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As a nutrition professional, I have always believed that you can eat intuitively. That means you can listen to your internal hunger and fullness cues, while still aiming to lose weight. The two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive in my mind, and I have often seen that successfully play out with my clients.
Lisa Young, a registered dietitian nutritionist and author of “Finally Full, Finally Slim,” agrees. Mindful eating and healthy weight loss strategies can coexist, she said, speaking at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo, the world’s largest annual meeting of food and nutrition professionals.
“Mindful eating is a tool to help with weight loss,” Young said. “It helps you focus on your hunger and fullness levels, so you are eating because you are hungry, and you want that food – not because a big portion is in front of you.”
Being mindful during eating includes taking the time to sit down without any distractions, slowing down our pace of eating and tasting our food, explained registered dietitian nutritionist Lisa Stollman, who spoke on a panel with Young. “Doing things like that will help us get healthier and lose weight in a non-dieting way,” Stollman said.
Mindful or intuitive eating can also help you ask yourself: “Do I like this food? or “Am I really hungry?” It can also help you note when you are satisfied. “This ultimately helps you eat a smaller portion and eat less,” said Young, who is also an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University.
“You don’t just want to lose weight and have an unhealthy relationship with food,” Young said. Yes, it’s OK to lose weight, while also being positive towards your body and treating yourself well…with kindness and compassion.”
The real meaning of ‘diet’
Losing weight by eating mindfully can significantly reduce chronic health issues, which is important for the 74% percent of US adults who are overweight or obese.
“We know people are overweight or obese are at much higher risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes and many types of cancer – and we can’t ignore that,” Stollman said. Losing 5% of your body weight – that’s 10 pounds if you weigh 200 pounds – can help to improve blood glucose levels, decreasing the risk for Type 2 diabetes. It can also help to improve cholesterol and blood pressure.
But anti-diet culture doesn’t typically focus on the benefits of weight loss. “A lot of unhealthy diets have the word ‘diet’ in the name, so it’s assumed that a diet is a rigid, prescriptive, restrictive lifestyle plan you do to get to a goal,” Young explained.
The word “diet,” however, is defined in Merriam-Webster dictionary as “food and drink regularly provided or consumed” or “habitual nourishment.”
“Diet does not have to be a four-letter word,” said Keri Gans, author of “The Small Change Diet” and moderator of the session.
Instead, experts say it’s important to look at a diet as a lifestyle, a healthy food program, rather than a restrictive plan that cuts out many of your favorite foods.
How to eat more mindfully
Fad diets that eliminate food groups can drain you of energy and set you up for a lifetime of yo-yo dieting. Adopting a healthy lifestyle that includes mindful eating can also help you feel better and have more energy – and is more important than aiming for a specific number on the scale, experts say.
To get started with eating more mindfully, sit down and unplug while you eat. Taste your food and pay attention to whether or not you are enjoying what you are eating. And become aware of when you have had enough to eat.
“When we eat mindfully, we tend to keep our portion sizes in check,” Young said.
Also, try to eat slowly. The faster a person eats, the more likely it is that he or she will be overweight, Young said. In fact, one recent study found that fast eaters are 42% more likely to be overweight than slow eaters.
To help you put the brakes on the pace of your eating, Young recommended using a set of chop sticks. “If you’re not accustomed to eating with them, they will slow you down,” Young said.
Finally, focus on overall self-care. Becoming more in tune with ourselves and our needs, whether it’s more sleep or more exercise, helps us better manage stress and deal with anxiety – which can lead to a more mindful approach to eating, too.
“You’ll do less emotional eating and less stress eating … and this can all help you with your relationship with food, ultimately leading to weight loss,” Young said.
Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, author and CNN health and nutrition contributor.