Close your eyes. It’s the end of a long day at work. You’ve just sat through a 90-minute commute amidst honking SUVs and flickering red lights. You finally park your car and lug your bags into your home. What do you do next? If you’re anything like most of us, the answer is probably a blur – you’re too busy tending to the family, zoning out and detaching from obligations, or wrapping up the events of the day to notice. But somewhere in between, it’s likely you’re grabbing a bite or two…or three. Not only is this detrimental to your sense of sanity – it’s hurting your health and your waistline.
Psychologist Dr. Susan Albers is an author and speaker who has a solution free of fads and hard rules: mindful eating. With an emphasis on the how instead of the what of eating, Dr. Albers is passionately changing the way we eat, one bite at a time, with her revolutionary book, Eating Mindfully (keep reading to win a copy of your own!). We stole a few moments with Dr. Albers as she prepped for the launch of her newest book, EatQ, to learn how to fall back in love with breakfast, lunch, dinner – and all the little bites in between.
The Chalkboard Mag: Mindless eating has been the subject of many articles, books, lectures – but still, we mindlessly eat. What keeps us in these destructive patterns?
Dr. Susan Albers: I often point the finger at habit and stress when I talk to my clients about why they still mindlessly eat, even though they may know better and have every intention of stopping it. Many of my clients are very well versed in nutrition and mindless eating – they could write a book on it! – but at the end of the day, habits are very hard to break. A new study was just released in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggesting that habits rather than cravings lead people to eat comfort foods. The researchers found that when people are stressed they gravitate back to their old habits.
In fact, before you even think about changing your eating habits, in my book Eating Mindfully I talk about doing a personal inventory of your habits. It teaches you about what habits might be the real culprit of mindless eating. Without addressing these habits first, your efforts to change mindless eating can make you feel like you are running around on a hamster wheel getting nowhere fast.
TCM: How do we initially fall into the trap of mindless eating? What makes it stick and what are some of the common triggers?
Da: Unfortunately, there are lots of paths to mindless eating. They almost all start with feeling overwhelmed and emotionally checking out of the situation – not being really present. Let’s face it: It’s hard to be present all the time. The world can be very taxing on your brain and energy; it’s easy to slip into a zoned-out state of mind. As a result, you can sit at table eating an entire plate of food and not taste one bite! It might be sitting on the couch mindlessly popping chips in your mouth, or eating at 12:00 p.m. on the dot after a hectic morning at work (even though you aren’t the tiniest bit hungry). In mindless eating mode, you do what my clients call zombie-like eating: not really tasting food, but getting comfort from the repetitive pattern of popping something in your mouth. If this sounds like you, the Mindful Bite portion in Eating Mindfully may help. It’s about how to shift from zoned-out to tuned-in at the table – even when you are feeling totally zapped by your day.
TCM: What are some ways to discern between true hunger and mindless emotional eating in even the toughest of situations?
Da: One of the hallmarks of emotional eating is wanting something specific to quell your cravings. You don’t just want something to eat, you want BBQ potato chips and nothing else will do. Emotional eating sneaks up on you out of the blue, and often wants something right now. True hunger grows gradually in its intensity and is accompanied by a rumbling stomach or lower energy. I have to admit that distinguishing the difference between emotional and physical hunger is no easy task and can be downright frustrating. Many people will tell me that they really have to stop in their tracks and think about it. It’s not their fault – our environment has been clever in warping our natural ability to know the difference. It stems from years of getting mixed signals about how to respond to your hunger (for example: a friend who encourages you to have dessert with her even though you aren’t really hungry, or a parent who comforts you with cookies). If this sounds like you, don’t worry, it is something you can change and what I talk about extensively in Eating Mindfully and my new book, EatQ.
Before you take a bite, simply begin by consciously asking yourself: Am I really hungry? If you get this I’m-not-totally-sure-I’m-really-hungry feeling, the answer is probably that you are emotionally hungry. Make a deal with yourself: Delay and distract for five minutes. If you are still hungry at the end of that five minutes, then go for it – eat something. If not, you have your answer. This simple task is the first step in rewiring your brain. Instead of hungry=eat, you are training it to think physical hunger=eat and emotional hunger=distract.
To sum it up, I like the 4 Ss of mindful eating: Savor, Sit, Slow Down, Stay.
Savor. Take mindful bites. In other words, before you take a bite, commit to half a second to smell it, look closely, examine the texture, notice what it tastes like. Do the like test. Ask yourself: Do I like it or love it? Lose it if it isn’t great.
Slow Down. Eat with your non-dominant hand. Studies show that this can reduce how much you eat by 30%! Use whatever tactics you can to slow down. It might be matching your pace to the slowest eater in the group or putting your fork down between bites. Remember this motto: “pace not race.”
Sit Down. Where you eat matters! It sounds simple, but eating while standing lends itself to losing control over how much you consume. Avoid eating standing up, walking or nibbling in front of the fridge. Try to dine instead of just eat. Use a real plate. A fork can feel like a luxury in our fast food culture. A nice plate makes your meal feel special and enjoyable.
Stay. Stay in the moment. If you feel yourself slipping back into autopilot or zoning out while you eat, tell yourself to be here. Pinch your hand, take a deep breath, do whatever it takes to bring your attention back to the task at hand. This can move you from mindlessly plowing through a sleeve of crackers to tasting the salt on each cracker.
TCM: Sometimes we are aware of our mindless eating, but do it anyway. Is this a step in the right direction or is it just feeding (no pun intended) our habits?
Da: When you catch yourself mindlessly eating, even if you don’t stop, the consciousness is a fantastic step in the right direction. You have just moved the needle in a significant and meaningful way to changing your eating. When you eat mindlessly in an unconscious way, you don’t have any choice. You just do it. You have no power to stop. Think about driving mindlessly in a car. Until you catch what you are doing, you aren’t in control of where you are going. Once you wake up, you start making decisions about which way to drive. When you are conscious of your mindless eating, you have much more power to put on the brakes. Remember: Consciousness gives you much more control.
TCM: We’ve become a quick-fix culture, so many times when people choose to get healthy, it leads to extremes and major restrictions. What kinds of steps can people take to get healthy mindfully? Is there a way to avoid mindless eating before it even starts?
da: The great thing about mindful eating is that you can still eat the foods you love and you can apply it to whatever type of eating you already do, no matter if you are vegetarian, a meat eater, vegan, gluten free, etc. It is realistic and something you can do long term without trying to bend your lifestyle like a game of Twister into something that doesn’t work for you. After all, changing your eating habits is a marathon not a sprint. Life would not be any fun if you didn’t eat chocolate and the occasional hot fudge sundae.
The best way to avoid mindless eating is to know your habits and hot spots for mindless eating. Then, make them into mindful eating havens. For example, I have a client who does 95% of her eating in car on her commute. Knowing this about herself has been key to creating simple interventions. She outfits her car with healthy snacks and water, and most importantly, routinely puts her purse in her trunk so she can’t easily get out money when swinging through the drive through. Try it today. Ask yourself: Where are my three top places for mindless eating? At your desk? In front of your TV? Standing in front of your refrigerator? Before you go to this spot, shift into your mindful mode: being fully present and not shifting into autopilot.
WIN A COPY OF EATING MINDFULLY:
One lucky reader will win a copy of Eating Mindfully to jump-start new, healthy habits! Leave a comment below with your favorite tip on how you stay mindful in your everyday life – and good luck!