“Mindless” eating – chronic dieting, overeating or undereating, feeling guilty, obsessive or out of control about food – can sustain not only poor eating habits, but also an unhealthy relationship with food.
Eating mindfully means having a healthy relationship with food. It means being aware of nutritional needs, but also enjoying food, being flexible about diet and accepting your body and yourself in a non-judgmental way.
It also means being aware of the things that influence our relationship with food and things that trigger mindless eating, and finding strategies that encourage enjoyment of food and a diet that provides both nutrition and peace of mind.
Mindful eating was the topic at a packed presentation at Women’s College Hospital on March 18, 2010. Registered dietitians Kinga Balogh and Nancy Bradshaw from Women’s College Hospital, and dietetic intern Hanna Sheehan, based the talk on the principles presented in Craving Change, a program designed to help people change their eating habits by exploring the biological, psychological and social forces that affect what we eat.
Craving Change isn’t just about what we eat; it’s about why we eat. Obviously we eat to fuel our bodies, but we also eat for other physical, emotional and social reasons.
At the Women’s College Hospital workshop, Sheehan described three types of hunger: stomach hunger, mouth hunger and heart hunger.
- Stomach hunger is physical. It’s the body’s way of telling you it needs fuel.
- Mouth hunger is more about cravings. Usually, it is focused on a particular taste or texture, such as salty, crunchy potato chips.
- Heart hunger is the impulse to eat for emotional reasons, or from learned behaviour. For example, eating for comfort after a bad day. Heart hunger can be one of the most significant triggers for mindless eating.
Strategies that can help encourage mindful eating include nurturing yourself, thinking about triggers and ways to defuse them, and using tools such as journaling and setting goals.
To avoid eating for comfort, think about the types of situations in which you feel bad, such as stressful work situations or getting bad news. Think about ways to comfort yourself other than with food. Some immediate options include listening to a favourite song, calling a friend, or doing some stretches or yoga breathing. If you’ve got more time, consider a walk in the park, watching a TV show or movie that makes you laugh, a bubble bath or curling up with a good book.
Keeping a food journal is a good way to become more aware of what and why you eat. Balogh said many of her clients find journaling to be a real eye-opener that increases their level of mindfulness around food choices.
Journaling can include everything you eat, or it can focus on problem areas such as lunch or after-dinner snacking. Don’t just write down what you ate – track the details of situations, foods and feelings. For example, list the time of day and the situation, such as a mid-morning coffee break, or watching TV in the evening. Then record what you were feeling before you ate, and what you chose to eat. Finally, write down how you felt immediately after eating and how you felt 20 to 30 minutes later.
This should help you identify ‘triggers’ – why and when you tend to make certain food choices – and how those choices make you feel both immediately afterwards, and after the initial effects of feeding a craving have passed.