Encouraging proper nutrition is a key component of any employee wellness program. To help employees feel empowered by nutrition, wellness programs can support them in making healthier eating decisions and adopting healthier dietary habits.
Two approaches to eating behaviors — mindful eating and intuitive eating — may help employees feel better, lose or maintain weight and adopt healthier lifestyle habits. Learn more about mindful eating vs. intuitive eating in this guide to improving eating habits.
How Hunger Works
The human body has a mechanism to regulate our energy needs. It uses hormone signals to communicate to our brain the amount of energy stored in the body as fat, as well as the amount of energy consumed vs. expended throughout the day. Based on these signals, our brain sends further signals for when to start (hunger) or stop eating (satiety). These signals are also hormones that give us the feeling of hunger (i.e. ghrelin) or satiety (i.e. CCK, PYY). These signals can vary also in intensity based on our body’s energy needs. But, do we start or stop eating solely based on these biological signals? The answer is no!
For many people, there are times that they eat in the absence of hunger or that they continue eating after satiety. This happens due to other internal reasons, such as emotions, or external factors, such as the smell or sight of food. When eating for reasons other than homeostatic regulation, regulation by intrinsic homeostatic signals to initiate or end eating is either not provided or overridden.
Two types of practices have been developed that instruct people to reduce external motivators of eating behavior and elevate the importance of the sensory properties of foods and internal motivators of eating behavior: mindful eating (ME) vs. intuitive eating (IE). Both mindful eating and intuitive eating concentrate on internally focused eating; intuitive eating, however, does not involve meditation.
What Does it Mean to East Mindfully?
Mindful eating means paying attention to food and its effect on your thoughts, feelings, hunger, and satiety while eating, and noticing how these change as you eat. It is used to make conscious food choices, to develop an awareness of physical versus psychological hunger and satiety cues, and to eat healthfully in response to those cues. To better understand mindful eating and how to apply it, we need to discuss a bit about its origins.
Mindfulness is a practice based on Zen Buddhism and has become a popular way of self-calming and changing eating behaviors. The term “mindfulness” was defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Baer, Smith, Hopkins, Krietemeyer, and Toney (2006) presented evidence that mindfulness consists of five facets: observing, describing, acting with awareness, nonjudging, and nonreactivity.
- Observing refers to paying attention to internal and external sensations.
- Describing refers to labeling thoughts and feelings with words.
- Acting with awareness refers to staying focused on one's present-moment activities and acting deliberately.
- Nonjudging refers to accepting thoughts and feelings without evaluating them.
- Nonreactivity refers to letting thoughts and feelings come and go without reacting to them.
At the same time, regaining lost weight remains an obstacle in tackling obesity, depicting inadequate adherence to dietary and exercise prescriptions. Researchers have found there are two core reasons for this:
- Our biological predisposition to prefer high-calorie foods and minimal energy expenditure
- The constant exposure to an “obesogenic” environment (such as being surrounded by easily accessible high-calorie foods and labor-saving devices)
Thus, the combination of our biology and our environment makes adhering to dietary and physical activity prescriptions very difficult. Based on the above, an acceptance-based behavioral treatment for obesity was developed, a major component of which is mindful-decision making.
“Mindful-decision making” is a skill that involves ensuring that eating and physical activity decisions are made deliberately based on longer-term goals and values, rather than “mindlessly,” where we automatically react to internal and external eating and physical activity cues. The developers of this therapy also state that “learning and practicing these skills facilitate long-term maintenance of weight control behaviors, even in the face of countervailing forces.” So, mindful eating could be considered a process like mindful-decision making.
Intuitive Eating Principles
Intuitive eating is often used interchangeably with mindful eating. Intuitive eating was originally defined by two U.S. Registered Dietitians in 1995 who described ten aspects of intuitive eating, including a rejection of diets, a discouragement of labeling foods as bad, an encouragement to honor hunger, and allowing satisfaction with food intake. In other words, intuitive eating encourages individuals to reject the “diet mentality.”
The diet mentality is the process of relying on non-physiological factors to guide eating rather than relying on the biological self-regulation system. Intuitive eating is eating with an intentional focus on physiological hunger and satiety cues rather than external cues to guide intake. External cues can include emotions, food availability, seeing or smelling food, and social settings where eating is encouraged. Intuitive eating exercises involve training an individual to focus on responding to physical sensations to determine the body’s needs.
Can I Lose Weight With Mindful Eating?
So far, research data show that mindful eating seems to be an effective intervention for weight control, especially among people with disordered eating habits, such as binge eating and emotional or restrictive eating. When compared to no intervention, mindful eating has been shown to produce significant weight loss. When compared to conventional weight loss programs, it has been shown to produce equal results, and researchers are optimistic about better long-term maintenance of results, as mindful eating seems to be more sustainable than conventional approaches that deal with emotional situations that influence eating.
Up-to-date research evidence shows a beneficial effect of mindful eating when applied along with a healthy diet and an increase in physical activity, with the possibility of better long-term maintenance of the effects.
How Is Mindful Eating Different From Conventional Diets?
Diets tend to focus on the rules of eating, like what to eat and what not to eat or how much to eat, with the intention of specific outcomes, like weight loss. People know weight loss depends on caloric intake vs. expenditure, and they may or may not understand that it's influenced by behavior, however, sustained behavior change is hard and rare.
