Mindlessly Eating And What You Can Do About It

Shifting Toward Mindfulness

Can I argue with today’s NY Times article on mindful eating and its benefits? Me, this blog writer, who’s promoted a non-diet approach to eating with a mindfulness focus for the past 25 years of practice? Of course I fully endorse the contents of their piece! Yet I’m left wondering—why is this news? Overweight and underweight alike have been guided and supported by me to mindfully eat through:

  • Separating eating from distractions
  • Sitting while eating
  • Plating food, putting packages away
  • Setting a pleasant table to encourage sitting at it
  • Removing visual cues to eat (so that eating is an intentional act), including keeping food in the cupboards, not on the counters, and avoiding family-style serving
  • Acting as if our car is brand new—or has just been cleaned; keep food out of it
  • Delaying second helpings by more than the useless 20 minute rule, as it takes way longer for true satiety or fullness to hit, to discourage overeating
  • Focusing on eating with all your senses—smelling what you are about to eat, seeing it, hearing it’s crunch or its sizzle, noting its texture, and enjoying its various flavors
The real news is not that mindfulness is valuable. The real work to be done is to understand why we eat mindlessly. Because many of us consciously, mindfully even, choose to eat mindlessly.

    You knowthat eating in front of the TV will allow you to not be accountable—you won’t have to acknowledge how much or what you’ve just eaten. (For many of my anorectic patients this distracted eating is invaluable, quite beneficial at first, as it enables you to begin to eat withoutfocusing so much on the food. It’s just what you may need to do).

    If you don’t fully use your senses as described above, then there’s less fear you’ll enjoy the food so much you’ll be unable to stop eating.
  • Because you don’t feel entitled to eat—perhaps because you think your body size doesn’t deserve to be fed, or satisfied, perhaps because you believe you should lose weight or because you overdid it earlier in the day or the week.
  • Because we believe that nothing will meet our need better that numbing out with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s premium ice cream, that nothing will soothe us more than the rich and creamy, forbidden foods.  
  • Because it meets some need that we haven’t been better able to cope with, because we feel hopeless, or undeserving of feeling better, because, because, because….

In these situations, not being present while eating may work like a dream. Detaching and eating may seem like just the answer.
But ultimately, this will fail you. Mindful eating requires more than mindfulness of the setting and of the food.

Self-regulation for weight management requires awareness—of hunger and of fullness. Eating enough is not based solely on the calories—but on satisfaction, on the experience and pleasure of eating. If you’re underweight and struggling to gain, maybe mindless eating is a helpful short-term strategy. Ultimately, though, you will feel more in control if you are aware of your intake. And, if you begin to allow yourself to truly enjoy eating.

Ask yourself –Is it hunger—true stomach hunger, or just an appetite to eat? Is it your reward for a hard day? An “I deserve it” of sorts? Is it punishment for “blowing it” or other self-sabotage? Is it “I’ll eat this because nobody can see me, because I can”, so called opportunistic eating? It requires awareness of eating triggers that we’d generally rather not address. It seems so Zen, so easy in this NY Times article, but it takes a major shift to eat mindfully.

To approach mindful eating, you need to ask yourself a few questions. Not just “Am I hungry?” an essential first step, but “What am I looking for this food to do?” And when you do eat without regard to hunger or fullness you need to ask yourself, “Did this work for me—beyond the moment? Or am I left feeling as bad, or worse than I did before I started eating?”  

Then next time you’re about to eat, think first about the consequence of eating mindlessly. Will it really be worth it, worth the distress afterwards, to mindlessly overeat?

Mindful eating is achievable and worth striving for. But a necessary prerequisite is being adequately fed—avoiding long periods without eating, and being prepared with adequate meals and snacks. You’ll be in much better shape for tackling those vulnerable times when mindless eating occurs.
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