How Mindful Eating Can Help You Eat Less

by | Aug 8, 2011
Red Flame Grapes

Red Flame Grapes

Today’s guest post is by Jyoti Mishra Ramanathan, a fellow UCSF neuroscientist who studies attention and distraction in the human mind. In her article Jyoti reveals how attention impacts our experience of food and how we can harness this power to help us eat less without feeling deprived.

Learning to be a mindful eater will permanently change your relationship with food and is essential for upgrading your healthstyle.

Mindful Eating and Portion Control

by Jyoti Mishra Ramanathan

I grew up in India where life revolves around food. One wakes up to plan breakfast and as soon as that is over plans lunch, then immediately prepares for a typical 3-4 course dinner. When I visit aunts or my grandma, I’m barraged with food at every moment: eat this, eat that! Oh! You aren’t eating enough! Oh! Do you not like my dishes?

If you don’t accept all or any food that comes your way, it is seen as a sign of disrespect. And if this isn’t enough to make you over-eat, remember too that food is sacred in India. How could one waste the grains on one’s plate when there are millions around us suffering from hunger? Consequently, I grew up believing it is normal to forever be bursting at my seams–to eat to the point where taking another bite might even make me sick.

But a few years ago my eating habits changed.

I was at a meditation workshop and one evening we were told we’d be given one grape for dinner. This sounded impossible. However, I obediently sat cross-legged with the other attendees and was handed my single juicy purple grape.

As I popped it in my mouth, I was told to shut my eyes and sense the grape in its totality: I rolled my tongue around it becoming aware of the soft and smooth exterior of the tiny fruit, I imagined its rich purple color, and then as I slowly bit into it, I savored every trickle of juice that I could extract from the grape.

The process took me a full five minutes and never in my life have I remembered eating such a delicious grape, although it was from no extraordinary vine. Miraculously, I felt full as well.

Try the grape exercise. I do not promise the satisfaction of a full meal, but it is a beautiful exemplar of mindful eating that consequently taught me portion control.

4 Simple mindful eating tips

1. Never eat distracted, i.e. while watching TV or running to catch the bus. Observe the deliciousness on the plate, the colors, textures, flavors and smells, savoring each bite. As the meal makes its way to the stomach, start to notice the fullness in your tummy. I found that there is an initial satiation simply from this sensory overload of observant eating.

One could stop here, but this is not enough nourishment and hunger tugs again relatively soon. But as you slowly chew on your food and enjoy each bite, you experience a real fullness that completely satisfies your hunger. This sensation precedes the contentment of the taste buds, which may still desire a few extra bites of that rich chocolate cake. But as I learned to identify the hunger satiety point at each meal, I found I could also control the desires of my taste buds.

2. Do not visit a restaurant starving. It is harder to control how much you eat when faced with novel delicacies at a restaurant, especially when you get there on an empty stomach. My best defense against this is to eat a small snack right before. My favorite is a quick salad.

At home I always keep miscellaneous salad ingredients on hand: mixed greens, cheese, raisins, walnuts, candied almonds, grains like quinoa, blueberries, avocado, sundried or cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, figs, grilled chicken strips, smoked salmon, etc. Mix-and-match any of these in varying proportions and add some homemade dressing. Each time you will have a novel salad that never gets boring. After a light snack it is much easier to have restraint while ordering and eating, keeping both waistline and budget in check.

3. Share a meal. My husband and I more often than not share an appetizer, entrée and dessert at a restaurant. This is not because we can’t afford more. We simply enjoy sharing–describing the new tastes to each other, immersing ourselves in the experience and appreciating new food. In these happy moments satiety emerges effortlessly.

Try this even when out with a group of friends: order for 3 with a group of 4 and share. If there is still food left over and there are no pets or family at home, I offer my extras to the homeless. I just gave away a carrot cake a couple of nights ago and the delight in those eyes was like someone who had just found a treasure!

4. Don’t aim for 100% full. Hara Hachi Bu is Japanese for eating until 80% full. Okinawan islanders practice this and are known to be one of the longest living people on the planet. Their longevity is attributed to this moderate calorie restriction in combination with consuming plenty of fruits and vegetables, which protect against free radicals that damage your body’s cells.

