Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Mindful Eating: Minding our hunger and fullness

We eat for a lot of reasons, and the most primal of them is hunger. Hunger is the physiological need to eat. When we're hungry, the question is "What is there to eat?"  Basically, almost anything looks good because when we're hungry we experience intense physiological responses, like a growling stomach, stomach pangs, or a headache, that motivate us to find food -- FAST if we're really hungry!  This is why we don't always make the best food decisions when we're ravenously hungry.

Based on my experience, I believe that people view hunger in several ways. Some consider it the enemy.  Others think of it as a nuisance. A few see it as their strongest ally in successful health management. I consider it a guide, and I'll explain how it can serve this purpose later. 

On one hand, some people fear hunger because they aren't sure how to handle it.  That is, they don't trust themselves to be able to handle it or to manage the thoughts and feelings experienced after so-called "handling it" (i.e., eating).  So, they might ignore the hunger hoping that it will go away and they will not have to deal with it.  Sometimes they try to fill up with diet soda or rice cakes. While there is an illusion that this fixes the problem, in reality it doesn't.  The body is exhibiting signs of hunger because it IS hungry!  It needs energy and nourishment from food, and trickery with non-caloric beverages and filler foods just won't cut it.  Our bodies are very intelligent, complex machines, and we must not underestimate them.

Additionally, some people view hunger as an inconvenience. It gets in the way of our being able to work or to get things done.  Some people tune out hunger for long enough that the hunger eventually subsides and the body's natural emergency response system that says, "Feed me. Feed me." becomes subdued.  At some point, this process is challenging for many to sustain as the body keeps score and a ferocious hunger often follows.

Finally, some people embrace hunger. It's seen as a badge of courage or medal of honor for a great accomplishment.  Some seem to believe that if you're on a diet and you're hungry, then you're succeeding. Others rally around them saying things like, "You can do it!"  "Great job!" "I wish I could do that!" However, research and experience tell me that hunger is not the best indicator of a successful weight management strategy.  In fact, an historical study conducted by Ancel Keys during World War II uncovered some of the negative effects of semi-starvation on 36 volunteers.  The results weren't pretty.  Subjects experienced fatigue, emotional disturbances, depression, apathy, preoccupation with food, and impairments in concentration, alertness, judgment, and comprehension.  Many people who've been on a restrictive diet can probably relate.

With all this talk about hunger, you might think I'm suggesting that we are a nation of starving people.  But something else is going on in our country:  67% of American adults, 18% of adolescents, 15% of children ages 6-11, and 11% of children ages 2-5 are overweight.  What gives? One thing I haven't mentioned yet is the ugly truth about hunger. That ugly truth is...if most of us eat when we're not hungry, we are overeating.  Given the stats above, notice that the older the population, the greater the proportion of overweight individuals. There are a multitude of possible explanations, but I will discuss one.  We've been trained to overeat.  Having spent enough time around children, I've seen how in tune they are with their natural hunger and satiety cues. On the other hand, many adults have been taught to override their sense of hunger or fullness.  Instead, they rely on family members, friends, diet books, or magazines to tell them when and how much to eat.  But honestly, who knows when and how much to eat better than you?  YOU are the owner's manual!

