How often do you pay attention to what you're eating? If you're like many Americans, breakfast is eaten with one hand on the steering wheel, lunch is inhaled in front of a computer screen, and dinner is spent with the TV blasting in the background. Food rarely takes center-stage in our busy lives, but research indicates that this mindless munching is taking its toll on our weight and health.
"Mindful eating" is the term coined for simply paying attention to your food, your body cues, and the act of eating. It is eliminating distractions during mealtime and checking in with your hunger or fullness cues. While this may sound a bit too touchy-feely to be scientific, a solid body of evidence suggests this practice is worth trying. Here are five benefits you may experience by turning off that TV while you eat dinner:
1. It might help prevent type 2 diabetes. A new study published in Clinical Nutrition found that people with type 2 diabetes were more likely to be fast eaters than people without the condition. Fast eating has been linked to weight gain in previous studies, and this may be the link that contributes to the development of type 2 diabetes. If you suspect that you may be eating too quickly, take a meal or two and simply focus on your eating style—consciously slow it down and see how you feel. You may be surprised by how soon you get full with less food.
2. It can be a useful tool in helping overweight pre-teens. Binge eating is becoming a concern with more adults, but it can also occur in childhood. Binge eating seems to be related to the vicious cycle of restrictive dieting followed by a loss of control around food, and it contributes to further weight problems. A study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology showed that families trained in mindful eating concepts, such as eating only when hungry and paying attention to fullness cues, were able to help their 8- to 12- year-old overweight children cut down on binge eating episodes.
3. It can help decrease excessive snacking. Many people multi-task while eating lunch, but two studies published in Appetite found that when people focused on their lunchtime meal rather than simultaneously reading a newspaper or watching TV, they were less hungry at snack-time, and opted for a smaller snack.
4. It can help decrease overeating at restaurants. Americans spend about 40 percent of their food budget on dining out. These meals tend to be higher in overall calories, raising concern that this practice is increasing our national waistline. While many health professionals advise people to try and cook more at home, one study showed that mindful eating at restaurants might help. The researchers taught middle-aged women who ate out at least three times a week to use mindful eating in restaurants, and the approach helped them lose weight while still enjoying restaurant meals.
5. It might help you stay lean. A key tenet of mindful eating is to only eat when hungry. This simple concept seems to make a big difference in body weight. Researchers studied over 1,600 middle-aged women in New Zealand and found that those women who ate in response to hunger were more likely to be at a healthy weight than women who paid no mind to hunger cues when they ate.
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Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, is the Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and lecturer for the Nutrition Program at Arizona State University, and a Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaRD.