Don't Worry About Fat, Sugar, or Dieting — Try Eating Mindfully Instead

How you eat is as important as what you eat.

Many years ago, while spending the summer at a yoga ashram, I adopted a practice called "conscious eating." The idea was to slow down by chewing at least 50 times per bite, eyes closed, no talking, focusing deeply. The hard part for me was keeping the food in my mouth without swallowing as it turned to liquid. When I returned to ordinary life, I gave it up. People thought it was weird, and I was getting tired of counting.

But now it might be worth another look. Numerous studies in recent years show that eating more slowly, and especially chewing thoroughly, offer an array of health benefits. 

For starters, thorough chewing can reduce the amount of food you eat, curb snacking between meals, prevent diabetes, and increase the flow of hormones that tell your brain you're full. By breaking food down into smaller pieces with the help of digestive enzymes in the saliva, chewing constitutes the first step in the process of digestion. Doing the heavy lifting in your mouth turns out to be more efficient and healthier in a variety of ways than letting your stomach do all the work.

"Mindful eating," as it's commonly called, has also been the subject of several books in recent years, such as: "Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food," "Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life," and "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think." 

Actually, it's nothing new. Over a century ago, Horace Fletcher, an American dietitian, claimed that chewing your food till it liquefies reduces how much you eat. (Fletcher recommended 100 chews per bite.) But his practice, known as Fletcherism, was perhaps too far ahead of the curve. When "The Great Masticator" died in 1919, calorie counting was all the rage; mindful eating, in contrast, is more geared toward how you eat than what you eat. But a 2011 study has since found support for Fletcher's ideas.

To learn the practice of mindful eating it helps to have guidance.

That's where someone like Dr. Lynn A. Rossy comes in. A health psychologist who teaches a 10-week mindful eating course called Eat for Life at the University of Missouri, as well as an online version, she has broken down the principles of mindful eating into BASICS, an acronym that serves as a checklist of things to be conscious of:

First, check your belly to see how hungry you are and breathe; then assess your food — is it right for you? Next, slow down: pause between bites and put down your utensils; investigate your hunger during the meal to notice when you are becoming full; chew a lot to start digestion in your mouth; and savor your food. It's supposed to be enjoyable, after all.

 This video explains it in more detail:

"Food has become confusing for people," says Dr. Rossy. Her aim is to help them find a more nourishing and sustainable way of relating to it, without dieting. "We know diets don't work," she says. Instead, it's about developing awareness. And for that to happen, some deconditioning is needed.

For instance, dispense with Mom's rule that you should always clean your plate. If you're attuned to your body and taking your time, you'll know when you're full and when to stop. (Research shows it takes about 20 minutes for your brain to register fullness.) One of her general rules, also advocated by Fletcher, is simply this: "Eat when you're hungry, don't eat when you're not hungry."

By being mindful, you start noticing things that weren't apparent before. One woman in Rossy's program realized she didn't like any of the food she ate. When you're truly paying attention, foods that were once staples might suddenly seem less appealing. "I like to say that I ruin fast food for everybody," Dr. Rossy says. "Eventually, you will taste it and you will go, 'Oh my gosh, what is that?'"

Another mindful eating guide is Marsha Hudnall, a nutritionist who runs Green Mountain at Fox Run, a retreat in Vermont that helps women lose weight and become healthier, without dieting.

"What we do is teach mindful eating to help women get back in touch with their internal cues that evolved to guide us to tell us when to eat, what to eat and how much to eat to really support our well-being," says Hudnall, who is also a board member of the Center for Mindful Eating. This starts with noticing those hunger cues, which if ignored can lead to poor food choices and overeating. (Undereating, incidentally, can also lead to overeating and weight gain.) 

"Many women who come to us are totally out of touch with their cues, so they don't even truly know when they're hungry," she says.

iStock
iStock

Espousing a gentle approach, Hudnall teaches women to find their own comfort point rather than follow a prescription (as I did). This way, they discover for themselves what's right for them through trial and error. Both she and Dr. Rossy steer clear of rules requiring a certain number of chews, like 50 or 100, which can get in the way. The goal is to do it thoroughly, though, so some counting may help as you learn to appreciate the difference between mindless chewing versus the mindful way.

The more you pay attention to what's happening in your body, from feelings of initial hunger to the point of satiety, the better you will get at slowing down and eating the amount that's right for your body in a way that's better for it.

"Your body can guide you in what it needs," she says. "All you need to do is listen, trust, and respond intelligently."

Cover image via iStock.