If you're anything like the average American, your meals are rarely a contemplative experience. (I eat breakfast while surfing the Web and checking E-mail, shovel in some lunch while catching snippets of Bravo reality shows, and then spend my dinner hour chatting away in between bites.) But being more mindful about your eating—in other words, paying close attention to what you are putting in your mouth and how it makes you feel—may be a method that can help with weight loss.
Mindfulness wasn't developed in a psych lab but instead traces its origins to Buddhism. In the medical and behavioral realm, it's been looked at as a way to promote better health in general, lower stress, decrease anxiety, and alter unwanted behaviors, like drinking too much—or overeating. Brian Shelley, wellness director for First Choice Community Healthcare in Albuquerque, N.M., noticed its potential application to eating behaviors while teaching workshops on mindfulness as a stress reduction technique. When it came time for a midday break, "people had a mindful lunch in silence for an hour. They enjoyed the food, didn't overeat, didn't rush, and were very aware and meditative when they sat down to start the meal."
Now, Shelley leads workshops specifically on eating mindfully, built around a very simple approach: just 10 minutes a day of centering, general meditation, and awareness of yourself and your actions when you're eating. "We don't preach you should count calories or focus on taste—just that people should focus on their own experience," he says.
That kind of awareness is the first step to changing behavior, says Megrette Fletcher, executive director of the Center for Mindful Eating in West Nottingham, N.H. "I ask people to become aware of sensory experiences. Do I like the taste of the food I'm choosing now? What can I notice about it?" Paying attention can make each bite a choice rather than an reflexive response. Sure, you may love Oreos, but that doesn't mean you have to eat one every time it presents itself. If you stop and consider that next Oreo and how you're feeling, you may opt to skip it—or not. But at least it will have been a conscious choice. "We often come in telling ourselves what we're going to experience instead of making ourselves aware of what we're experiencing," she says.
Shelley says mindfulness makes people aware of how much and how quickly they usually eat. "We have to eat a little slower to catch that body signal that we've had enough; we tend to have lost that ability to find that signal, but we can dial in the skill to wait for it," he says.
Mindfulness has been studied as a way to cut down on eating disorders, including binge eating, and it seems to work to reduce bingeing behavior, at least for some people. Less clear is whether it can be used to deal with overeating in general and whether mindfulness training helps weight loss; those questions are the subject of ongoing research. In one unpublished study, Shelley and colleagues found that participants in a mindful eating course lost an average of about 10 pounds over a year, more than seen in trials of weight loss drugs. A control group lost a similar amount of weight, but the mindfulness group saw greater reductions in cardiovascular risk factors.
Want to try it out? The Center for Mindful Eating has more information on how and why to practice mindfulness. While there's as yet no concrete proof that it will help you lose weight, it can't hurt to try it: Unlike a new drug, there are no potentially harmful side effects from stopping to smell the pasta sauce.