No doubt you or someone in your life has at some point declared, “I’m on a ‘see food’ diet. I see food and I eat it!” It’s a joke as old as the hills, more apt to generate groans than laughs.
But that clunker of a quip sadly encapsulates the way most people eat, says Barbara Schmidt, Norwalk Hospital’s nutrition lifestyle program specialist. They see food, eat it and don’t think about the reasons why, she says.
“People are overweight because they’re eating too much,” Schmidt says. “But they’re eating too much for what reasons? We need to know what the triggers are.”
She and others throughout the region are proponents of mindful eating — paying attention to what one eats and why. Not only do experts believe this is a healthier approach, but recent research has shown it could aid in weight loss. A study published in the October issue of the scientific journal Obesity showed participants who followed acceptance-based behavioral therapy lost 13.3 percent of their initial weight one year into the study.
Acceptance-based behavioral therapy emphasizes a mindful approach to eating, including awareness of what emotional cues affect participants’ food choices. About 190 people who were overweight or obese participated in the study and were randomly assigned either the mindful approach or standard behavioral therapies for weight loss. The group using standard treatment lost 9.8 percent of their initial weight in the first year.
Though the study was released this year, Schmidt and other experts say they have advocated mindful eating for much longer. Schmidt has used the discipline for more than 25 years. She says many times people are motivated to eat by emotional, not physical, impulses. “It’s not that they’re physically hungry,” Schmidt says. “It’s that other things in their environment are telling them to go eat.”
Danielle Magnus, a registered dietitian and nutritionist at Greenwich Hospital’s Center for Behavioral and Nutritional Health, agrees. “Mindful eating isn’t just about paying attention to what you eat,” she says. “You should also be aware of what antecedents may occur with any problem eating patterns. (For instance), if you find that every day, you reach for a candy bar at 4 p.m., try to figure out why.”
The reason could be something physical, such as low blood sugar, Magnus says. Or it could be something emotional, such as stress or anxiety.
Schmidt says in her work, which includes running Norwalk Hospital’s weight-loss program, Transformations, she tries to get people to realize why they’re eating the way they do through mindfulness homework assignments. “I give them goals for the week,” she says. “One may be not to do anything else while eating, just focus on the food.”
Other assignments include asking clients to eat only every three to four hours, instead of eating on impulse. This helps train people to only eat when they’re hungry.
Christina Conte, outpatient dietitian at Bridgeport Hospital, says she encourages techniques that force people to focus on when, why and what they eat. These include keeping a food diary or putting their meals on a smaller plate to give people a better idea of how much they’re eating. “This helps patients heighten their awareness,” she says.
We’re coming up on the busy holiday season, when many of us eat too much due to an abundance of food and a shortage of time. The experts say mindfulness can help keep us from overindulging during this stressful time.
“With the holidays, it’s very important to plan and schedule what you’re going to eat,” Schmidt says. “If you skip meals all day, then go to a party, that’s when you’re going to overeat.”
Concentrating on high-fiber foods, which are more filling and take longer to digest than sugary snacks, is usually a good idea, Schmidt says.
Magnus agrees planning is key.
“Take some time in the morning to plan out your day, and what your snacks and meals are going to look like,” she says. She even trotted out another cliche, almost on the level of the “see food” diet. “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” Magnus says.
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