Unlock the secret to lasting weight management. HFG dietitian Zoe Wilson shows you that no one food is ‘forbidden’ if you learn to reconnect with your body’s natural appetite signals. Here’s how.
It’s been a horrible day at work so you reach for a biscuit. You have a handful of chips because your husband brought home a packet. You go to lunch because it’s 12.30 and you always go then. You’re bored and to make the time pass you think you might nibble on something. Maybe the voice of your parents is resonating in your mind at dinner, telling you to finish everything on your plate. If this sounds like you, don’t worry, you’re not alone. After years of dieting, many of us are out of touch with our bodies and our stomachs – and this is what’s really affecting our weight and our waistlines.
Hungry or not?
The thing is, when you think about it, a lot of the eating we do isn’t for hunger.“Commonly, 40–80% of the eating we do is non-hungry eating”, says Dr Rick Kausman author of If not dieting, then what? (Allen & Unwin) and a medical specialist in the psychology of healthy eating. He argues that most weight issues stem from “the eating we do that we are not physically hungry for”.
The concept of non-hungry eating and the psychology of our eating behaviour has become a more common topic in the weight management arena over the past few years. Non-hungry eating is increasingly common in our multi-tasking world where we eat lunch at our desks, or eat dinner while watching TV at night.
“It is normal to do some non-hungry eating, but when it’s as much as 100% of our eating the body becomes overwhelmed,” says Dr Kausman. He says this means we end up eating more than we really need and storing the extra energy, leading to weight gain.
So, weight management experts are now turning to the power of the mind with a technique called mindful eating (see below) to help us break these non-hungry eating habits that are hindering our ability to maintain our healthiest weight.
Dr Kausman explains recent research has shown if we can eat mostly when we are hungry and stop when we are full, our body will function at its best – and we can maintain our healthiest weight without much trouble.
Stop the battle with food
The past 20–30 years has not only seen the average size of the population increasing, but at the same time the rise of our body conscious culture with its emphasis on size 8 figures for women and rippling chests for men. As a result, we have turned to dieting – especially fad diets that promise a quick fix – in our quest for the perfect body.
However, going on these diets and depriving ourselves of food has put us out of touch with our bodies’ natural rhythms.
“The big elephant in the room is the weight loss industry”, says Dr Kausman.
“The weight loss industry has been telling us not to listen to our bodies. Every diet we go on is an insult to our intuition about hungry versus full”.
Indeed, the negative effects of dieting have been proven by research. The Minnesota semi-starvation experiment, conducted during the Vietnam War, showed that when men were put on a restrictive diet for six months they became obsessed with food. They replaced pictures of women with pictures of food and started collecting recipes. The men showed signs of increased anxiety and depression. After the experiment they actually ended up eating more than they did before the research began.
So, it’s no surprise that in the fast-paced modern world, with pressure to look good while fitting more into 24 hours, our relationship with food and our bodies is out of whack.
But there is a solution – and it doesn’t involve a battle with food, or a crazy diet.
Adopting the principles of mindful eating is the first step towards creating awareness of your relationship with food and any habits that may be hindering your weight maintenance or weight loss.
The mindful eating approach
Mindful eating is about listening to your body, giving it the food that it wants and being aware of all of your senses while you eat. While this isn’t an instant cure to all weight problems, research proves this technique works for the long-term.
Studies have shown that compared to traditional weight loss regimes (i.e restrictive diets) taking this approach results in both improved physical and mental health. Indeed, advocates of mindful eating believe this is the way to gain satisfaction from your food and reach your healthiest weight, without any of the feelings of frustration, guilt or deprivation that come hand-in-hand with traditional diets.
Dr Kausman says mindful eating is a way to “empower people and give them back control, when they’ve felt out of control and disempowered for so long”.
An advantage of mindful eating is that it allows you to eat whatever you please – as long as you actually feel like it.
Traditionally, dieting involves very black and white thinking with ‘good’ foods and ‘bad’ foods and nothing in between. This is unhelpful as it can promote feelings of guilt, even if you only have a small amount of a ‘bad’ food. The truth is that chocolate is not ‘bad’ and a piece of fruit is not ‘good’! If we remove ‘good’ and ‘bad’ labels from foods, we’ll come to realise that food is just food. It isn’t something that makes us feel good or bad. It is fuel for our bodies, it supports our immune system and is essential for keeping us healthy. The key difference in this approach? If you’re offered some food, whether it’s a piece of chocolate, a sandwich or some grapes, and you really feel like it, then it’s okay to have it – just make sure you take your time and enjoy it!
