Updated: Mar 29
I know you've heard of mindful eating (or intuitive eating). But why has the topic become so trendy?
First of all, we've all been taught: "If you want to lose weight, diet." However, while social media and diet culture push diets on us as the end-all-be-all for weight loss, science says differently!
Why don't diets work?
The APA writer continues to explain,
"In response to calorie deprivation, levels of leptin, considered the satiety hormone, decrease, and levels of ghrelin, thought of as the hunger hormone, increase.
Individuals in a deprived state experience more hunger, and feelings of hunger remain increased for deprived individuals even after eating a regular meal."
Diets also cause our bodies to reduce energy expenditure (calorie burning). Without enough calories, the body has to make decisions: what should it prioritize spending calories on? What functions aren't required to stay alive? The body stops expending energy (calories) on the functions that aren't necessary for survival.
That's why when we're on diets, we often experience:
Reduction in sex drive
Stopped or irregular menstruation
Deterioration of skin, hair, and nail quality
All these happen because our bodies are trying to conserve energy to keep us alive. Our body conserves energy to spend on its vital functions.
If you continue to push your body with calorie restriction and exercise, your heart rate, digestive system, brain, and metabolism slows. Your blood pressure also drops.
As you lose weight, your body's metabolism starts to be more efficient. That sounds good, but by "more efficient" I mean fewer calories are needed to run your body. This happens naturally as your body becomes smaller. But your metabolism also becomes even more efficient than other small bodies that were never calorie deprived.
That's why as you continue to diet, you either stop losing weight or gain weight.
To continue losing weight, you'll need to cut your calories even more to continue losing weight. But that cycle never stops. Your body will continue to need fewer calories for basic survival. And as you continue to cut calories, your body will fight back to keep you alive by storing fat for future energy reserves.
Not to mention that as you diet, you continuously get more and more preoccupied with the food you're consuming and how your body looks. I've heard countless people say it: "The more weight I lost, the more I felt bad about my body." As backward as it sounds, I've experienced it too. Not to mention that extreme calorie restriction is linked to increased anxiety.
The stress that food and body image issues cause starts to pack on the pounds. When you're stressed, your body's flight-or-fight response is triggered. When your body’s fight-or-flight response is triggered, digestion slows or even stops, so that the body can use all its energy to face the threat.
Poor digestion also causes weight gain, because your body is unable to properly break down foods. This causes inadequate nutrient absorption, which negatively affects your body’s metabolism. Stress also plays a role in weight gain by affecting cortisol levels. High levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) cause fat stores to be relocated and deposited in the abdomen.
Okay, diets don't work. So what does?
Diets don't work, but mindful eating does! Mindful eating helps our bodies function optimally, lose weight, and overall increases the quality of our lives.
What is mindful eating?
Firstly, we have to understand mindfulness, because mindful eating is an extension of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the awareness of what’s happening right now.
Mindful eating is noticing the colors, smells, flavors, and textures of your food. It also means getting rid of distractions like watching TV or checking emails.
The intention of mindful eating is to help people savor the moment and the food. It's meant to encourage their full presence while eating.
Mindful eating isn't about restricting food intake, or only eating the most nutritious meals. The person eating chooses what and how much to consume.
I know your brain is saying, "Wait! If I eat anything I want, I'll gain so much weight!" But hear me out!
An article published in the Diabetes Spectrum states, "The purpose of mindful eating is not to lose weight, although it is highly likely that those who adopt this style of eating will lose weight."
Why does mindless eating cause weight gain?
To understand how mindful eating can lead to weight loss, we must first understand how mindless eating causes weight gain!
Harvard Health Publishing writes, "If you aren’t mindful of what’s going into your mouth, you don’t process that information." This means you can eat a whole meal, but your brain will not remember or process that you ate it. Plus, it takes about 20 minutes for your brain to receive satiety signals. If you eat too quickly, you don't process that you're full, leading to excess eating.
The fact that your brain can't process what you ate also means that you don't properly absorb the nutrients that you ate. Remember how we talked about when your body doesn't properly absorb nutrients, your metabolism slows?
It doesn't matter how nutritiously you eat. If you aren't focusing on simply eating your food, your body isn't able to digest your food properly.
Remember how we discussed how the flight-or-fight response causes you to gain weight? Well, distracted eating puts your body in a stressful, flight-or-fight mode. This causes weight gain.
If you are eating while distracted, your body doesn't know that it's supposed to be digesting. If you eat while you're on the go, standing up, while watching TV or looking at another screen, or even while experiencing anxious thoughts, your body thinks it's in a state of emergency. The message your body receives is: "Don't digest. Focus on the stimuli at hand."
This is why you gain weight when you eat mindlessly, but also why you may experience digestive issues. Stress plays a role in digestive diseases like Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
And when you're stressed about what food you're eating and what your body looks like, you're still triggering that flight-or-fight response. Do I need to tell you again that stress causes weight gain and digestive issues? Or is that already nailed into your brain?
How can you lose weight with mindful eating?
Now that you know how mindless eating can cause weight gain, it's clear that eating mindfully causes weight loss. But let's recap:
When you can adequately absorb the nutrients in what you ate, your metabolism increases.
When you focus on what you eat, you process that you ate and you hear your body's satiety signals, leading to you eating less (without even trying).
When you aren't distracted while you eat, your body is not put into the fight-or-flight response. Similarly, when you aren't stressed about what you're eating or what your body looks like, you aren't put into the fight-or-flight response. Your body can focus solely on digesting your food.
Also, when your body is not in a constant state of calorie deprivation, your body starts to trust that you will feed it regularly. When your body trusts you, it will burn more calories because it knows it will get enough later.
How do I eat mindfully?
To eat mindfully, you need to:
Don't eat when you're distracted. This means don't eat while you're watching TV, looking at your phone, chatting on the phone, reading, answering emails, on the go, or working. Focus on your food, or eat with another person (not over FaceTime, but in real life).
Don't come to the table when you're starving. Make sure you're adequately feeding yourself throughout the day so you never feel like you're ravishingly hungry. Eat when you're hungry throughout the day. If you eat while you're starving, it's really hard to eat mindfully.
Eat what you like to eat. I know you're thinking that you'll eat junk food all the time. But trust me, when you allow yourself to eat junk food, it's not as appealing anymore as it was when it was completely off-limits.
Focus on your food when you eat it. How does it taste? How does it smell? How does it make you feel? Try to occupy your thoughts with your food.
Practice positive affirmations while you eat. For example, think, "This food is so good!" Another one of my favorites is to think, "This food is so nourishing!" Or you can think, "This food is healthy for me!" These positive affirmations will start to come naturally over time. It forces your brain to focus on your food, without stressing you out. For example, you don't want to be thinking, "This food is so bad for me. I'm going to gain so much weight from eating it." Your brain can be reprogrammed over time with positive affirmations.
Eat slower, and stop when you're full. Remind yourself that you can eat later when you're hungry.
Incorporate Habits Slowly
Of course, it might not be reasonable for you to eat mindfully every time you eat. But like any other habit, you can slowly work the practice in. Maybe at first, you focus on mindful dinners. Then you try adding some mindful breakfasts. Then some mindful lunches.
To make something a habit, you need to practice it! It's going to be hard at first, but it's so worth it. From the nutrient absorption, to the weight loss and the mental health benefits, to the digestive healing you'll experience.
Mindful eating contributes to your overall well-being. Why not give mindful eating a try?