Millions of women forego their favourite foods for new year weight loss goals, but an eating technique used by Tibetan monks means you needn’t be one of them, writes Dr Evelyn Lewin

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What if I told you there is a way to enjoy food, gain multiple health benefits and still eat what you want, when you want? I know what you’re thinking: Another unachievable diet promise. Well, this isn’t about dieting. In fact, if you want to be healthier and love food again, it’s time to stop focusing solely on what you eat and start fine-tuning how you eat instead.


In comes ‘mindful eating’. This concept originated from Eastern philosophies where, according to Dr Naomi Crafti, psychologist at Eating Disorders Victoria (EDV), mindful eating has been practised for thousands of years. She says the movement first gained recognition in western society in the 1970s when Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist, travelled to Tibet and learned about this practice. Upon his return, he penned the book, Full Catastrophe Living.


Since then, with ambassadors like Goldie Hawn spruiking the benefits of mindfulness (her new book is called 10 Mindful Minutes), mindful eating has eased its way to the forefront of our minds.


So what is mindful eating, exactly? In a nutshell, it’s the opposite of mindless eating. And it’s good for you. Studies show people who eat mindfully have reduced anxiety, have more stable blood sugar levels, exercise greater control over food and experience improved mood. And the good news is, anyone can do it. All you need is a desire to kiss dieting goodbye and say hello to a healthier, more switched-on version of you. Ready?

 

1. Only eat when hungry
“You should always stop before taking any food or drink and just ask yourself a simple question: Am I hungry?” says Dr Crafti. To practise this, Jane Caulfield, a qualified therapist and founder of Freedom From Food – Mindful Eating Seminars, uses an imaginary hunger scale. On this scale, one is ‘starving’, and ten is ‘completely full’. To eat mindfully, Caulfield recommends staying between a four and seven.


“If you get really overfull, eight and above, what happens is you tend to get lethargic… and you turn to food for comfort and eat even more,” she says. Conversely, if you’re really hungry (three and below), you make unhealthy food choices.

 

2. Banish the guilt
Okay, so say you’re hungry. It’s important to be non-judgemental when choosing what to eat. Dr Crafti explains: “Eat what your body wants and needs, rather than what a diet program or a third party would tell you you should eat.”


So what if you feel like chocolate cake for lunch? “It’s okay to sometimes have desires for particular types of food that other people might consider to be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.”
The problem with denying your body what it really wants, explains Dr Crafti, is that you’ll end up feeling unsatisfied with your food choices.


Instead, she says to tell yourself it’s OK to have cake for lunch every now and then. “Rather than thinking that’s a bad thing and rather than feeling guilty – and the guilt often brings on a binge – you should say, ‘This is wonderful, I’m really enjoying it’.”

 

3. Engage in your meal
Now you know what you want to eat, it’s time to put together your meal. Plate up nicely and turn off all distractions, including TV, radio and laptops.


Once you sit down (and you should never eat while standing or doing another activity like driving), take a deep breath and focus on your upcoming meal. After all, mindful eating is all about being engaged.

 

4. Switch on your senses
As you start eating be mindful of your five senses. Don’t just taste your food; smell it, appreciate the sound of the crunch, look at how pretty it is and notice its texture.

 

5. Check if you’re full
During your meal give your body time to register how it feels before finishing your plate or going back for more. As Caulfield explains: “If you finish your meal and you’ve got that impulse for more, give yourself 20 minutes and then check in with your belly and see if you’re really hungry.”

 

A life changing experience
Caulfield knows all too well the downfalls of eating mindlessly. Six years ago her daughter admitted she no longer wanted her mother to accompany her to netball games. Weighing in at 110 kilos at the time, she says: “I realised that my kids were embarrassed of me.” Though devastated, this was the wake-up call she needed to turn her life around.


“I’d battled and struggled with weight all of my life, up and down, up and down, one of these yo-yo dieters,” Caulfield recalls. After trying numerous diets, where she would lose weight but never maintain it, she realised dieting wasn’t the answer. “I spent most of my life overweight and as I got older it got harder.”


She realised the problem with traditional diets is they don’t address the underlying issues. Since she started eating mindfully, Caulfield has lost a massive 40 kilos.


Of course, this weight loss didn’t happen overnight. “It took about 18 months for me to go through the process,” she says. “I sit around 72 kilos now and I’ve maintained that for five years.” She now enjoys eating again and her kids are no longer ashamed to be seen with her.

Gain control of your eating…and your life
However, Dr Crafti is quick to point out that mindful eating is not a weight loss strategy but rather “a way of being in control and enjoying food”.


She adds: “You don’t need to lose weight to reap the benefits of mindful eating.” Dr Crafti says many people gain benefits such as increased self-acceptance and improved cholesterol even if they don’t lose any weight.


“So many people, in particular women, go through their whole life seeing food as the enemy,” says Dr Crafti. “And mindful eating is really a way of being able to really enjoy food but also being healthy and feeling good about yourself.”

Common traps and how to avoid them>>

Case study: Christie Peterson


Normal day of eating:
10am – 2 muesli bars
2pm – 3 boiled eggs, coleslaw salad, 2 tbsp peanut butter
6.30pm – Big piece of baked barramundi, whole bunch pak choy with oyster sauce
7.30pm – 1 miso soup

Day of eating mindfully:
9am – 3-egg omelette and half a bag of spinach
12.30pm – 2 sushi rolls
3.30pm – 1 mango
7.30pm – Baked barramundi and whole bunch pak choy with oyster sauce

 

Overall impression:
“Thinking about eating and noticing textures forced me to appreciate my meal more and take my time. I am normally quite good with what I eat as I am a personal trainer, but I found mindful eating slowed my rate of consumption and increased my awareness of flavours and textures. It was a very positive experience.”

 

Resources:
For professional advice on mindful eating, including seminars, contact:
eatingdisorders.org.au
janecaulfield.com.au