I have been to many nutrition conferences over the years, and now I am learning how to go about treating obesity with behavior change at UC San Diego’s Center for Healthy Eating and Activity Research. It is striking to me how often mindfulness comes up. Considering how much time we spend preoccupied with food and eating, you would think we would spend more time experiencing our food, but many of us mindlessly scarf down our meals as we work, study, drive, or watch tv. We dont even think about whether we are hungry. A dramatic example of this is the incredible work of researcher from Cornell named Bryan Wansink whose experiments have gotten a lot of attention. He keeps refilling people’s bowls of soup through a hole on the bottom – literally, a bottomless bowl of soup. People who eat from the bottomless bowls eat FOUR times the food as those who get their food in a regular bowl. To me, this is signalling that it is possible we dont always eat in response to hunger. Heres the video:
Eating when you are hungry can be very powerful, and trying to actually consciously experience the food as you are eating it may be even more powerful. Here are a couple of simple ways to get you to do just that.
- Do the Hershey’s Kiss Meditation: the Hersheys Kiss Meditation is a technique in which you meditate on the experience as you eat a Hershey’s kiss. This can be done with any kind of food obviously, but there is something truly powerful about creating an emotionally positive experience around eating something as associate with guilt and indulgence as chocolate. I have seen people cry as they describe what its like to allow themselves to experience eating as a pleasurable act. A really quick version:
- Look at the Hersheys kiss and notice what emotions come to mind. Do you feel hunger? Guilt? Excitement? Joy? Now open the wrapper. Notice the noise that it makes. Notice how the wrapper feels in your hand. Put the candy in your palm. Hold it up to your nose and smell it. All along, notice the emotions this brings up. Now, place the candy in your mouth. What does it feel like? Try not to chew it! How does it taste? Does it feel different on what part of the tongue than another? What emotions come up for you?
- Here is another nice version by Susan Albers on Psychology today.
- Try Urge Surfing: Urge surfing is a meditative exercise that brings awareness to where urges reside in our body and how they are temporary. Here is a short description of an urge surfing exercise from drugrehab.org (Urge-surfing is commonly used to help with cravings for food, but it is also used to help with cravings for other issues as well)
- Acknowledge how you are experience the craving. Do this by sitting in a comfortable chair with your feet flat on the floor and your hands in a comfortable position. Take a few deep breaths and focus your attention inward. Allow your attention to wander through your body. Notice where in your body you experience the craving and what the sensations are like. Notice each area where you experience the urge, and tell yourself what you are experiencing. For example, “Let me see . . . My craving is in my mouth and nose and in my stomach.”
- Focus on one area where you are experiencing the urge. Notice the exact sensations in that area. For example, do you feel hot, cold, tingly, or numb? Are your muscles tense or relaxed? How large an area is involved? Notice the sensations and describe them to yourself. Notice the changes that occur in the sensation. “Well, my mouth feels dry and parched. There is tension in my lips and tongue. I keep swallowing. As I exhale, I can imagine the smell and tingle of alcohol.”
- Repeat the focusing with each part of your body that experiences the craving. Pay attention to and describe to yourself the changes that occur in the sensations. Notice how the urge comes and goes.
- Ride out your craving, releasing tension with each breath. Stay with the meditation until the craving subsides. Many people, when they urge surf, notice that after a few minutes the craving has vanished. The purpose of this exercise, however, is not to make the craving go away but to experience the craving in a new way. If you practice urge surfing, you will become familiar with your cravings and learn how to ride them out until they diminish naturally.- Exercise from drugrehab.org
- Below it is a video that goes through an urge surfing exercise. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__0dNKJV0zo
- Don’t eat in front of the TV: Eating in front of the TV makes us eat more because we pay less attention to our hunger signals. This makes us eat after we are no longer hungry. This regular over-eating suppresses the hunger signals our body is sending us eventually making the problem a bigger and bigger one. Here is a link to a nice explanation of how eating mindlessly causes physiological derangements in our ability to feel satiated.
- Eat by yourself – I am all for eating at the family dinner table, but once in a while, it can be a nice exercise to eat by yourself, and of course, not in front of the TV or while using other electronics. Research shows we tend to eat more in the presence of others, especially in large groups. Here is a nice little article on the subject.
- Only Eat When you are Hungry and Stop When you are Satisfied – Intuitive eating is a behavioral weight loss technique that began with , Evelyn Tribole RD, a dietitian who discovered that emotions were an important part of the eating experience. There is still a lot to study, but there is some promising research behind the approach. The subtitle eat when you are hungry and stop when satisfied I think captures the basics, but there is a lot more to it. If you are someone who struggles with emotional eating, intuitive eating may be something to look into. Here is a link to the 10 principals of intuitive eating.
Emotional eating is different from an eating disorder, which needs to be treated by professionals. Please see a healthcate professional if you think you may have an eating disorder. Here is an online self-assessment for eating disorders, but it is not a substitute for a diagnosis by a health professional.