By Megrette Fletcher M.Ed., RD. CDE
Have you ever thought about why you eat? Have you noticed that you eat when you aren’t hungry? Non-hunger eating happens all the time because people habitually reach for food. If this is the behavior you want to change, then mindful eating can help.
Mindful eating isn’t complicated, and you can begin right now, just by asking the question, “Am I hungry?” If you are not sure what physical hunger feels like, try to notice if you have pangs, grumbling, growling, hollow, an achy sense in the small upside down “V” space between your ribs. This level of hunger most people would describe as noticeable but not unpleasant. However, when hunger is ignored, it grows louder, and the symptoms can lead to more unpleasant feelings including difficulty thinking, concentrating, and a downward shift in your mood, attitude, and energy. If you have diabetes, hunger can feel similar to low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) and high blood sugar (hyperglycemia).
But what if you are not hungry but you still want to eat? Wanting to eat when you are not hungry is a wonderful thing to notice and recognize because it is telling you that you have been triggered to eat by either your emotions or the environment. Again, mindful eating will help if you pause and ask, “What can I do to cope better with my feelings instead of eating?” Steps like this appear to be effective in changing eating behaviors. Research by Katterman (Eating Behaviors 15.2 (2014): 197-204.) showed that mindfulness meditation effectively decreases emotional eating in people who engage in this behavior.
If it is your daily environment that creates cravings for low nutrient foods when you are hungry, ask, “What can I eat instead?” Make a list or develop a plan to have food alternatives available that you can choose from.
Create a mindful shift in your eating by checking in and asking “Am I hungry?” when you have the desire to eat. If you are hungry, you can ask, “How hungry am I?” Use this information to decide how much food is needed to ease your current level of hunger. You may discover that your hunger is greater than the suggested serving of a product, or less than the suggested serving size of a product to fill your hunger. Regardless of what you discover, the intention of mindful eating is never to limit or restrict your eating. Instead, it is to help you learn how to fill, but not overfill your hunger. Think of mindful eating as trying to find a balance between your internal controls (hunger) and an amount of food to eat.
But does this work? Participants at the Yogurt in Nutrition conference were asked to discover this for themselves by engaging in a mindful eating activity while tasting yogurt that was led by Azmina Govindji RD and The Center for Mindful Eating President Megrette Fletcher M.Ed, RD, CDE. Megrette verbally guided participants to pause and check in, noticing as much as possible before eating: “Notice the smell, the coolness of the yogurt in your hands; now select a small bite and taste it. Feel the texture, the flavor, and notice how it changes.” Azmina explained, “Eating mindfully with more awareness can help each person connect with what is appealing about a food or snack. Is it the taste, texture or how the food helps ease the sense of hunger?” Participants had a chance to ponder whether their direct experience of eating yogurt made the scientific research more relevant. Could this simple food help prevent diabetes? How might that work? After the mindful tasting activity, participants had an opportunity to sample a variety of recipes that included yogurt from chef Hubert Cormier, Dt.P, and Cheryl Sternman Rule. This activity elevated a simple mindful eating exercise to a more real life situation, providing a visual bounty where they could taste flavors from around the world. “Pleasure is good medicine,” explained Azmina Govindji, and this feast of flavors only proved the point. “Eating foods that you enjoy is at the heart of mindful eating. People really won’t eat food that they dislike long term,” explains Fletcher. Professionals at the conference were encouraged to see how mindful eating could help with overeating. “When there is a lot of food available, it is easy to forget that eating when you are hungry makes food taste better. Hunger really is the best seasoning!” explains Michelle May, MD, creator of the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Cycle.
There is an ever growing amount of research supporting mindful eating, including a small study by Jospe (Nutrition & Metabolism Nutr Metab (Lond) 12.1 (2015)) that showed checking in with hunger made people more aware of non-hunger eating signals to eat. Signals to eat are everywhere, from having an abundance of food present, television, the internet, our personal food associations, schedules, and even casual conversations. Recognizing that you can’t hide from the thousands of triggers to eat, asking these mindful eating questions offers a way to pause and decrease mindless munching.