Why Mindfulness Matters

Mindfulness is a bit of a buzz word in the health and fitness industry. It’s thrown around loosely, recommended always, and is thought to be a silver bullet for overcoming all of the rather crummy eating habits that we have adopted as status quo in our modern day lives.

And the truth is – mindfulness as a solution to the problem of over eating and under moving is a really great option when implemented properly. Today we’re going to talk about that solution, and specifically, the habits that help us to get there to create and maintain mindfulness over our lifetime.

First lets qualify – why do we need mindfulness, and what is mindless eating?

  • The act of eating without intention and with distraction.
  • Eating for reasons not hunger related or eating without awareness of why you are eating.

Why is this a problem?

  • Keeps us disconnected from the sensations of hunger.
  • Leads to over eating and an excess and unnecessary intake of calories.

We know why we need to eat. We eat to maintain our energy needs – so that we can perform both physically and mentally at our best. Food as fuel, really understanding that relationship, is paramount to creating mindfulness around why we need to eat.

But why do we actually eat?

  • To cope and deal with: boredom, happiness, sadness, anxiety, etc.
  • Family, traditions, social reasons.
  • Because we think we should at certain times.
  • Occasionally because we are hungry.

There is a large disconnect between our physiological need to eat, and our desire to eat. Modern life has set us up to have energy(food) in abundance. Everywhere we look, there is energy waiting for us to consume. Never before has energy been easier to come by for the modern person. It’s truly remarkable! But so much so, that eating has become a hobby, a past time, a thing that we do for fun and a coping mechanism. Now, I’m not here to tell you to not enjoy your food. I personally love food! Food can be used as all of the things mentioned above(without judgment, might I add), but the problem is that, too much of it, too often, and it actually becomes the opposite of fun and enjoyable, and the effects of that over consumption becomes a burden, and a source of illness and anxiety.

Another important thing to consider is that we did not evolve to have all of this energy in such abundance, and so readily available. Even as little as a couple hundred years ago, for the average person, our resources for food was far lower and/or much harder to come by. We had to grow our food, go out and hunt or fish our food, or, that food came at a price and was only able to be obtained at certain times of the year, depending on where you lived. The modern notion of ‘eat 6 times a day so you never find yourself hungry’ is so far from how we as a species has eaten for literally thousands of years, that its no wonder we have a hard time creating mindfulness around food. The little cave man or cave woman in our head is constantly telling us to eat, eat, eat! We may not have another chance! Make that easily available food extra palatable(hello fast and highly processed food!) and it’s a recipe for a mindless eating disaster!

It is clear that we are disconnected from hunger and that we are set up to eat for reasons other than our actual fueling needs. What is hunger anyway?

Hunger is a physical sensation that begins and develops below the neck that signals to us that we need to eat soon. I describe this as below the neck to distinguish it from a ‘craving’ – where in we think about a food, we want a food(regardless of hunger cues).

What are the physical sensations of hunger?

  • Growling stomach.
  • Empty stomach feeling.
  • Shakiness – a feeling of a drop in blood sugar
  • Headache, loss of focus, feelings of ‘hangriness’.

what-to-do-when-you-are-hangry

 When Hangry Meets Craving!

What is not hunger?

  • Craving – a thought and urge to eat something because you thought about it and decided that it sounded good and that you’d like to eat it (hunger should at least originate below the neck).
  • An easy way to tell if you are truly hungry or not – if you are willing to eat a junk food because you are ‘hungry’ but not an apple, you are not actually hungry.

  Now that we know what hunger is, lets talk about modern diet culture and how it really throws a wrench in our ability to develop mindfulness around food. Modern diet culture tells us that we need to eat less, move more and to use ‘will power’ to get us through from one low calorie meal to the next. Given that most ‘diets’ have a high long term failure rate, we know that this actually does not work.

What are the contributing factors of hunger? How much does will power matter when it comes to over coming hunger?