Conclusion

In summary, there are many benefits to portion control: feeling better right after a meal, long-term health, weight management, saving cash by eating less and perhaps even living longer.

Practice mindful eating to make portion control a reality for you.

How do you control your portion sizes?

Originally published September 2, 2009.

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23 Responses to “How Mindful Eating Can Help You Eat Less”

  1. great post! Lots of things that are so easy to incorporate and are often forgotten!

  2. Rosemary says:

    Do you have a recipe for muesli? I know I can order the Dorset but I’d like to make my own.

    Rosemary

    • Darya Pino says:

      Muesli is essentially a collection of rolled and/or toasted oat, wheat and barley flakes mixed with seeds, nuts and dried fruit. You could almost certainly make it yourself just from the bulk bins of a health food store. Sometimes there is muesli already made up in the bins as well. This is a fabulous question and I will do a bit of “research” next time I’m at Whole Foods.

  3. Madison says:

    I am going to try that grape exercise! Hopefully I won’t end up chewing on my arm an hour later. :D

  4. Matt Shook says:

    Great article Jyoti, the 80% full idea is a good one. I find that eating until I’m stuffed leaves me in a groggy food coma, which I detest. I’ve also heard that if one eats slowly (like savoring each bite) he/she is likely to consume less food overall during a meal.

    A neat side note…I ate 9 purple grapes as my “lunch” two days ago. While I didn’t “savor” each one, I did feel satisfied after eating them.

    Amazing photo btw, I wish my monitor was a wonkavision and I could just grab them and eat them right now…

  5. Great post! Having been to India, I definitely saw the importance of food there. And your experience of having grown up there, reminds me of the time I spent in Italy and living in France — other cultures where life revolves around food.

    It’s too bad that the American culture has gotten away from this…food being something important to be enjoyed, savored, and shared with loves ones. Instead, it is now looked upon as something we “have to” do and is an inconvenience.

    Food should be something that is a pleasurable, full sensory experience. Just like you did with the grape. Savoring, tasting and experiencing it with all of your senses. Interesting as I JUST wrote a blog post talking about that.

    Excellent advice you give too. I believe mindful eating really is so important in establishing a healthy relationship with food. And when you do that, you’ll be on your way to upgrading your healthstyle!

    • Jyoti Mishra Ramanathan says:

      Hi Dinneen
      I was away on a 5 day camping trip so just read your blog on mindful eating and really enjoyed it – nice coincidence that our posts were on the same day! I agree that simplest of foods can be tasty and filling if eaten ‘with all the senses’. Camp food actually highlights that pretty well: a peanut butter, tuna and whole grain bread combo tastes great & nourishing on a hike when one is immersed in nature, but perhaps not otherwise! Great job on spreading the word on mindful dining :)

  6. Katie says:

    I got here because I love the picture (and also love grapes), but was excited to find an interesting article! I’m a neuroscience grad student as well, so I’m extremely glad that I found your blog! I might try out the grape experiment…

  7. Great tips! I don’t know if I have any of my own to add other than just put less on your plate. Amazingly simple, but effective. :-)

  8. Jyoti Mishra Ramanathan says:

    Hey Everyone!
    Great to see your interest in my post. Matt and Steve gave some more relevant tips: limiting the portion on the plate and eating slowly. The latter is actually very important physiologically. Circulating levels of appetite regulating hormones, such as leptin that signals satiety, slowly increase after a meal; and ghrelin that signals hunger, decrease after a meal. The post-meal peak response times of these hormones are approx. 20 minutes (with variation across individuals based on BMI and gender), which means that the feeling of satiety emerges approx. 20 minutes after a meal irrespective of whether you’ve finished half a plate or a full plate by that time!

  9. Lori Enos says:

    Wonderful post. All too often we eat in the car, eat in front of the TV, and do anything but eat mindfully. I do know that when I make a “production” out of eating even the basics like fruit and cheese I am more satisfied by the simple fare than by a big production that I eat mindlessly.

  10. So many good points, especially “distraction.” I get so busy, doing something while I’m eating, I don’t remember eating. And my brain hasn’t yet adjusted.

