"Don't Just Hork it Down!" Use "Mindful Eating" to Improve Your Nutrition

"Don't just hork it down"

My kids grew up watching animated movies, and there was a time as a young parent where I think I went several years without watching an actual live action film. To me, Pixar movies are the best. The quote above comes from a great scene in Ratatouille where Remy, the main character, teaches his brother to love food. As his brother tosses a wad of cheese down his gullet, he's scolded, "No, no, no...don't just hork it down."

Remy then proceeds to teach his brother how to eat carefully, enjoying the experience. Sometimes I try to remember this scene, especially when I get my hands on one of those foods (e.g. wife's cinnamon rolls - only allowed to eat on Christmas Day) where I find it hard to control the urge to race through the experience of eating.

I like to believe Remy is an early practitioner of mindful eating.

Mindful Eating

Mindfulness is a concept which has been gaining in popularity over the last decade. In particular, mindfulness meditation is espoused by many as helpful to improve productivity and general well-being. Studies in people with diabetes have shown that mindfulness approaches have been beneficial to reduce depressive symptoms and anxiety, diabetes-related stress, and improve well-being and health-related quality of life.

Mindfulness can be defined as "a capacity for enhanced and sustained moment-to-moment awareness of one's own mental and emotional state and being, in the context of one's own immediate environment." In a very general way I like to think of it as cultivating an awareness or understanding of why you are doing what you are doing. Mindful eating involves becoming aware of emotions, sensations, and external cues that prompt you to eat, your experience and enjoyment of food in the moment, and thoughts or judgments you might experience before, during, or after eating.

One way to conceptualize how to use mindfulness for your health would be to say:

  • Notice your behavior. In particular, notice when you are especially successful following your health plan or when you struggle ("Why did I just eat 4 brownies?"). See if you identify any patterns.
  • So you can understand yourself better. Pay attention to particular cues - like location, time of day, the people you are with, emotional states, what you were doing right beforehand - to understand what is motivating your actions. If you are trying to lose weight, you wouldn't choose to eat 4 brownies, so what in that moment was driving your action? "I notice I often make poor choices when I'm with my brother" or "I notice I tend to overeat when I'm feeling stress."
  • And use this information to improve your chance of success. When you start to notice your behavior and identify potential patterns, you can try taking steps to navigate tough situations better in the future. "I notice when I'm with my big brother I tend to just follow along with him rather than voicing my own preferences. That's how we've always been. He's my big brother. Next time we meet I'm going to suggest we do something together that does not focus on food." "When I'm stressed I eat even though I'm not even hungry. I'm going to pay attention to my stress level, especially after work, and I'm going to try treating myself to a hot bath followed by a cup of herbal tea and a good book to see if that will help me reduce stress."

Is Mindful Eating Useful?

Although studies on the benefit of mindful eating are mixed, my interpretation is that the approach is worthy of consideration. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism caught my attention, as it found that mindfulness-based eating strategies not only helped people to lose weight (6.5 pounds over 6 months, vs. 0.5 pounds in the control group), but also improved people's self-esteem and confidence in self-management of body weight. Who doesn't want more confidence and self-esteem?

A sample of mindful eating for you

The classic mindful eating is called the "raisin exercise" but can be done with any food you enjoy (chocolate is a favorite). A simple version would proceed like this:

  1. Select a small piece or bite sized portion of your food.
  2. Take a moment to hold the food, feeling its weight. Notice the texture and firmness.
  3. Notice the appearance. Take it in like you've never seen it before.
  4. Bring it to your nose and smell it. Focus on the aroma. Notice any memories that might arise.
  5. Now put it in your mouth, but wait before chewing. Focus on the flavor and texture as you move it from side to side in your mouth or rotate it with your tongue.
  6. After 10 seconds, chew your bite. Notice how the flavor changes, and if your enjoyment increases or decreases. How does the flavor change over time?
  7. Swallow the bite, feeling the sensation of swallowing and the food passing to your stomach.
  8. Take a moment at the end to think about the experience and how it differs from how you normally eat. What did you enjoy? What surprised you?

If you find the concept of mindful eating interesting or wish to explore more, please check out this article, especially tables 3 and 4, which will share concepts and resources you can use to apply in your own situation.

Mindful eating is one tool you can use to help understand and gain  control over the many forces that drive us to eat.


Dr. Topher Fox


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