If you think this all sounds a little new-age, you’d be wrong – it’s how we used to eat before we lost touch with what our bodies are really trying to tell us.
Start with awareness
To get you started on the path to reconnecting with your body’s natural appetite signals, Dr Kausman suggests a moment of reflection.
“Think back over the past three to six months and estimate how much of the food you ate was because you were physically hungry and how much was for other reasons.”
Kausman’s philosophy is that simply being aware of how much non-hungry eating you’ve been doing and recognising it may be a problem for you can help to change some of your habits – even if they are only very small changes to begin with.
Once you’re aware of when, how and why you eat, you can begin to plan ways to manage your common non-hungry eating patterns and in turn, start to gain control over your weight in the long-term.
To encourage you to become aware of how mindful your eating is, it helps to start a food diary. Specifically record what you eat during the day and when and, importantly, describe how you were feeling. Think about the moment you decided to eat and how hungry you really were. What made you feel like eating at that moment? Were you happy or unhappy? Then consider how you felt after eating. Did it make you feel satisfied or full? This can help you determine if some of your non-hungry eating is caused by boredom or stress, for example. This allows you to identify these as particular challenges for you, and then you can plan ways to deal with these feelings – without food.
Dr Kausman advises that “it doesn’t matter if at first there is no change in what you actually eat. Just being aware of how hungry you are often results in changes without you realising it. You might leave some food on your plate, for example, which is a positive step forward.”
For a food and feelings diary template, check out your free Diet and exercise book attached to this issue.
Three practical steps to mindful eating
Try asking yourself one or two of these questions. Practise little by little, even if it’s only one meal a week to begin with. Over time these thoughts will become a natural, healthy habit.
1. Ask yourself, “Am I actually hungry?” Try thinking of your hunger as a scale of 0–10 with 0/10 being absolutely starving and 10/10 stuffed to the brim.
Before and as you eat, check how physically hungry you are – is your stomach growling/empty/full/satisfied? Do you want to eat for any other reason other than hunger? .Are you bored/upset/tired/lonely/stressed? If so, what could you do instead of eating?
2. Ideally, aim to eat when you’re around a 3/10 – hungry but not starving (so you won’t eat too fast and overeat). Try to stop eating when you’re around a 7/10 – satisfied, but not stuffed. Use this scale to determine if you really need to eat right now.
3. Remind yourself no food is out of bounds and allow yourself to make a choice about what you really want to eat. Think, “I can have it if I want it, but do I really feel like it?”
You can have that bit of chocolate, that bowl of ice-cream or that handful of chips anytime – so do you really want to eat it right now?
Becoming the healthiest person you can be takes practise – everyone will have different things that they need to work on. Everyone will also have different ways that they want to work on them and that’s the beauty of this mindful eating approach – it is completely flexible.Dr Kausman describes our journey towards our healthiest selves as a puzzle.
“No two puzzles are the same but there are generally common themes”, he says.
Non-hungry eating, your attitude towards your body and food, and your attitude towards exercise, and becoming more active, are all small pieces of your particular health puzzle.
“It can be too much if we try to fit all pieces together at once, so we’ve just got to take it one piece at a time and eventually the puzzle will be solved”.
Putting all these puzzle pieces together will help you to achieve the healthiest weight for you as well as ensuring you stay there for the long-term. And, last but not least, making sure you can enjoy your food, for life.
Additional reading to help with mindful eating
If not dieting, then what? – Dr Rick Kausman (Allen & Unwin) Diet no more – Judith and Jenny McFadden (Dutton/Signet) Weight loss for food lovers – Dr George Blair-West (Alclare Pty Ltd)
Reasons for non-hungry eating – do any of these apply to you?
Out of habit
For comfort when we’re tired, stressed, anxious, angry or bored
To be social
Because food is there
As a reward for something good we’ve done
To satisfy cravings for foods that have been ‘banned’
What is mindful eating?
Mindful eating is the ‘non-diet’ approach to healthy eating. The Center for Mindful Eating in the US describes the technique as:
Choosing to eat food that is both pleasing to you and nourishing to your body by using all of your senses to explore, savour and taste
Learning to be aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decision to begin eating and to stop eating
Being aware of the effects of non-mindful eating, so you are less likely to overeat