Mindful eating: Tuning in for pleasure and health

When I was growing up, my mother would praise us for being “President of the Clean Plate Club.” Since she was feeding seven children, I’m sure that it was challenging to come up with meals night after night that didn’t elicit a complaint from at least one of us. Over the many years that I’ve been working in the field of weight management, I don’t know that I’ve ever met someone for whom that childhood admonishment to eat everything on the plate didn’t resonate. We were all reminded that there were children starving in various parts of the world, so we should appreciate that we were lucky enough to have ready access to good food and eat all of it.

I hate throwing away food, and I try to be careful about how much I serve myself so that I minimize waste. But is eating everything on your plate just because it’s there really the best way to approach a meal? Rather than just eating in response to the presence of food on the plate, maybe we can learn to approach eating with a different sense of awareness that would lead to greater satisfaction with modest portions.

When I recently searched for books on Amazon.com using the keyword “mindfulness,” it yielded 3,873 hits. The topic of mindfulness has been popular in recent years as people learn about the practice of consciously staying in the present moment with a greater sense of awareness. But what does mindfulness really mean when we are applying it to eating?

Jean Kristeller, PhD, is a psychologist and co-founder of The Center for Mindful Eating. She developed an intervention called Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT) that combines mindful-eating exercises such as paying closer attention to hunger and fullness, eating more slowly, tuning into the taste of food and really savoring it, and noticing cues other than hunger that tend to trigger eating, such as negative emotions, boredom or sensory cues like the aroma of a favorite food.

I participated in a five-day training program with Dr. Kristeller about four years ago, during which our group of about 20 health professionals spent lots of time in guided mindfulness practice and then learned how to apply it to eating habits. We were at a very bare-bones retreat center — no TV, no radio, no phones — but we had the luxury of a chef who fixed us three wonderful meals each day. There was an abundance of healthy foods, including desserts. This was an opportunity for me to learn in an intensive way the elements of mindfulness that can work to influence our eating habits for the better.

So many people I meet feel that their eating is “out of control.” We are surrounded by easily accessible foods that are high in the dangerous trio of fat, salt and sugar. We eat in the car as we rush from one obligation to another. We eat in front of the TV as we try to relax at the end of the day. We grab a fast food lunch to eat our computer at work. Many of us become what I call “autopilot eaters,” barely noticing that we are even eating, let alone really paying attention to how it tastes and whether or not we’ve had enough (or maybe too much).

Whether it’s in my work with patients at our Weight Management Center, working with an individual who has dietary concerns related to diabetes or heart disease, or striving to maintain a healthy diet for myself while still satisfying my passion for exploring wonderful restaurants, the application of a mindful approach to food has been a powerful tool. It’s one of those things that can really lead to some “lightbulb moments” for people as they begin to recognize entrenched patterns that are sabotaging their efforts to stay healthy and achieve or maintain a weight that minimizes the risk of many health problems.

The basic elements of mindful eating are awareness of hunger and what that feels like in the body, awareness of satiety, or what it feels like when you’ve eaten enough, and the practice of slowing down one’s eating in order to truly notice the flavors and sensory experiences associated with each bite of food. There are no “forbidden” foods (unless it’s due to allergies or a medical reason). Mastering mindful eating results in finding greater satisfaction in the quality of food, rather than the quantity. It allows us to make a conscious decision to stop eating — even if there’s still food left on the plate. Sorry, Mom.

Dr. Keenan will present “Making Peace with Food” at Savoring Summer, a free lecture and demonstration on June 6th from 6-7:30 PM at Christiana Care’s Eugene du Pont Preventive Medicine & Rehabilitation Institute.