Compared to diets, mindfulness is a process-oriented rather than an outcome-driven behavior. The individual focuses on appreciating the experience of food and chooses what and how much to eat based on their internal cues of hunger and satiety. They can also choose food based on how much they like it, removing restrictions on intake. It’s not coincidental that, within a mindful approach, the person’s choices often are to eat less, savor eating more, and select foods consistent with desirable health benefits.
How to Practice Mindful Eating
- Begin with practicing 10–20 minutes of sitting meditation (e.g., preferably in the morning in a quiet space in a chair or on the floor on a cushion) and focus on breathing. When your attention wanders, bring it back to your breath. This will train you to be present.
- Explore meals or snacks where you could initiate a mindful eating approach.
- Practice doing mini-meditations by focusing on the breath and becoming aware of bodily sensations of hunger and satiety before and during meals and snacks.
- Before eating something automatically, stop and become aware of eating triggers such as thoughts, feelings, or environmental cues other than true hunger that prompt a desire to eat. Ask: “Am I truly hungry or do I want to eat for another reason?” If your desire is not about hunger, do something else more appropriate for the desire.
- Become aware of how hunger changes during a meal by noticing hunger before and after the meal and the sensations that occur as you eat. Notice your hunger and fullness 5-10 minutes after finishing your meal. Continue to check these sensations during the next 1-3 hours. Use your observations to help you in your eating decisions.
- Know when to stop eating by paying attention to the taste of your favorite food (e.g., potato chips). Notice when the flavor and enjoyment of the taste itself wanes. Identify when to stop eating.
- Experiment with eating other favorite foods (e.g., nuts or ice cream) mindfully by noticing the initial flavor, sensations during each bite, and when the initial burst of flavor wanes.
- Practice eating a meal mindfully at a restaurant. Consider what to order, engage in a mini-meditation, assess your level of hunger, determine how much to eat once the meal arrives based on satiety and your enjoyment of the food, and check in regularly with your hunger and fullness as you eat so you can decide when to stop eating.
- Create a list of alternative coping strategies to use when you are triggered to engage in emotional eating (e.g., reading a book, taking your dog for a walk, or calling a friend).
- Eat intentionally and only eat while eating. Put away other distractions and pay attention to your food.
- Savor each bite. After each bite, check in with your body to see how you are feeling. Have you had enough? Do you need more? Is it time to stop? Then move on accordingly.
How to Practice Intuitive Eating
- Reject the diet mentality: Avoid diets aiming at weight loss and not at improving your dietary behavior.
- Honor your hunger: Eat when your body tells you that you’re hungry and stop eating when you’re full.
- Make peace with food: No foods are off-limits. Allowing yourself to have the foods banned by restrictive diets removes any guilt you might feel about eating them. When it’s no longer forbidden, the food may not seem so appealing. Eating what you want can make you feel more satisfied with your meal, whereas the alternative may lead to overeating when trying to fulfill your cravings.
- Challenge the food police: Notice and challenge your internal negative thoughts that categorize foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ leading to feelings of failure or guilt when you can’t stick to a diet plan.
- Discover the satisfaction factor: Savor the experience of eating. Don’t eat while you are in the car or distracted (e.g. by television). Studies show that people who eat while doing something else are likely to eat more, either at the time or at their next meal. Concentrate on your food while you are eating so you can appreciate and enjoy it. By providing this experience for yourself, you will find that it takes just the right amount of food for you to decide you’ve had “enough.”
- Feel your fullness: Think before you eat and eat only when you’re hungry. Pause in the middle of eating and ask yourself how the food tastes and how full you are. Stop eating when you are comfortably full, even if that means leaving food on the plate or saying no to dessert.
- Cope with your emotions without using food: First, recognize the emotions that lead you to eat. Find kind ways to comfort, nurture, distract, and resolve your issues that do not include food. Food won’t fix any of these feelings. As food is regarded as a pleasure by the human brain, it might alleviate any of the unpleasant feelings for the time being but won’t solve the problem in the long-term, but it might add another issue to solve, such as weight gain.
- Respect your body: Due to genetics, we are not all the same shape and size. So, accepting and respecting your body at any size will help you to feel better and make the best food and exercise choices for you. This will protect you from unrealistic expectations of body image, but mostly you will feel better about who you are!
Movement: Feel the Difference
Forget exercising to burn calories and shift your focus to how it feels to move your body. Choose something you enjoy, like dancing, walking, and gardening. Choose an active way of living, such as walking for groceries. After exercise, “pleasure” hormones increase in the brain making you feel calm. Don’t forget: the more you move the easiest it gets!
Honor Your Health With Gentle Nutrition
Make food choices that honor your health and taste buds while making you feel good. You don’t have to eat perfectly to be healthy. You will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency or become unhealthy from one snack, one meal, or one day of eating. It’s what you eat consistently over time that matters. After all, a balanced diet is one that factors in the frequency and size that promotes individual health.
Listen to your body and enjoy food and eating, but not more than life!
Originally published September 14, 2022 - 16:11 PM, updated September 15, 2022
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- British Heart Foundation. 10 principles of intuitive eating. Accessed at https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/heart-matters-magazine/nutrition/weight/intuitive-eating/10-principles-of-intuitive-eating. Accessed on 18th June 2022.
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