By: Dr. Scott Perryman
Your mental health may have a direct impact on your physical health. This includes your relationship with food. While we feel depressed, anxious, sad, happy, bored, and everything in between, food is usually an unsuspecting comfort for us. Seeking this comfort in the form of calories can lead to overeating or binge eating, and ultimately, weight gain. Being able to cope with emotions in other healthy ways and building a healthy relationship with food can mitigate the consequence of excess pounds.
When it comes to coping with emotion and creating a healthy relationship with food, mindfulness is a practice that can assist with getting you on track with your weight loss efforts.
Our Life with Food
In a paper by Hamburg, Finkenauer, and Schuengel (2014), infants learn to associate food with soothing. According to an article by Neely, Walton, and Stephans (2014), young people integrate food with their social relationships. This shows that from an early age, we begin to associate food with our relationships with others and as a means to calm ourselves when stressed.
If you think about it, food is involved in the majority of our experiences. Food is used to celebrate birthdays, holidays, special occasions, “treat yourself” days, to self-soothe when you are sad or disappointed, as a reward when you have been “good,” and to simply survive.
With food being involved in so many aspects of our lives, it’s hardly a surprise that humans have been conditioned to expect food as a staple in our everyday experiences – outside of our basic need for sustenance.
Mental Health and Food
Research has found that carbohydrate-rich foods increase our feelings of joy by raising dopamine in the body, in the moment and immediately following consumption. Despite this, maintaining a “Western diet” high in saturated fats and low in omega-3 fatty acids increases feelings of depression and sadness.
By checking in on your mental health, you can make better decisions when it comes to your food intake. But, you have to begin where you are on your weight loss journey.
On the other hand, a traditional, or Mediterranean diet decreases instances of depression. Food is our go-to when it comes to dealing with distress. It can establish a feeling of control when other situations may seem like they are out of our control. For most of our lives, food may have become an automatic “solution” in our minds when things around us are awry.
Mindfulness has been a buzzword in pop culture as of late. As people become more aware of their mental and emotional health, practices to cope with stress and ground oneself have become more mainstream. From yoga classes to phone apps, mindfulness has made an appearance in our everyday lives.
WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?
Mindfulness is the practice of being intentionally aware of what is happening, either in your surroundings or within yourself. To be fully present in the moment, you must take in the information from your body, your environment, or your mind. Through simply observing, one can interpret the information as neutral. Nothing is “good” or “bad”; it simply is. People mistakenly use mindfulness and meditation interchangeably. While meditation incorporates mindfulness, mindfulness does not need to be meditative – although, it definitely can be.
When practicing mindfulness, one is in a state of awareness.
By focusing the attention on one thing, you become aware of what is happening. For example, by taking several, deep, mindful breaths, you may notice, possibly for the first time, the sensation of the air coming through your nose as you inhale. You may notice the temperature of the air as it exits your mouth during the exhale. You may become aware of the time that passes while you complete an inhale-exhale cycle. This is all an attempt in becoming more mindful.
Reduction in stress, improved mood, decreased anxiety, better decision-making and problem-solving, enhanced immune response, and lowered physical distress may result while practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness and Weight Loss
When it comes to aiding in your weight loss efforts, mindfulness may be the push you need to begin seeing the results you desire. Mindfulness can be practiced in just about every facet of your life. As it relates to losing weight, you can do so, mindfully.
Being mindful can help you generally eat less, eat less of what does not promote feelings of health, and create a meal plan that works for you and your weight loss goals.
Eating is a necessary part of being a living organism. So, instead of trying to forcibly restrict food intake through dieting, mindful eating provides you with the opportunity to distinguish how foods make you feel. By being intentional with your meals, you will learn to identify your emotions, the feelings linked to the food, and when/if you feel satisfied. Learning this will lead you to make decisions based on the information gathered through these mindful eating sessions. If you learn that after you eat a certain food you feel groggy and fatigued, you can then decide to not eat that food anymore because you don’t feel the greatest afterwards. This is regardless of how automatic reaching for that certain food has been for you in the past.
TIPS FOR EATING MINDFULLY
- Eat slowly. By slowing your eating pace, you can enjoy your food more fully. Use your senses to build your awareness of the experience of your food. What do you smell? What colors can you see? What tastes do you recognize? What sounds are present? What are the sensations and textures you can feel? Also, by taking time to chew your food, you are allowing the sensors in your brain to catch up with your belly to let you know that you are full and should stop eating. The brain does not grasp the quantity you have eaten until about 20 minutes after you have eaten it. This means that you will not know you have overeaten until you are uncomfortably full.
- Lower your portions and be okay. Smaller portion size is a significant key to managing your weight. But, this is easier said than done. The missing piece is to be okay with the smaller meal. By accepting the smaller size of your plate and the proportionate amount of food on it, you will learn that it is enough. This is the lesson many people who struggle with weight loss miss: the smaller, recommended portion size is enough to sustain you. Your activity level will determine how much you need to eat to ingest an optimal amount of calories for your goals. As you engage in more controlled eating, your body will become more satisfied with smaller meals. You just have to be mentally and emotionally accepting of the smaller meal by knowing that you are not missing out on sustenance.
