Slow down—and try mindful eating

When was the last time you enjoyed a quiet, peaceful meal without interruption? If you can't remember, you're hardly alone. These days, eating a leisurely meal is a rare luxury. Sadly, for many people, eating on the run has become the norm. They gobble down

meals while they text their friends, catch up on their favorite TV shows, or check to see who's posting on Twitter and Facebook. Yet research reveals that the very act of eating in a hurry may contribute to overweight and obesity.

Here's how: As you eat and drink, your stomach fills, activating stretch receptors in your stomach. These receptors send satiety messages to your brain via the vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the stomach. Then, as food enters your small intestine,

appetite hormones are released, sending additional fullness messages to your brain. This process doesn't happen immediately, though. It can take 20 minutes—or longer—for your brain to realize it's time to put down your fork. Eating too quickly doesn't allow this intricate system sufficient time to work, making it easy to overeat without even realizing it.

There's another downside to distracted eating that has nothing to do with speed. Eating while you're busy doing other things robs you of the opportunity to fully enjoy your food, so you may not feel completely satisfied—and may keep on eating in an attempt to gain satisfaction.

Enter mindful eating

Mindful eating is the act of fully focusing on your food as you eat. It encourages you to pay closer attention to the tastes, smells, and textures of your food as well as your body's hunger and satiety cues. As basic as it sounds, this practice is surprisingly powerful. In one small study, 10 obese volunteers enrolled in weekly mindful eating classes that focused on listening to their feelings of hunger and fullness. They also paid close attention to their cravings and emotions. Not only did the participants drop an average of 9 pounds by the end of the three-month program, but they also reported less hunger, stress, anxiety, depression, and binge eating.

In addition to savoring the flavors and aromas of your food, the following techniques can help you attain more mindful eating:

  • Create a calm, beautiful space for eating. A cluttered table does not create the sense of inner tranquility you need in order to cultivate a peaceful mindset.
  • At the beginning of your meal, set a timer for 20 minutes. Then pace yourself to make your meal last until the timer goes off.
  • Let the answering machine take care of incoming phone calls.
  • Put away all computers, phones, and reading materials, so you can concentrate on your food.
  • Turn off the television, another source of distraction.
  • Eat only at the kitchen or dining room table to minimize distractions.
  • Think only about the bite of food you're actually eating at that moment. It's all too easy to think ahead to the next bite without focusing on the food that's actually in your mouth.
  • Put your fork down between bites.
  • Chew each mouthful 30 times.
  • Before you help yourself to seconds or dessert, ask yourself if you're really hungry.

For more on weight loss strategies, including best foods to eat and avoid, read Lose Weight and Keep it Off, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

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