Overeating isn’t typically something you plan to do. It just happens, or at least that’s how it seems. You take one bite after another, until ooof… it’s like a beach ball suddenly inflated in your stomach.
Of course, your stomach expands gradually, not all at once. As it expands, your body registers incoming food, hunger subsides, and you start to feel full. But if you’re not paying attention, these signals are easy to miss. So you keep on eating.
Tune in to those subtle physical signals, and you’ll start to recognize when you’ve had enough. It’s a simple solution, but it does take a bit of practice.
In clinical settings, doctors use a technique called Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT) to teach people this skill. MB-EAT has been shown to help individuals with type 2 diabetes and binge-eating disorder to successfully change their eating habits and lose weight.
Luckily, you don’t need to visit a clinic to get the benefits of MB-EAT. Below are two exercises that you can do on your own, at any meal.
I. Hunger Awareness
Obviously, if you stop eating when you’re satisfied (and before you’re stuffed), you’ll avoid a bunch of excess calories. But it’s just as important to start eating when you’re mildly hungry, as opposed to very hungry or starving.
When we’re ravenous, we tend to devour a lot of food, fast, to quiet our growling stomach. Mild hunger, on the other hand, isn’t as urgent, so we’re able make more thoughtful choices at that stage.
The following hunger exercise will clue you in to how hungry you are when you start and stop eating, and the impact that has on how much you eat. Start with one meal a day for the next week. Try focusing on breakfast — you’re less likely get distracted by your busy day and forget to do it.
Practice hunger awareness:
Step 1: Rate your hunger at the start of the meal. Before you take a bite, check in with your hunger and give it a number. Are you 1) Starving, 2) Very hungry, 3) Mildly hungry, 4) Satisfied, 5) Full, or 6) Stuffed?
Step 2: Reflect on your hunger. Does your hunger level makes sense given what and when you last ate? If not, what other factors are at play? For example, are you cold, tired, stressed, sick, bored, distracted?
Step 3: Rate your hunger at the end of the meal. Are you 1) Starving, 2) Very hungry, 3) Mildly hungry, 4) Satisfied, 5) Full, or 6) Stuffed?
Step 4: Reflect on your hunger. Did you stop eating at a point that was comfortable or uncomfortable for you? In either case, what may have contributed to your decision to stop at that point?
If you find this exercise useful, take it further! Rate your hunger at both breakfast and lunch next week. The week after that, rate your hunger at all three meals.
II. Sensory Awareness
What does ‘satisfied’ even mean in terms of food? “No longer hungry” is the bare-minimum definition. Most of us want more than that. Mealtimes provide a welcome break from work or errands, and a chance to relax and enjoy ourselves.
Too often, we eat standing up, rush through a meal at our desk, or chew absentmindedly while staring at our phone, tablet, laptop, or TV. Were not just ignoring our hunger/fullness levels, we’re ignoring our food altogether.
When we eat while distracted, we can get full or even stuffed, yet nonetheless feel like we want something else — a second serving, a soda, a dessert.
We don’t actually need more food. What’s missing is our focus and attention.
Researchers have learned that slowing down the eating process and making it a mindful experience increases our satisfaction with smaller portions, and helps us make healthier choices in the first place.
Do the following exercise at one meal each day for a week. To make it easier, pick a meal that’s not too rushed and that you tend to eat alone. Put all electronic devices out of sight, serve your food on a plate or in a bowl, sit down to eat, then…
Practice sensory awareness:
As you bring each bite of food to your mouth, ask yourself:
• What are the colors in this bite of food?
• How does this bite of food smell?
• Does this bite of food look delicious or only okay to me?
• How hungry am I for this bite of food?
Once the bite of food is in your mouth, ask yourself:
• Is this bite of food cold, hot, somewhere in between?
• Is the texture of this bite of food primarily smooth or rough?
• Is the flavor of this bite of food primarily sweet, salty, sour, fatty?
• Am I chewing this bite of food slowly, quickly, or hardly at all?
• Does this bite of food taste delicious or only okay to me?
After you swallow, ask yourself:
• Can I still taste the food after I swallow?
• Am I hungry for another bite?
Repeat this 5 more times with each component of your meal.
A key part of sensory awareness is to make these observations without being judgmental or self-critical. Think like a scientist: You’re collecting information without trying to analyze it.
At first, you may not feel like anything is “happening.” But in a matter of days,your growing awareness will begin to impact what and how much you eat.
Gayle M. Timmerman, PhD, RN, Adama Brown, PhD. The Effect of a Mindful Restaurant Eating Intervention on Weight Management in Women. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2012 Jan; 44(1): 22–28.. doi: 10.1016/j.jneb.2011.03.143
Kristeller JL, Hallett CB. An exploratory study of a meditation-based intervention for binge eating disorder. J Health Psychol. 1999;4(3):357-363. doi: 10.1177/135910539900400305.
Kristeller JL, Wolever RQ. Mindfulness-based eating awareness training for treating binge eating disorder: the conceptual foundation. Eat Disord. 2011;19(1):49-61. doi 10.1080/10640266.2011.533605.
Today’s Dietitian. Mindful Eating — Studies Show This Concept Can Help Clients Lose Weight and Better Manage Chronic Disease. http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/030413p42.shtml Published March 2014. Accessed June 7, 2018.