Low-fat, low-carb and calorie counting – nothing seems to shift the excess pounds. So is mindless eating the real reason why you can’t lose weight?
By Liz Hollis
A sandwich wolfed down while you work at your desk. A Friday-night take-away eaten on your lap in front of the television. A packet of crisps munched quickly as you drive along the motorway at high speed. Life is filled with opportunities to eat without full awareness.
In a world of distractions – social media, screens, phones and multi-tasking – our culture encourages us to focus on everything but the taste, smell and quality of our food. Meanwhile, the calories keep slipping down our throat and the extra pounds pile on.
Years of calorie-counting and trying to swap to healthier options has failed to significantly reduce the nation’s collective waistline. Now obesity experts think the rise of what they call “mindless eating” may be the real reason we are finding it so hard to stay in shape.
Indeed, new research is beginning to reveal that how we eat may be more important than what we eat. No amount of low-calorie or low-fat foods will ever help us lose weight while we are swallowing our food without paying it enough attention.
Dr Susan Albers, a psychologist and author of Eating Mindfully, says: ‘We always seem to be multi-tasking in every area of life and food is no exception. So we automatically think that we’ll catch up with emails, read or check texts while we are eating. It’s a way of trying to fit more into the day. But it’s making us fat and it’s making us have an unhealthy relationship with food – or even no relationship at all as we just shovel it in.’
A study by Dr Brian Wansink, from Cornell University, has exposed just how much damage mindless eating can do to our body mass index in the long term. His research found that we have a ‘mindless margin’ – or an ability to easily eat up to an extra 100 calories without even noticing. Do this at every meal and you’ll pile on several pounds by the end of the year.
“Without realising it, we are really sensitive to external cues and distractions and they can make us eat more than we need. Dining with friends, watching television, reading the newspaper – anything that takes your concentration away from your food can boost your calorie intake,’ says Dr Wansink.
A recent experiment by the nutrition and behaviour unit at the school of experimental psychology at the University of Bristol revealed that those who ate while distracted (for example, by playing a video game) felt less full after lunch. Within half an hour of finishing their main meal they also ate twice as many snacks as the non-distracted participants. The paper concluded that those who had been playing the computer game could not even remember the food items they had eaten.
Meanwhile, a poll by the Kallo Food Academy shows that 87% of UK adults never have a lunch break without some sort of distraction and 40% of us now desk dine, with half not even able to look away from their work while eating. More than two-thirds of adults say they regularly eat in front of the television, while nearly one in five are digitally distracted, surfing the internet or using social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter. Fewer than one in three sit at the dining table to enjoy an evening meal without distraction.
Dr Wansink, who is also the author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, says we are easily lulled into eating too much. All our senses bias our taste and this in turn influences how much we eat. In more than 200 experiments in his lab over 20 years he has used hidden cameras and two-way mirrors to track just how subtle changes in the environment trigger overeating.
Eating by candlelight, dining in company, choosing bigger plates, pouring drink into tall glasses rather than wide glasses and eating while we listen to loud music all encourage overeating.
We can easily become dislocated from important internal body cues that tell us we are full. It also seems the bigger the nation’s obesity crisis, the less in touch its citizens are with their food senses and natural feelings of fullness.
‘When we asked 150 Parisiens how they know their meal is over they say they ’feel full and the food no longer tastes good’- all internal cues,’ says Dr Wansink. ‘However, when we asked 150 people from Chicago they said ‘everybody else was done and their plate was empty’ – all external cues.’
A new way of eating
Dietitians now recognise that to shed unwanted weight we need to change our attitude to eating not just change what we eat. For successful weight loss that stays off for the rest of your life, they recommend ‘mindful eating’ where you cherish what’s on your plate and take time to savour every mouthful.
With roots in ancient Eastern Zen wisdom that advocates an intense concentration on the present, your body and your surroundings, mindful eating helps you focus better on what you are forking into your mouth.
The theory is that by paying more attention, you’ll eventually opt for healthier choices and learn to stop eating when you feel full. Weight loss and healthy eating will naturally follow. As you begin to contemplate the origins and content of your plate, you are more likely to want to eat a freshly prepared tasty meal than a greasy calorie-laden takeaway.
Dr Gaynor Bussell, a registered dietitian and independent spokesperson for Kallo Food Academy which is launching a mindful-eating programme, is already using these techniques in her NHS nutrition clinics.
