Mindful eating: how does it work?

Cupcakes

Mindful eating is a hot topic right now. Read on as we demystify why it’s ok to have cravings, eat carbs and indulge in the odd cupcake whilst still having a healthy relationship with food…

Finally the message is out that it’s ok to swerve saintly soups and salads now and again, to fill up on a plate of pasta by embracing a more mindful relationship with food.

So what exactly is involved when it comes to mindful eating? And how does the ‘no diet’ movement actually work? We wanted to get the low down from an expert, so who better to ask our food-related questions to than dietitian and member of The Centre for Mindful Eating, Maureen Moerbeck…

Mo’s story: where it all began

To give you some background, Maureen has been a dietitian for 15 years. She’s worked in hospitals, in the community, for the health service in Australia, and she now works at the NHS, as well as running her own private practice here in London.

Sad face on plate

In 2011 Maureen started working as an eating disorder specialist dietitian. She treated a lot of patients who were yo-yo dieting their whole lives and hating the body they were in. “I saw a total disconnection from people’s internal cues, an inability to eat for enjoyment, and a preoccupation with controlling food and weight” says Maureen.

She was overtly aware of the damage society was doing when focussing on weight loss as an indicator of health and believed that working on maintaining a better relationship with food was the key to a happier and healthier life.

As a result, Maureen committed herself to research how she could help people on their nutrition journey and so discovered mindful eating.

Q. So what exactly is mindful eating and what are the benefits?

A. Mindful eating, otherwise known as intuitive eating, is bringing awareness to eating food in the present moment without any judgement, and reconnecting to our senses while we eat. By tuning in to our body’s senses, we can reconnect with our innate hunger and fullness signals and boost our enjoyment of food.

Did you know that there are 9 different types of hunger that influence our eating? Yep, that’s no typo, we said 9!

The idea is to work towards having peace with food, where no food is good or bad, so we can enjoy the process of eating with pleasure. No rules, no diets, no guilt!

Fresh pizza

The benefits of mindful eating include improved eating habits, reduction in body dissatisfaction, increased awareness of why we choose and crave certain foods, a decrease in guilt attached to food, and a decrease in comfort, emotional and compulsive eating.

Q. Can I easily incorporate a mindful eating practice into my life?

A. Yes! We have an opportunity any time we eat, to do so mindfully.

Mindful eating is linked with the practice of mindfulness, which helps us to be reconnected to ourselves in order to appreciate everything in the present moment with pleasure and no judgement.

In today’s fast-paced lifestyle, we tend to be mindless in a lot of things that we do, so starting with some mindfulness exercises can be really helpful on your journey to mindful eating.

We all live busy lives, and unfortunately it has become a trend to eat at our desks at work, in front of the TV at home, or eating while on the run. These are all examples of distracted or mindless eating as we are not connecting with ourselves while we chew, swallow and digest the food we put into our mouth.

Eating at dinner table

Sometimes it’s not practical to sit at a table with no distractions and eat an entire meal mindfully, so start off trying to do so for one minute.

Use this minute to pay full attention to your bodily sensations and how hungry or full you feel. This is a good time to decide how much and what you want to eat, before taking your first bite or mouthful of food mindfully. This means paying full attention to the look, smell, taste and texture of that food.

Q. So how can we start to recognise unhealthy patterns around our eating habits?

A. If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, it may indicate your relationship with food may need a little TLC:

  • Do you follow rules around eating? Eg. not eating past a certain time, only allowing a certain number of calories (or just counting calories), not allowing yourself snacks
  • Have you been on diets in the past in an attempt to “be healthy” or lose weight, but this has meant you restrict or ban certain foods?
  • Do you label foods as “good and bad” or “healthy and unhealthy” or “clean and dirty”?
  • Do you avoid fat/sugar/carbs/gluten/dairy but without a diagnosed food allergy?
  • Are there foods that you do not allow yourself to have? And do you feel guilty or get angry with yourself if you do have these foods?
  • Do you struggle to recognise when you’re hungry and full, and do you not respond to these cues? Do you need to have rules to govern when, what and how much you eat?
  • Do you eat for comfort or emotional reasons, which leaves you feeling guilty?
  • Do you always eat past feeling uncomfortably full? Are you scared of feeling hungry?
  • Do you feel deprived when it comes to food?