So, how do we mindfully manage our hunger and fullness?  The key is to check in with your body before and throughout the meal.  Here are some strategies to guide you.
  • Listen for it.  In order to mind our hunger and fullness, we need to learn how to recognize each. Here are some of the typical signs of hunger: growling or rumbling stomach, mild stomach pangs, lightheadedness, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, headache, inability to concentrate, or crankiness.  Fullness can start with a comfortable feeling in the stomach, calmness, and increased energy levels. Extreme fullness can lead to the stomach  feeling stretched or uncomfortable, nausea, or sluggishness.
  • Rate it.  Use a hunger and/or fullness scale. There are several different versions available, but they typically provide range of numbers by which you can assess your level of hunger or fullness (i.e., 0-10 with 0 being ravenously hungry and 10 being absolutely stuffed).  I personally like the ones discussed in the book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.
  • Put down the fork.  Setting your utensil down between bites provides the perfect pause for reflection.  Consider two questions:  1) Is this food pleasing to me?  If it is, proceed.  If not, then you may choose to stop eating.  2) Am I still hungry? You may want to use the hunger/fullness scale to answer this question and determine your next step.
  • Close your eyes. My mom once told me, "My eyes are bigger than my stomach."  Isn't this true sometimes?  Or maybe you've heard the joke, "I'm on the see food diet.  I see food and I eat it." (wink, wink)  Our sense of sight can definitely impact our eating as I've discussed before, so taking a visual break from our food can certainly enhance our mindfulness allowing us to make more informed decisions throughout the experience.  Again, ask yourself:  Is this food pleasing to me?  Am I still hungry?
  • Hara hachi bu.  That is, eat until 80% full. This is one of many lifestyle practices that the Okinawans of Japan follow, and they have some of the longest averge lifespans on the planet.
Is it "bad" to eat beyond hunger? Not necessarily because sometimes eating for reasons other than hunger can bring pleasure. At the same time, the choice to eat regardless of hunger for most meals on most days could lead one to a place of displeasure and may contribute to ill health.  The good news is that it is our choice, and minding our hunger and fullness can guide us through such choices.  Making mindful choices may not be easy to start, but that's because many of us have been conditioned otherwise.  So, which of these strategies will you try this week?

      Wednesday, December 23, 2009

      Mindful Eating: How to get started

      When some people hear mindful eating, they might cringe thinking, "Oh no, does this involve having to do a yoga pose or saying 'Ohmmmm' every time I eat?"  While it can, it doesn't have to!  As Jim Elliot said, "Wherever you are, be all there."  Notice the all..not kind of there, not sort of there, not halfway there.   " all there."  While there are no rules and regulations around it, the immediate goal is to create space between us and the noise so that we can enter the eating experience with a clear state of mind that allows us to be fully present in mind and body.  Listed below are several ways to bring you to the eating moment before you even start eating. While it's not a comprehensive, all-inclusive list, it's a start. In future posts, I will discuss ways to check in with your mind and body throughout a meal, too.
      • Sit down.  Several years ago, I read a book entitled,  When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair: 50 Ways to Feel Thin, Gorgeous, and Happy.  The title and the story behind it provide an interesting idea. What would happen if we plopped ourselves down on a chair the next time we found ourselves face in the fridge or pantry looking for that...something?  I believe that act would bring greater awareness to the moment and give us just enough pause to reflect on our choices. So, if there is a time that you have a habit of not sitting down to eat for a meal or snack, give it a try.
      • Silence!  Get rid of the noise. Turn off the t.v., iPod, or computer.  Stop working or reading the book.  Switch off all the chatter and regain focus over your meals.
      • Location, location, location.  Designate a specific room or place where you plan to eat.  The dining room, kitchen table, or breakfast nook work great at home.  At work?  Leave your desk and head to the employee lounge or cafeteria.Do this, and you'll move yourself away from the noise.
      • Bring curiosity to the table.  My two-year old loves to ask lots of questions about the food we eat before she digs in. Her inquisitiveness shows me that she's exploring her food, and I love that! We can learn from it!  Taking a curious perspective helps to direct our attention to the present moment.  Ask yourself questions that focus on what you're aware of or what you can experience with the food on this occasion:  Check in with your body.  Am I hungry?  How hungry am I?  Will this satisfy me right now?  Use your senses to explore the sight, smell, or feel of food. 
      • Relax.  Just a few minutes of relaxation before a meal can create distance with all that mental clutter that we often bring to the table.  There are a variety of ways to do this.  Practice a few yoga poses (yep, I went there;)  In fact, some dietitians and therapists I know recommend this, especially for clients with eating disorders or gastrointestinal issues like IBS. Try prayer, thanksgiving, deep breathing exercises, or mental imagery to quiet the mind. My personal favorite is progressive relaxation.  I actually use this with my students prior to at least one exam.  Meditate. Rick Warren says that if you know how to worry, you know how to meditate. 
      Are you ready to give mindful eating a shot?  Start with one mindful eating strategy before one meal or snack this week, and discover the moment!