  • Physical activity makes us more hungry – you may notice if you are working out more that you are going to both want to and technically need to eat more. This can make getting into a caloric deficit when you are working out a lot very difficult. Add to this a tendency to over estimate the amount of calories we expend(and a propensity for justifying eating more calories after a workout)…. You can’t outwork your caloric intake.
  • Skipping meals or not eating at regular enough intervals will make us more hungry in between meals.
  • Relying on low calories meals/non fat or low fat foods to sustain you.
  • Eating foods that are general lower in nutritional value – your body will continue to seek what it’s not getting if you’re only putting sugar/refined carbs/not enough protein and high quality fats in.
  • At the end of the day, when you are just straight up really hungry, there is not enough will power in the world to help you get over that feeling because….

There are too many factors that are beyond our control that contribute to mindless eating. Our modern life is set up in a way for us to over consume energy at every turn.

Add to that, we have a faulty hunger and ‘feelings of satisfaction script’….

  • We believe that we are supposed to eat until we are full, or, to the point where we don’t want to eat anymore.
  • We have come to expect to feel fully sated, or satiated after a meal.
  • We go into meals with a predetermined expectation of how much we are going to eat, regardless of whether we are actually hungry or in need of that amount of food.
  • We use food to help us cope and reward, and eat for emotional reasons ranging from anxious eating, to celebratory eating.

Why are we so disconnected from hunger and fullness cues? Mostly, because of influences that we are wholly unaware of….

mindless eating board

  • Abundance of food – we have pantries and fridges full of food at home, office back rooms with piles of leftover and baked goods, snacks in the inner console of our car, very easy to access junk food and fast foods and even very high quality foods of all kind.
  • Food FOMO. You are not hungry, but someone brought delicious homemade brownies into work to share. What if you never get the chance to eat brownies ever again?!?!
  • We model after other people(whose needs are different from our own). We are also impacted by ‘how’ those other people eat their food(if they eat fast, you are more likely to eat fast, too).
  • We allow restaurants/fast food/packaging/diet prescriptions to let us know how much to eat.
  • We try to outsmart hunger with strategies that don’t work.
  • DISTRACTION – think for a moment, how often are you truly present? Phones, computers, commutes, TV screens, conversations, chores, we have so much stuff that we need to fit into a day and on top of that we need to find time to eat and take care of ourselves…

The common denominators of Mindless Eating, – Stress, Abundance and Distraction – are big ones to overcome. There is no one perfect diet or method of eating that is going to cure these large, modern problems. It’s a combination of mindfulness and solid habits that are not so much a silver bullet, but an arsenal of tools to help you ‘notice and name‘ the problems so that you are able to identify what you need to change to overcome the mindless eating trap.

What is Mindfulness? 

Mindfulness is described as a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment. When this awareness is developed, you can calmly acknowledge and accept your feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations. I call this ‘noticing and naming’.

How do we start to work on mindfulness around eating and food? What are the steps?

NOTICE IT – >  you pay attention to when you are over eating, or eating really fast, or are really distracted. You will notice any emotions or feelings or body sensations that you have when you are in that moment. Find the relationship here and ask ‘if this happens, then what?’

NAME IT – > call it what it is! Name where you are, time of day, who are you with, what are the set of circumstances that put you in this mindless eating trap? What are the environmental factors at play?

TAKE ACTION!  Will Power IS NOT ENOUGH. What are concrete steps, things within your control, changes that you can make, so that you can stop falling down this particular hole. How can you divert or reroute yourself from this common pitfall?

Here’s how this works in an example situation:

Notice IT (find the relationship)

EXAMPLE: When I get home at the end of the work day, I am ravenous.

Name IT – > (name the environment and factors)

EXAMPLE: When I get home at the end of the work day, I am ravenous. I ate a very small breakfast and wasn’t able to make time to eat my full lunch.  There is a bag of chips on the counter in the kitchen when I first walk through the door and I will inevitably crush that bag when I walk through the door’

TAKE ACTION – > Divert/Reroute/Make a different choice  Will Power is not an option – but thoughtful, helpful habits, are. You can break the chain of mindless eating if you are willing to take some action, and do a bit of reverse engineering.

