Stop Dieting and Enjoy Food Again by Learning Mindful Eating

Jim Greenblatt
Written by Dr. James Greenblatt for ExpertBeacon
July 2014

Despite marketing and media hype, diets and diet products are ineffective and not sustainable in the long-term. Trying to control diet with a regimented food plan, counting calories, under-eating or skipping meals increases food cravings and obsessive thoughts about food. Addressing your body’s unique needs, optimizing nutritional status, and stabilizing blood sugar levels can help you establish appetite control.

While the medical community is still untangling the connection between stress, digestion, and appetite control, there is a growing awareness of the importance of how we eat, not just what we eat.

If you struggle with appetite control or food addiction, try an un-diet – slow down, tune in to your body’s natural signals and eat mindfully.

Do

Do practice mindful eating
Mindful eating is when you engage your full attention to the process of eating and you’re aware of all aspects of your eating — including smells, tastes, thoughts and feelings. When you eat mindlessly, you become unaware of the dangerous effects food can have on your emotional and physical health. By tuning all of your senses into the food you’re eating, meals become more enjoyable and satisfying.

The practice of mindfulness starts with increasing self-awareness and living deliberately. This involves turning off the automatic pilot that steers us mindlessly through life and focusing attention on our thoughts, sensations and feelings. Once we are no longer “zoned out,” we can begin to question knee-jerk decisions that eliminate choices.

As you eat more deliberately, you may be surprised to discover the many ways you rely on food to control your moods: for instance, you drink coffee when you’re tired, eat chocolate when you’re sad, raid the refrigerator when you’re bored. These are knee-jerk reactions to outside stressors that can cause more problems than they solve.

Mindfulness will help you uncover the automatic choices you’re accustomed to making and to realize it’s possible to make new and different choices.

Mindful eating involves not only focusing deliberately on what you eat—paying attention to its textures and colors, savoring its flavors—but on how you eat.

Do eat regular meals
Eating meals at irregular times and skipping meals throws the digestive system out of sync. Eating meals on a reasonable schedule regulates metabolism and keeps up the pace of the digestive process.

Also, keep in mind that the chemical reactions in the body that form the basis of metabolism are at peak function during the day.

Trying to manipulate what you eat by dieting, fasting, skipping meals, eliminating entire food groups, purging or other methods will cause an effect opposite from what you intend. Skipping meals or otherwise eating irregularly, even if only at breakfast, sends the body into a self-preservation mode that originally protected our species during famine.

The body automatically slows the calorie burning rate and releases extra insulin, lowering blood sugar and increasing hunger – specifically, a craving for sweets.

Your mind starts to play tricks on you when you are not getting enough food. You may find yourself constantly thinking about it; you may even dream about it. You may spend inordinate amounts of time clipping recipes, planning menus and cooking elaborate meals for others that you plan not to touch.

Isolation seems preferable, as it takes too much energy to be with others. This results in depression, anxiety and a loss of self-esteem.

As food deprivation creates multiple psychological and physiological disturbances, try not to go for much more than three hours without a meal or snack. As your eating schedule normalizes, the body’s signals of hunger and satiety should normalize as well.

Do slow down and relax
In his book The Slow Down Diet, Marc David highlights the role of stress in weight gain. Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates the functions of our internal organs, as well as our peripheral nervous system, which controls our fight-or-flight response.

The ANS is divided into the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. When we are stressed, our body’s sympathetic nervous system mediates the hormonal and neuronal stress response, activating our fight-or-flight response involuntarily. When we are relaxed, the parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite. Our heart rate slows down and our blood pressure decreases. The parasympathetic branch relaxes the body and activates digestion, while the sympathetic branch activates stress and suppresses digestion.

When one branch is activated, the other is not. In other words, the same part of the brain that switches on stress, switches off digestion.

A person under stress is not physiologically able to digest and assimilate food. As the stress response increases, digestion shuts down. When the relaxation response is dominant, digestion moves in full force.

Stress contributes to a legion of problems related to digestion and disordered eating.