Q. What does it mean when we get cravings?

A. Cravings are normal, yet we are told we shouldn’t crave and to feel bad about ourselves for a normal physiological function. Cravings can be a way of our body telling us we need a certain type of food to nourish us physically, mentally and/or emotionally, however cravings can also be a symptom of what’s going on mentally.

Mini doughnuts in bowl

Cravings often come from a feeling of deprivation. Deprivation can come from not feeding ourselves enough so our bodies crave energy because we are forcing it to be in negative energy balance which it doesn’t like. Ever tried to restrict your food to lose weight, only to “fall off the wagon” because you get too damn hungry? Ahhh, this is what we call physiology, folks!

Deprivation can also come from depriving ourselves of certain types of food (let’s talk about every diet under the sun?!). Ever said to yourself “I’m never going to eat chocolate/crisps/biscuits again” and you’re able to resist at first, but then the craving gets intense and you end up eating a whole family size bar/pack? Yep, that’s deprivation right there. You may be eating enough in the day, but you are not allowing yourself to eat the foods you want, making them “special” and they therefore take on a power they didn’t used to have over us.

And of course we can also feel deprived emotionally. For example, if we are feeling lonely, bored or sad, we may look for something to make us feel better, and often that can be food. The classic scenario of dealing with a break up and eating a whole tub of ice cream comes to mind. This kind of scenario is normal, but if we have only ever learnt to use food to self soothe, that might become a problem, and we may need to explore other ways to help.

Diet sign

Any tips for managing cravings?

Depending on the reason for the craving will depend on how we manage it. If we are deprived of energy we will need to eat more, ditch the diet products, and ensure we are getting enough carbohydrate, protein and fat in our diets.

If we are deprived because we have taboo foods, then we need to make peace with food and start giving ourselves permission to eat these foods again, whenever we want. This is where we might want to try mindful eating so that we can really experience that food and connect with our body and mind.

If we’re feeling deprived emotionally then we need to work on self-care, self-compassion, and exploring how we manage our emotions without reaching for comfort food.

Tell us why we need to ditch the diet mentality

Firstly, I need to mention that 9/10 diets don’t work, that’s a 90% failure rate! If we went to a doctor with a life-threatening illness and they said “take this medication, it has a 10% chance of working” we would not be feeling so great about the outcome. Yet we keep trying diets and they keep failing. We blame ourselves and think the next diet will be “the one” until inevitably it’s the same story. Talk about setting ourselves up to fail!

Cheese burger

It’s ‘OK’ to have an off day and over eat, right?!

“Overeating” is normal. We all don’t eat the same thing every day. Some days we are hungrier than others – whether that be because of our activity level, our time of the month, the weather or just because! We tend to eat more when we eat out or sometimes we eat when we’re not hungry just to be social. The point of mindful eating is that it helps us listen to our own bodies internal cues, notice the reasons why we eat, and allows us to make a conscious decision about why, what, and how much we eat to nourish our body and mind.

Body acceptance and self compassion are hot topics at the moment. Do you have any advice on how we can be less critical of ourselves?

We all have our own hang ups and we all tend to be super hard on ourselves and treat ourselves differently to the way we would treat others. Whether this is to do with our eating, our body, our personality, our achievements or failures, or anything else about ourselves. We all have an inner critic.

Awareness of our hang ups can be the first step. Trying to treat ourselves the way we would treat a friend or loved one. This can start with something as simple as the language we use towards ourselves. What language would we use if we were talking with a friend and is this different to what we say to ourselves?

Lady

Body acceptance can also be a really hard one to even think about achieving, especially if you have spent your life hating your body and trying to change it. The idea of working towards body neutrality may be a more achievable goal. Thinking about what the body does for us can be a good place to start. I often ask clients to focus on each body part and what it’s function is, and say a thank you for all that it does for them.

There are a couple of books and websites I recommend on these topics:

Go-to websites

healthnotdiets.com
haescommunity.org
sizediversityandhealth.org
lindabacon.org

Recommended reads

Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon
Self Compassion by Kristin Neff
Just Eat It by Laura Thomas
Befriending your body by Ann Saffi

Of course if you need more support, seeking help from a qualified therapist is also a good option.

You can follow Mo on Instagram @mindfuleatingpractise, Facebook @mindfuleatingpractisegroup or by visiting her website mindfuleatingpractise.com

Kat x

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