EXAMPLE: I’ve noticed that I am starving when I get home and that I tend to eat several handfuls of chips as soon as I walk in the door. I am going to choose to take the following steps:

  • I’m not going to buy chips anymore, or at the very least, I am going to store them somewhere that is not that easy to get to in my house.
  • I am going to start to eat a larger, more protein packed lunch and will make sure that I am including a high quality dietary fat in that meal.
  • I am going to pack for myself a small handful of almonds or a piece of fruit to eat at the end of my work day so that I do not come home starving.
  • I am going to practice sitting and dealing with my hunger and I am going to remember that hunger is not an emergency.
  • I will have a plan for dinner at night so that I know that although I am hungry when I get home, I have a set plan for what I am going to eat.

  The above is just one common example of mindless eating, but there are many places where we get jammed up with distraction, hunger, and emotions. In the above example, we break down how to identify the problem and how to be proactive in creating a better environment and setting up a better set of circumstances for yourself to avoid falling into the same trap over and over.

There are lots of ways to build mindfulness around food, here are some of my favorite tried and true habits to helping you slow down, stay focused, and feel more in control of the what, how and why of your eating habits…

  • Slow down your meals. Stretch meals to last 20 minutes, this will allow your brain to catch up with your stomach in terms of fullness cues and will help you avoid second helpings.
  • Practice leaving something on your plate or using much smaller serving plates.
  • Eating to 80% full – stop eating when you feel like you can still eat more food. Do not wait until you get to the point of being full.
  • If you think you are hungry, do a full body scan. Is your hunger originating above or below the neck? Are you equally as enthused to eat something healthy as you are to eat something that you are ‘craving’.
  • Stay hydrated! Before you eat, if you are questioning your hunger, drink some water.
  • Be honest with yourself and start to notice and name habits and patterns. Keep track with a journal how you feel when you eat, why you ate what you ate, why you ate as much as you ate, etc.
  • Practice sitting with your hunger, and reminding yourself that it is not an emergency.

Create an environment for success!

  • Take control of your environment, both at home and at work. If we see food we are likely to eat it. If we keep foods around that are highly palatable or that we tend to over eat, we will eat it.
  • If you must keep certain things in your house, keep them somewhere it is hard to reach. Do not leave in an easy to access place.
  • If you buy foods in bulk – separate the food into portioned out amounts before you store it.
  • Use smaller plates and portion out your meal and put the rest of the food away as soon as possible.
  • Do not eat directly out of containers, always place on a plate/in a bowl.
  • Create a diversion where necessary. If you find that you always feel the need to stop for a particular treat on your way home, consider finding a new route home to avoid the temptation.
  • If you find that the first thing you do when you walk in the house is go for food, consider a routine for when you first get home that keeps you from mindlessly snacking.
  • Change of scenery – if stress at work typically tends to send you into a snack frenzy, go for a walk instead. If you tend to find that you overeat a lot at particular restaurants or in particular places and this is something that bothers you, consider how much you need that place in your life.

I hope that you find these tips helpful, and that you may find some relief in knowing that a lot of us all struggle with mindless eating and developing mindfulness!  The first step is awareness, so if you’ve read this post, you are already well on your way to being more thoughtful about your choices, and it’s clear that you are working towards self improvement.

If this resonates with you, or if you have any questions, subscribe to this blog and/or reach out! I can be reached at hryan@bostonnorthfitness.com. If you are local to the Danvers, MA area, check out our club, Boston North Fitness Center. In addition to our one on one, small group and large group functional training programs, we provide help with developing mindfulness and improving your nutrition to help you better reach your health and happiness goals.

Checked out http://www.bostonnorthfitness.com to find out more!