– Decreased nutrient absorption
– Increased salt retention
– Increased cortisol, which is linked to weight gain and abdominal obesity
– Decreased thyroid activity, which slows down metabolism

Do take pleasure in eating
Many people who have grappled with disordered eating have lost the sense of eating as pleasure. If we deny ourselves the pleasure of food by restricting and taking the fun out of eating, the body responds by demanding pleasure and satisfaction. If we eat and enjoy it, the endorphin release produces pleasure and stimulates the mobilization of fat.

The greater the endorphin release in the digestive tract, the more blood and oxygen will be delivered there, leading to greater efficiency in digestion, assimilation and calorie burning.

Conversely, excess cortisol production from stress or anxiety desensitizes us to pleasure. We tend to overeat most when stressed or anxious or unaware.

Eating foods that are high in quality can contribute to your pleasure and high-quality foods generally have greater nutritional value. When you eat processed foods, the brain registers a nutrient deficit and signals us to eat more. No matter what food you eat, choose foods that are fresh, locally produced, and dense in nutrients.

Do follow the New Hope Model
While the New Hope Model was developed based on treatment of thousands of patients with eating disorders, this science-based, integrative medicine approach can help anyone who needs to control his or her appetite.

This customizable plan is designed to stabilize biochemical imbalances and break the addictive cycle of food bingeing. The New Hope Model focuses on: (1) identifying and correcting nutritional deficiencies that may be contributing to overeating, along with (2) prescribing medication and (3) instituting lifestyle changes that will help sustain a healthy diet.

Once you identify genetic, emotional and nutritional factors that may lead you to overeat, you can shift the blame for overeating from your character to your biochemistry, where it rightly belongs. From this foundation, you can develop lasting solutions to change unhealthy eating patterns.

Don’t

Do not follow the latest fad diet
Diets don’t work. Dieting disrupts natural hunger cues and destabilizes appetite in a way that causes significant stress and emotional strain.

The scientific community has proven that dieting is not a healthy way to live. Meticulous counting of calories, weighing of portions and rigid rules take the pleasure out of eating. Dieting leads to preoccupation with body image. The chronic deprivation from restrictive eating combined with binge eating severely disrupts metabolism, in addition to undermining the potential for happiness and psychological health.

You can learn to control your appetite and rewrite your life script free of diets. You can transform the functioning of your digestive system, limit foods that contribute to disordered eating, and eat mindfully. Unlike dieting, this is a pattern you can sustain for a lifetime.

Do not eat mindlessly
Looking at how we eat leads to self-awareness. Mindless eating is often only a part of mindless living. A hurried and stressful relationship with food often reflects a sense of disconnection from life itself. Acknowledging this sense of being out of touch can lead the way to recognizing negative thinking patterns or to tapping into your hunger for deeper, spiritual nourishment.

Each of us has a story that can illuminate our relationship with food. The story may have operated in our lives for a long time. In addition, we all hold the power to rewrite our stories, to trade old, ineffective patterns for healthier, happier ones.

Do not eat excessive amounts of unhealthy foods
Many foods contain high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) or monosodium glutamate (MSG), either of which can contribute to food addiction.

When you limit foods that contribute to disordered eating habits, you’re able to improve digestive function and rediscover the joy of eating. Your appetite will settle, and you will restore a positive relationship with food.

Do not eat when you’re not hungry
Many people eat even when they’re not hungry. They eat for comfort or use food as a distraction. As a result, they overeat and gain weight. When you feel the urge to eat, think about why you are feeling hungry and make sure you are not just thirsty or wanting to eat for some other reason.

Do not multitask while eating
Keep mealtime free of distractions. If you focus on balancing your checkbook or planning your strategy for an upcoming difficult meeting, you will be unable to enjoy what you’re eating and remain attuned to your body’s cues when you’ve had enough.

Summary

Instead of following strict diets, it is more helpful to stabilize appetite by putting an end to counting calories, skipping meals and intentionally undereating.

Slow down while you eat. When your heart rate and blood pressure decreases, digestion can operate at an optimal level. When you’re stressed, you’re physiologically unable to digest properly.

Optimize the way you eat mindfully. Consume regular meals and snacks, make mealtimes as relaxing as possible, rediscover the pleasure of eating and put eating in perspective.