      Sunday, December 20, 2009

      Mindful Eating: The benefits

      Over the last few days I've been sifting through old digital photos in an effort to properly organize and store them for safekeeping. As I browse through these photos, I am instantly brought back to those captured moments. I catch myself smiling, laughing, or even tearing up depending on the pic.  Sometimes the memories are so vivid that I can almost hear, taste,or even smell certain things. That is what I love about photography...capturing a moment in that will never be again.

      So, why am I talking about old photographs when this post is about mindful eating?  Well, I believe that mindful eating involves capturing a moment in a way similar to photography.  With mindful eating, we completely plug into the moment physically and mentally while leaving the judgments, criticisms, and worries behind, and we simply enjoy it for what it is...not what we think it could or should be.

      In my last post, I presented four of my ideas of what mindful eating entails, and one of them was: "We direct our full attention to the immediate eating experience."  Many of us are so distracted by noise while we're eating.  Physical noise, such as the t.v., computer, or music, may be drowning out the experience.  Sometimes our mealtimes are inundated with psychological noise, such as "to-do lists", emotions, or an "inner critic" judging our eating. Regardless of the type of noise, if you are one whose meals are occupied by chatter, then you may not be getting the most out of your eating experiences.

      And this brings me to how eating mindfully will benefit you, me, US!  Yes, food fulfills our basic physiological need for nourishment. You know, energy and vitamins and minerals, oh my! But I believe that food and eating serves a deeper purpose. Why else do so many foods look, smell, and taste so darn good?  Why do certain components of food trigger the release "feel good" chemicals in the body?  Why do {some} of us enjoy preparing it?  Why does it bring us together for so many celebrations? It's part of the fabric that supports our physiological, psychological, social, and cultural well-being.  Unfortunately, I don't think many of us think of eating in this way. Instead, some of us see it as the "enemy", a chore, too complex or confusing, something that must be done, or something that we dread or fear.

      Mindful eating brings us to a more peaceful place with food. Wouldn't it be great if there were no difference between eating a piece of chocolate vs. eating an apple?  We aren't good if we eat the apple and bad if we eat the chocolate.  Mindful eating brings balance to our eating. It doesn't have to be the UFC (Ultimate Food Championship;) -- you know, US vs. FOOD.  On the contrary, mindful eating allows us the awareness to make thoughtful decisions about what or how much we're eating. No longer do we need to discontinue eating because the diet, calorie content, or something else told us to but rather we can stop because the experience is no longer pleasant.  Mindful eating allows us the pause needed to become more aware of hidden desires and cravings that we have for food, and in turn, this enlightenment may dissolve or help manage the cravings.  Above all, mindful eating helps us treat ourselves with more kindness!  We must eat to live, yes, but let's take it beyond that. Let's restore some of the pleasure that can be experienced through food and eating...without guilt, shame, judgment, or even indifference.

      Stay tuned for my next post on getting started.

      Sunday, December 13, 2009

      Mindful Eating: An Introduction

      "Wherever you are, be all there." ~Jim Elliot~

      Several years ago, two of my colleagues attended a conference on mindful eating.  Upon their return, they told me about an exercise they did while there.  They had to eat a raisin over the course of 7 minutes.  7 whole minutes!  During that time, they had to write down everything they noticed about the raisin...taste, texture, color, mouth feel, etc.  After doing this exercise, they revealed how eye-opening it was.  They both admitted that they'd never really noticed their food in this much detail.  I'm sure most of us don't.  Do we?  I was curious, so I tried this exercise at home.  I observed things about a raisin that I'd never recognized in the past.  It made the experience of eating the raisin more interesting and gratifying.  It may sound crazy, I know, but try it!

      This exercise made me reflect on the variety of ways that many of us are out of touch with our eating experiences.  Although taste has been identified as the most influential determinant of our food choices, one survey suggests that fewer Americans report having as much pleasure associated with eating food.  Yes, pleasure goes beyond taste alone, but this surprises me given that about 2/3 of American adults are overweight or obese.  Sometimes we're just going through the motions because the clock says it's time to eat or because we're distracted by something else while we're eating whether it be the television or a thought. Occasionally, we let external factors influence our eating:  a diet, package or plate size, a friend, colleague, or parent.  More of us are distancing ourselves from the eating experience by relying on someone else to prepare our food for us.  In fact, the average American eats out for about 4 meals/week and spends 42% of the food budget on dining out.  That is up from about 3% in the early 1900's!  As a lover of cooking, I personally find that when I prepare my own food at home that I am more satisfied with the eating experience.  Some of us think of eating as a chore. Many of my clients and students skip meals or rush through a meal because they're "too busy" or "it's too much work".  These behaviors can definitely rob one of the satisfaction that can be gained through eating.