  11. Great post Joyti, I am already practice some of it such as slow eating, but distraction is something very important to think about. Thanks
    and keep up the good work:)

  12. D Stickney says:

    Great article, and extremely important information to implement in our healthstyles (great word Darya!).

    About a year and a half ago I started educating myself about nutrition and eating because for several years I had continuously been slowly gaining weight. I was doing everything I was told (by society, media, USDA food pyramid, RDAs) was healthy, and over about 5 years I put on 30 lbs. How could this be? I didn’t eat fast food ever, I ate “healthy”, and I exercised. In hindsight, I knew what the average American knows about nutrition, which is unfortunately very little. This article touches on my first “discovery”… modern American portion sizes are ridiculously huge. The second discovery was the significant delay until satiety is perceived, and therefore the importance of allowing satiety to be perceived with proper sized portions. The following 3-4 months saw my weight gradually decrease by 30 lbs back to a BMI of 21.0 (with no additional exercise) where it still remains.

    My personal contribution to the discussion of managing cravings is to take very small amounts of desserts/sweets. A good friend of mine shared this tactic with me. The idea is that the first few bites of a really great dessert are awesome and satisfy my huge sweet tooth. All the rest of the bites to finish a large dessert serving don’t contribute to satisfying my sweet tooth, inevitably leave me feeling a little bit sick, and contribute significant amounts of calories and fat to my daily intake. Lesson learned. I now take dessert portions that are about 3 bites. My sweet tooth is satisfied, I don’t feel sick afterward from excess sweetness, and I don’t have to go running for 2 hrs to burn off that extra 500+ calories I would have needlessly ate.

    Last comment on this subject… Our bodies are very efficient at intaking and burning calories. A huge cinnamon roll (say 600 calories) can be eaten in 5 minutes. How much effort and time exercising does it take to burn 600 calories? Of course it depends on the exercise, but say 90-180 minutes. So 5 minutes of eating gives fuel for 90-180 minutes of continuous moderate exertion exercise. My perspective has changed from “denying myself pleasure” by not eating excessively to “saving myself hours of mandatory exercise every day” to maintain caloric intake/expenditure equilibrium :)

    • Darya Pino says:

      Great story, D! Thanks for sharing!!

      I agree with you 100% and I can pretty much eat whatever I want because of it. I stick to high-quality (aka satisfying) desserts and only take a few bites. I love it :)

  13. Kay Ballard says:

    Darya, your blog always satisfies This was an excellent guest post.

    I have pretty much eliminated desserts from my diet. I admit to craving them from time to time, but I rarely act on those cravings because I have learned that whatever sweet treat I am fantasizing about rarely lives up to my expectations of its deliciousness. However, at the moment, I am craving a Baby Ruth and thinking I might be mistaken to discount it. LOL

  14. baahar says:

    We might have the same grandmother Jyoti :)

    Great advice !! Thanks for sharing. In Islamic tradition we have the rule of 1/3: filling your stomach with 1/3 food, 1/3 water and 1/3 air. Not that many are following that rule though … understandable, given the lack of education nowadays.

  15. kaye says:

    WOW grapes are the best when it is frozen. yumm

  16. George says:

    The famous Okinawan health has next to nothing to do with “free radical” consumption via fruits and vegetables. It’s mainly because of their high-protein, high-fat, low-gluten diet. The average height their is also, what, 2 inches taller than the rest of gluten-ridden Asia?
    Just saying…

  17. Stephanie says:

    I really like this article. Thanks!

  18. Jared says:

    I love this article. Being mindful to me is SO important when thinking about no only eating, but also cooking. Being aware of what all parts of your experience are saying. From listening to your body when you choose what to eat, through to noticing your intuition when you’re in the supermarket. This article is going on my favourites list. Thanks!

  19. rads says:

    wonderful eye opener. I have been fighting this battle of bulge for ever. I am a vegetarian, eating healthy all the time, working out, and have tried everything under the sun. Today I promise to eat that grape and make a difference in my life… and when i even lose 2 kgs with this, I will be indebted to you for ever. thanks in advance…

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