DEAR DOCTOR K: I recently heard someone discuss “mindful eating” as a weight-loss strategy. Could that help me lose weight?
DEAR READER: Does this sound familiar? You’re at your computer, facing a wall of emails. After composing a reply, you hit “send” and reach for the bulging turkey wrap on your desk, and then the bag of chips, washed down by a soda (sugar-free, or not). You continue to eat, chewing while glancing at the screen. Before you know it, you’ve finished lunch without even noticing it. That’s not mindful eating.
Mindful eating is a slower, more thoughtful way of eating. It’s based on the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, which involves being fully aware of what is happening within and around you at the moment. A small yet growing body of research suggests that mindful eating could help with weight problems and aid people in making more healthful food choices.
Applied to eating, mindfulness includes noticing the colors, smells, flavors and textures of food. It involves chewing slowly and getting rid of distractions such as TV or reading — or email.
Mindfulness helps you recognize the difference between eating because you’re hungry and eating because you’re sad or bored. It introduces a “moment of choice” between the urge to eat and actually eating. It gives you the chance to ask yourself, “Am I really hungry?” and to make the decision to do something else, like reading or taking a walk, if you’re not. By slowing down your meals, mindful eating also gives you the opportunity to recognize that you’re full before you’ve overeaten.
That’s particularly important. About 15 to 20 minutes after you start to eat, your body starts to send signals to your brain that you’re full — but only after 15 to 20 minutes, no matter how large the meal. And a person can easily eat a 3,000-calorie meal in 15 to 20 minutes. So deliberately making a meal go slowly, and being willing to quit when you feel full and save the leftovers, is a potent aid to weight loss.
If you want to give mindful eating a try, start gradually. Eat one meal a day or week in a slower, more attentive manner. Here are some tips that may help you get started:
— Set your kitchen timer for 20 minutes. Take that time to eat a normal-sized meal.
— Try eating with your non-dominant hand. If you’re a righty, hold your fork in your left hand.
— Use chopsticks if you don’t normally use them.
— Eat silently for five minutes. Think about what it took to produce that meal, from the sun’s rays to the farmer to the grocer to the cook.
— Take small bites and chew well.
Eating healthy is not just about maintaining a healthy weight. The kind of calories, as well as the number of calories, matter. I hope some of these tips will help you limit the number of calories. In other columns, I’ll describe the healthiest calories.
Dr. Anthony L. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.