- See food as neutral. Food is neither good nor bad. Yes, there are some foods that are better for you than others, but food is not inherently moral or immoral. Thinking of food in this way will allow you to remove shame and guilt in relation to your eating patterns. Without you being aware of it, the shame and guilt you may hold in regards to eating perpetuates your increased eating. You eat because you feel “bad,” and you feel bad because you eat. By removing the “bad,” you may remove the association to overeat.
- Assess your feelings. Before you eat, ask yourself if you are bored, sad, or actually hungry. If you do some introspective work before engaging in a meal, you will learn to recognize any patterns you may have allowed to become a habit over time. Also, as you dig a little deeper, you may notice that your eating patterns are associated with events, times of the month/week/day, and emotions. You can then deconstruct the experiences you are having and make decisions to implement change in order to have different experiences. By doing this, you can alter the way food shows up in your life.
Along with having a healthy diet, exercise is a large component of weight loss. By incorporating exercise into your routine, you are significantly augmenting your weight loss efforts. Walking is a great start for an exercise regimen. By incorporating mindfulness, exercising, in any form, can become a more pleasant experience, making you more likely to exercise regularly. Since mindfulness is a very personalized practice, there are many ways to practice mindful exercising. The idea is to do more of what works for you.
- Breathe. Breathing is one of the unconscious, automatic, biological activities you perform that can be immediately controlled. Unlike heart rate and blood pressure, breathing is something you can manipulate in an instant to manage how you feel. The breath is a sensation that can ground, or anchor, you in any given moment. Breathing is extremely important while you are exercising. It can help you maintain your focus on your movements and it provides the oxygen necessary to continue performing well, inwardly and physically. Decide on a breathing pattern that makes the movements come easier. Use your breath as a gauge on how much you may or may not be challenging yourself. Breathe mindfully and intentionally to fill your lungs and push yourself a little further than you did yesterday.
- Notice your form. When you do certain exercises using incorrect form, you may feel pain or even nothing at all – like the exercise is not working for you. By noticing your body’s placement in relation to the equipment you are using, the floor, and other parts of your body, you are able to adjust appropriately to make the workout effective, and safe, for you. By becoming more intentional in your positioning and movements, you will be able to recognize the strength you are building and the calories you are burning. In addition to this, you can ensure a proper workout session.
- Use your senses. As in mindful eating, using your senses can take you out of your head and into your surroundings. If you are taking a walk around your neighborhood or a nearby park, take a moment to sense how the air feels against your skin; the slightest breeze often goes unnoticed when we are just trying to push through the next block or next mile. Take in the sights. Is there a tree you haven’t noticed before? Did a bird cross your path? If you are in a gym setting, how do the weights feel in your hands? How does the seat support your body? What sounds are you hearing? By expanding your awareness, you may notice elements that may make your exercise experience more pleasant.
- Practice acceptance. By engaging in any form of exercise, you are embarking on a journey for change. It is important to note that change does not happen immediately; it takes time. During this adjustment period, be kind to yourself. Know that you are doing your best, in this moment. Appreciate what your body is able to accomplish, instead of ruminating on what you believe you aren’t doing well.
When looking for a way to strategize your weight loss efforts, do not discount the power of mindfulness. Create a safe space for your feelings to be valid, allow yourself opportunities to make different choices, and practice being kind to yourself. As you embark on this intentional path, you can create the reality that you are looking for by starting small.
You will become more inclined to workout and eat appropriately, because you will begin to see these changes less as “restrictions” and “strict discipline,” and more enjoyable.
Keep a journal or a Notes folder on your phone where you track your experiences with food and exercise. Emotions, encounters, physical sensations, thoughts… Everything. In the end, creating a more positive association around your weight loss through being aware and present of what you are engaging in will prove to be beneficial.
Here at Whole Health Weight Loss Institute, we provide our patients with the opportunity to join a support group where Mindful Eating and Conscious Choice are discussed. We also offer informational seminars and nutrition services to assist patients with reaching their weight loss goals. By creating a supportive, holistic plan towards your weight loss, you can find yourself successful – reducing the pounds, shame, and self-sabotage.
If you are ready to have a team on your side to help guide you on your personal, individualized weight loss journey in Northern California, contact Whole Health Weight Loss Institute today.
- Neely, E., Walton, M., & Stephens, C. (2014). Young people’s food practices and social relationships. A thematic synthesis. Appetite, (82), 50-60. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0195666314003626
- Hamburg, M. E., Finkenauer, C., & Schuengel, C. (2014). Food for lOVE: the role of food offering in empathic emotion regulation. Frontiers in Psychology, (5). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00032
- Singh, M. (2014). Mood, food, and obesity. Frontiers in Psychology, (5). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00925
- Cohut, M. (2018). Mindfulness ‘has huge potential’ as a weight loss strategy. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324043.php#1