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Mindful Eating Can Be A Food Lover’s Secret to Automatic Weight Loss, Say Psychologists

Taking time to savor your food not only will make you happier — it will help to slim effortlessly

If you’re like us, you’ve tried everything to shed unwanted pounds, from calorie restriction to the hot diet trend of the week to cutting out entire food groups (bread, we miss you and we love you). All to no avail. While these weight-loss fads may look different, they have one thing in common: deprivation. But what if the key isn’t so much about what you eat, but how you eat? And what if self-blame is the only real “junk food” you should avoid filling up on, while self-compassion is the trick to long-term slimming? The key? Mindful eating for weight loss. Here’s how to do it!

What is mindful eating?

Like the ancient Buddhist tradition of mindfulness that inspired this practice, mindful eating simply means slowing down and using all your senses to savor the moment — and in this case, your meal — while letting distracting or self-critical thoughts come and go without judgement. Indeed, this simple stress-melting strategy is shown to curb cravings, decrease emotional eating and even boost body satisfaction. And a study in The Journal of Nutrition and Education Behavior showed that women who adopted mindful eating ate 300 fewer calories a day.

“Mindful eating is not a diet — there are no menus or recipes,” explains Susan Albers, PsyD, clinical psychologist at the renowned Cleveland Clinic and bestselling author of Eating Mindfully and 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food. Better yet, there are no restrictive “food laws” that make you feel like a criminal if you break them. “We often want to make eating very rules-based: ‘don’t eat sugar, don’t eat bread…’ and the list goes on,” says Albers. “But rules don’t work and actually backfire by making us feel guilty and deprived, which can lead to binge eating.” For more no-diet ways to slim, check out these stories on hypnosis for weight loss and ear seeds for weight loss)

Instead, she counsels that we need to listen to our own internal cues to make decisions about what to eat — and that’s what mindful eating does for us. “Even more important than boosting weight loss is that it truly helps us change the underlying habits that are necessary to improve our eating habits in a lasting way.” Just read on for simple, soothing ways to reset your relationship with food and relax your way to your weight loss goals.

Start with 5 easy ‘S’s’ of mindful eating for weight loss

From snacking while binge watching TV to eating while texting, we all have mindless munching habits, especially these days when just about everything in life — from work to-dos to family obligations — is served up with a heaping side of stress. Thankfully, Albers promises we can take back control with a few mindful eating “tools” she calls the 5 S’s:

1. SIT down while you dine

We’re all in such a rush these days, it’s easy to stand right in front of the pantry and eat out of it or lean over the sink and munch. “But studies show you’ll enjoy food more and eat less when you give eating your full attention,” says Albers, whose munching motto is: “Only eat off your feet.” It’s a surefire way to slim, since a recent study in the Journal of Health Psychology showed that we eat 5% more when standing and eating. “When you only dine at a table, you’re specifying a place where you will give eating all your attention — in psychology, we call this ‘localizing’ a behavior. Once you sit down, it’s automatically time to turn your awareness on full blast and savor your meal.”  

2. SLOWLY chew

Just putting on the breaks while you eat gives your brain a chance to catch up to your stomach and send out satiety signals that you’re full, helping you effortlessly curb eating. In fact, a study in Scientific Reports shows that people who chewed their food for 30 seconds burned more calories during digestion than those who ate faster. “One way to slow down is to eat with your nondominant hand,” says Albers. Another easy way to slow down is to choose weightier silverware: The sensation of a heavier fork in your hand helps literally anchor you to the moment. Research in the journal Flavour shows heavier forks slow down eaters and increase their enjoyment of food. “And when you enjoy food, you can have less while still feeling satisfied,” explains Albers. “My rule of thumb is to start a meal by intentionally reminding yourself to eat slowly. It’s a bit like checking the speed limit in your car: decide what your pace will be, and you’ll feel more in control.”

3. SMILE between bites 

Can a grin help you cut calories? Yes! “Smiling creates a brief pause between your current bite and the next one,” says Albers. “During that gap, ask yourself if you’re satisfied, not full — satisfied is what you’re aiming for.” Indeed, a study in Appetite shows smiling curbs cravings by making you happier – and joy is the antidote to emotional eating. “Your body can’t distinguish between a real and a fake smile,” adds Albers. “Whenever those facial muscles are engaged, it sends messages to your brain that you’re happy, triggering the release of serotonin, a feel-good chemical which helps boost mindful eating.”