      As a registered dietitian, one of my primary goals is to help people develop a more healthful and enjoyable relationship with food and eating.  So I'm going to spend the next few blog posts on the topic of mindful eating.  While a quick Google search will uncover many definitions for mindful eating, I will tell you what I think it involves.
      • We direct our full attention to the immediate eating experience.  
      • We connect our bodies and minds to facilitate more guided choices in eating.  
      • We explore various aspects of food from production and preparation to flavor and aroma.  
      • We savor the pleasure and nourishment eating offers without judgment.    
      So, are you ready to take your eating experience to the next level?  If so, stay tuned as I delve into the topic mindful eating and discuss strategies that will enhance your eating experience!

      Tuesday, December 1, 2009

      Mindless Eating Pitfall #5: Distractions, Distractions

      Mindless Eating Pitfall #5
      Many of us manage very tight schedules at home, school, and work, and when the holidays roll around, we take our already jam-packed scheduled and times it by...oh, 100! And I think we're all guilty of this mindless eating pitfall...eating while distracted.  We're eating while driving, working, watching t.v., reading, watching a movie, cooking, cleaning up after dinner, playing video games, or watching a sporting event.  I know someone reading this right now is probably eating!  Distracted eating can be one of the most destructive types of mindless eating.  Why?  We have so many opportunities to do it, and what and how much we consume during these episodes can wreak havoc on our diet...and our waistlines.

      There are three primary reasons distracted eating causes us to consume more food.  First of all, when our attention is diverted away from the act of eating, we are not as focused on how we feel as we're eating.  In these situations, it's very easy to override our natural satiety cues and become stuffed before we know it.  We also feel dissatisfied because we didn't really pay attention to what we ate, and therefore, we didn't get to enjoy it.  In some cases, we will eat things that don't even taste good.  A few years ago, Brian Wansink and his team gave movie attendees free medium or large-sized buckets of fresh or 14-day old stale popcorn.  Even those offered large buckets of stale popcorn ate 33.6% more than those given medium buckets of stale popcorn. Stale popcorn!  When we aren't focused on eating, we also might eat longer than we normally would.  If we're watching t.v., a movie, or a game, we might continue eating until the entertainment is over rather than when we feel physically satisfied.  Last but not least, it's a habit.  Is every person who eats popcorn at the movies actually hungry or have they simply developed a habit of eating popcorn at the movies?

      These may seem like minor infractions, but even 100 additional calories per day from distracted eating can lead to a little over 10 pounds of weight gain in one year! On a more positive note, the simple nixing of that 100 calories of mindless eating can lead to 10 pounds of weight loss in one year.   

      Strategies to Manage
      • Detach.  Distract yourself with t.v., video games, the newspaper, etc. before getting something to eat. This way you're not eating when you start. Mindless eating averted.   
      • Pre-portion your portion.  Serve yourself a smaller amount of food (minus refills) before engaging in another activity to reduce the impact of mindless eating.
      • Location, location, location!  Only eat while seated in a certain room or place.  At home? Have a seat at a distraction-free dining table.  At work? Head to the employees' lounge or cafeteria to eat. 
      • Switch it, change it, rearrange it.  Substitute a new habit for your old one (eating).  Instead of eating while watching television, do some...knitting?  Okay maybe not, but how about some stretching or crunches? Shake up your routine. Are you used to grabbing a coffee and muffin on the way to work in the morning? Take a new route to work. Before dishing yourself ice cream before your fave t.v. show comes on, munch on an apple or sip on a cup of hot tea instead? Consume food with your less dominant hand. When you do this, you actually need to focus more on what you're doing since you're not used to it, and you'll be able to monitor your intake better.
      For more on mindless eating, check out, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.
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