‘It’s a powerful technique and I’ve seen significant results. It puts control back in your hands and encourages you to eat in an observant, passive, non-judgmental way. You think about what you are eating, where it came from and what it tastes like,’ she says.
London-based Miriam McCulloch, age 24, says mindful eating has ‘transformed her life.’ It helps her eat more healthily and stay in the best possible shape. She says mindful eating is a way of life rather than a quick-fix diet. “Meal times are a big deal to me, I always eat at the table. In the morning I love to get up a bit earlier to make my porridge and sit at the kitchen table with no distractions, enjoying every mouthful.”
“At lunchtime I always take time away from my desk and go to the park for some peace and quiet, even if I’m busy as when I come back I feel refreshed for the afternoon. Rather than a chore, I find cooking and preparing food in the evening therapeutic.”
”I no longer use food as a ‘treat’ and instead only eat what my body needs and when I need it. When you eat mindfully, you eat a lot more slowly, enjoying and feeling grateful for every mouthful.”
Dr Susan Albers has seen these type of mindful eating techniques transform many of her patient’s lives and help them return to normal weight. ‘What we are also finding is that it can help with any type of disordered eating, whether it’s obesity or bulimia and anorexia,’ she says.
She says the aim is to reduce multi-tasking and focus on food alone. ‘When you do this you realise we eat a lot of mediocre food, a lot of food that doesn’t taste that great. When you give it more attention you gradually start to improve your diet and also you enjoy your food more.’
Mindful eating isn’t just for those with hours to spare contemplating the taste of a strawberry either. Even those with hectic lives and deadlines can eat more mindfully.
‘All I ask is that people do exactly as they are doing now, but with more concentration on the food itself. And rather than multi-tasking, if you are busy, just find a couple of minutes to eat your snack or meal mindfully. Always make sure that you focus completely on the first couple of mouthfuls at least.’
Those who eat in this way find they become non-judgmental, compassionate and above all aware of the taste, texture and process of eating.
‘Being “mindful” means knowing exactly how your body feels at all times. You are so closely in touch with what is going on inside that you know the exact moment you are satisfied rather than stuffed or starving by learning the why, what, when and how you eat,’ explains Dr Albers.
Five-day mindful-eating plan
Adopt a new set of eating skills each day for five days. ‘It takes about 20 to 30 attempts at a new habit to rewire the brain for a permanent change,’ says Gaynor Bussell, independent spokesperson for the Kallo Food Academy. ‘So persist and don’t beat yourself up if your fall off the rails and eat mindlessly. Just think carefully about what’s happened and why.’
Day one Allow at least 20 minutes for each meal where you give food your full attention without distractions. Take pleasure in planning meals and snacks; gather ingredients in advance to resist eating whatever is around.
Day two Enjoy preparing food. ‘Make it a creative art, even if it’s just putting a topping on some rice cakes,’ says Gaynor. Eat before you get utterly ravenous and gorge everything in sight.
Day three Make eating an aesthetic experience. For example, use a napkin, place mat, your best crockery (but keep plate small). Really notice each mouthful as you eat; relax, chew thoroughly and be aware of the flavour and texture of your food.
Day four Keep your mind on the food, don’t let it wander to other subjects. Consider how it arrived on your plate and how you prepared it. Connect with the food and think about how it is nourishing your body and mind.
Day five Notice how full you feel and stop when you feel pleasantly satisfied not stuffed. After eating note that the meal is over and clear away. ‘Don’t consider this a chore but just the completion of the meal. Think how nice the food was and how you feel,’ says Gaynor.
Five tips for mindful eating
- Help yourself Be aware of how environmental cues affect your eating. Swap to slightly smaller plates, but not too tiny or you’ll keep refilling, keep treats out of reach instead of by your desk, use tall rather than wide glasses to drink out of. Stay aware that distractions, candlelight, company and fast music will encourage you to eat more.
- Present Stay in the present while eating. Discard automatic eating and avoid thinking about past or future events. Stay in the moment without judging.
- Senses Bring all your senses to play while eating. Breathe in the aroma of cherries or garlic bread. Notice the texture and flavour of cheese on your tongue. Feel the smoothness of the apple as you eat it.
- Priority Make eating a priority. Do nothing but eat during a meal
- How hungry? Mindfully check out hungry you are before eating and while eating.
- Tackle negative thoughts Be aware how negative thoughts can trigger overeating