not long ago, I had the opportunity to revisit a chocolate peanut butter snack cake that I simply adored as a child. Imagine my disappointment, when after a 25-year hiatus from the cream-filled treat, my taste buds were assaulted by an overwhelming chemical flavor, and a texture than can only be described as a waxy mess. So what transformed my beloved childhood treat into such a disastrous experience? In a word, mindfulness. As a child, I ate without much attention to the process, probably with a cake in one hand, while the other clutched the monkey bars to keep me from hitting the pavement below (yes, pavement, because back then, it didn’t occur to anyone that pavement wasn’t exactly an ideal surface for a playground). Now, having had training in mindful eating, characteristics of foods that would previously have gone unnoticed, are impossible to miss. However, the importance of mindfulness extends far beyond our selection and enjoyment of snack foods, as research is now revealing that it can lead to improved health outcomes.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness as a general concept refers to bringing your full awareness to the present moment, without judgment. Researchers have documented the benefits of this frame of mind in areas such as decreasing anxiety, improving chronic pain, and lowering blood pressure. We can also apply mindfulness to the way that we approach our meals. Unfortunately, the all-too-common dinnertime experience consists of rapidly eating while simultaneously checking email and binge watching on Netflix. There is little awareness of the actual experience of eating, and even less awareness of bodily signals such as satiety.
Mindful eating can lead to healthier food choices, as people learn to distinguish the effects that particular foods have on their bodies, to differentiate true hunger from other cues that trigger eating such as boredom or stress, and to recognize what satiety feels like to avoid overeating. Arecent study published in the journal Obesity, documented the changes that occurred for subjects taught mindful eating habits. While both the mindful eating group and the control group, placed on a more traditional diet and exercise regimen, lost similar amounts of weight over time, after one year, the mindful eating group had significant reductions in risk factors for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. While more research is needed, the researchers speculated that perhaps the addition of mindful eating led to lower stress, healthier food choices, and ultimately, improved health.
In order to reap the benefits of mindful eating, it must be engaged as a regular practice. Initially, you may find that you can only sustain your full awareness when eating for several minutes. That is to be expected and will improve with practice. Here are some strategies to begin the basics of mindful eating:
1) Sit down to meals and turn off distractions
Begin by moving meals back to a table, not your lap or TV tray. Turn off electronics, and really pay attention to your food and the process of eating. It also helps if you sit down to a meal when you are hungry but not starving, because waiting until you’re absolutely famished is more likely to result in rapid, mindless eating.
2) Take small bites and chew. And chew. And chew.
By chewing your food slowly and thoroughly, you will not only slow your meal’s pace, but you’ll also learn to more fully savor each bite, and improve your digestion.
3) Eat slowly
Take your time with your meal, so that you can more actively direct your attention to your food and your body. Practice putting down your fork between bites.
4) Bring as many of your senses as possible into the meal
Notice not only what your food tastes like, but also its smell, colors, textures, and other qualities. Notice how these sensations change, waxing and waning over time. Notice how your food feels in your mouth, as well as how it affects your body over the next few hours.
5) Bring a sense of appreciation to your meal
Consider all of the steps that were necessary for the food before you to reach your plate. Think globally, including the farmers who harvested those peas, the worker who bagged them at the store, and the person responsible for cooking them. Cultivate a sense of appreciation for the company with whom you have the privilege to share a meal.
These are steps that we can teach to the people we serve, and as healthcare providers, we can model this facet of health improvement directly through our actions. By practicing these strategies and developing a more mindful approach to your meals, you may find yourself savoring your food, making healthier choices, refraining from overeating, and listening to your body’s signals. It is hard to imagine how all of those changes can lead to anything but improved health and well-being. But be warned, by regularly practicing mindful eating, your snack cake habit may suffer from irreversible damage and cease to exist.
For more information about the ways that mindfulness can impact the body and overall health, you can access a variety of courses on topics like wellness, mindfulness, and general health, through our Learning Management System and Relias Academy.
The website associated with the magazine Mindful has extensive resources available for learning and applying mindfulness.