4. SAVOR food with this ‘taste trick’

fancy chocolates on a plate: mindful eating for weight loss
Mint Images/Getty Images

Enjoy every bite more and eat mindfully with the acronym TASTE: texture, aroma, sense, tune and enjoy, advises Albers. “First, pay attention to the texture — is it crunchy, soft, creamy? Then deeply inhale its aroma and sense the sound and spices: Is it sizzling or peppery?” Not that we’re playing favorites when it comes to our five senses, but you may be surprised just how big a role sound plays in mindful eating: A Brigham Young University study found that snackers who focused on hearing the sound of their own eating — chewing,­ chomping, crunching — consumed nearly 33% fewer calories without even trying. 

“One of the most powerful exercises I do with my clients is the chocolate kiss exercise,” says Albers. (You can do it with any wrapped chocolate.) “Before they open the Hershey’s Kiss, they’re instructed to listen to the crinkle of the foil and notice the sound as they chew the chocolate. It’s an experience they often say they will never forget, and it makes them much more mindful of how many Kisses they’re eating in the future.”

Next, tune into the temperature of your food — is it hot, cold, warm? Last, but certainty not least: enjoy. “Don’t just eat, taste,” encourages Albers. Whether you’re having a solo meal after a long day or breaking bread with friends and family, eating is your time to excite your senses and give your body and spirit the subsentence you deserve.

5. SHUT off devices

A study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that people who have their phones at the table use them for 11% of the mealtime, and this leads to mindless eating. “Those who used their phones rated the meal less pleasurable and were distracted while they ate,” says Albers. To help you enjoy both your meal and quality time with your dining companions, she advises creating a “drop box” in your home by putting out a basket for family and guests to stash their phones at mealtimes.

More easy habits for mindful eating for weight loss

From turning up the lights to choosing a certain color plate, a few simple tweaks to your surroundings can help you eat more mindfully and lose weight easily:

Turn on the lights

Sticking to mindful eating could be as simple as turning up the lights, suggest investigators in the Journal of Marketing Research. In a survey of 160 restaurant patrons, those dining in brightly lit rooms were 24% more likely to choose nutritious menu items like vegetables. “This is because the light makes you more attentive to looking at the colors and seeing what you’re consuming,” Albers explains. “We’re attracted to the vivid colors of veggies and eat with our eyes first.”

Choose the *red* plate special

fruit and waffles on a red plate
Natalia Ganelin/Getty Images

“This is one of my secret tips,” reveals Albers. “Studies have shown that the color red helps us slow down when we eat because red is encoded in our brains to automatically stop when we see it — think about stopping at a red light; we don’t have to tell ourselves to do so.” She suggests using red jars, baggies and stickers on snacks to remind you to slow down. “You can do the opposite with green as a ‘go’ reminder — just place healthy foods in green baggies and bowls and use green stickers on boxes of healthy snacks in your pantry.”

Snap a pic of your plate

woman taking a photo of her food: mindful eating for weight loss
RicardoImagen/Getty Images

Tracking what you’ve eaten throughout the day with an app or jotting it down in a journal is proven to help boost mindfulness and speed weight loss. But there’s an even easier way to spark this all-important awareness, promises Albers. “Research indicates that taking a quick snapshot of what you eat with your phone helps you become more mindful of what you’ve consumed during the day.” Don’t have your phone handy? You can always use the other “computer” you keep with you at all times: your brain, and more specifically, your power of recall. Simply visualizing what you ate for lunch may help you eat less at dinner. So say British scientists, who reviewed 24 studies and found that people who were more mindful about what they consumed at one meal ate less at the next.

Show yourself compassion

The ultimate aim of mindful eating is to help you become more aware of your emotions and to listen to your needs without self-criticism. “The reason so many diets fail is that they focus on the food, not the feelings,” says Albers. “75% of our eating has nothing to do with physical hunger — we eat because we’re bored, anxious, angry or stressed. When we start to pay attention to managing the feelings than that drive us to eat, we begin to see real changes.” She encourages repeating empathetic, compassionate messages to yourself that you’re doing your best, and reminding yourself that you deserve to slow down and enjoy your food. After all, mindful eating is all about taking time for you.

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

For more on how mindfulness can improve your life and how to do it:

4 Ways Practicing Mindfulness Benefits Your Health

This 5-Minute Mindfulness Meditation Will Break Your Worry Cycle

How Mindfulness Meditation Can Help You Sleep

6 Science-Backed Health Benefits of Mindfulness

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