Being mindful in eating habits can contribute to a healthier lifestyle
A K-State Research and Extension specialist discusses the benefits of being attentive toward eating habits and learning to avoid negative messages.
Released: March 2, 2016
MANHATTAN, Kan. – It’s common for people trying to lose weight by restricting their diets to struggle in keeping the weight off, according to Sandy Procter, assistant professor in Kansas State University’s College of Human Ecology. Practicing mindful eating can be much more beneficial.
To be mindful means simply being present in the moment without judgment, and having mindful eating habits helps amplify our body’s signals of hunger and fullness, break old eating habits and better understand what our body is saying, Procter said.
“We often don’t take time to listen to our bodies,” said Procter, a nutrition specialist and registered dietitian with K-State Research and Extension. “Mindfulness is a big part of eating well, but also of healthfulness in general.”
She outlined several ways a person can eat more mindfully and develop healthier habits.
Procter’s first suggestion is to shift away from automatic eating, which can help prevent disordered eating patterns and move closer to more regular eating habits. By being deliberately aware of why they’re eating, when they’re eating and other factors such as portion sizes, people can make more mindful eating decisions.
People shouldn’t default to eating on a schedule, either; they should think about what they’re eating and whether or not they’re actually hungry, she said.
Many people use their break time to have a snack, but according to Procter, they tend to eat just because it’s break time rather than because they’re actually hungry. If only a little hungry, they should consider waiting until a later time to eat when their appetite has increased.
“It’s good to be aware of how we eat, to shift out of this auto-eating and think about what we eat every day,” Procter said. “Don’t just do things automatically because the clock says it’s time to eat, or because you’ve always used a giant bowl for your cereal. Sit back and think, ‘This is what I want; this is what I feel like I need, and I think I’m done (eating).’”
People should also avoid multitasking while eating, she said, because they eat less if they’re only focusing on the meal and are more aware of their hunger signals.
“We eat less, we eat more purposefully and we can hear the signals from our body,” she said. “And sometimes, those will say ‘I don’t really need the rest of my sandwich right now; I could eat the rest later or take it home.’”
Focusing on the meal and allotting a proper amount of time to eat can help with more attentive bites. Attentive eating might require planning healthy meals ahead of time, planning what snacks to eat during the day, taking a proper amount of time to eat and even sharing meals with someone who is also practicing mindful eating.
Avoiding negative messages
While eating, people should check their body signals and avoid focusing on internal negative messages as much as possible, Procter said. Negative messages can cause under- or over-eating, neither of which are beneficial.
“Sometimes we are our own worst enemies, and we can say negative thoughts to ourselves,” she said, adding that by actively disregarding thoughts such as wanting to skip a meal due to their weight, people are avoiding internal stressors that can influence their eating habits.
“Remember, they’re just thoughts. If you’re hungry and your body is telling you it’s time to eat, don’t let those negative messages interfere with the actual messages that are coming from your body,” she added.
Also, when experiencing negative messages about eating habits or weight, avoid vocalizing them.
“We do seem fairly quick to jump on the bandwagon about feeling comfortable commenting on someone’s weight change – whether they’re ‘too fat’ or ‘too thin’ – but we have to realize that sometimes we are just as quick to send those messages inward,” Procter said.
Studies have shown that young children will repeat messages they hear, she said, and when hearing adults speaking critically of eating habits or of certain foods, children can have these negative messages imprinted upon them.
“You hear a lot of this ‘mindful’ speech and the messages we inadvertently send children if we’re always talking about, ‘I’m not going to eat that because it’s fattening,’ or, ‘I’m not going to drink milk because it’s fattening,’ or, ‘I weigh too much, so I’m going to skip this meal,’” Procter said.
Procter said having a support system to assist with mindful eating can be helpful.
“When we’re trying to change habits, some people are with us and some may not be, and it’s important to find those who are going to support us,” Procter said.
It’s also better to make gradual small changes than sudden big ones, she added. By taking gradual steps such as being more mindful of eating habits and adding in small bursts of physical activity rather than trying to fit in a 30-minute session at the gym, people can work toward overall healthier habits.
K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.