How to Trick Yourself into Eating Mindfully

Fork with sprinkles. Matthew Reid/

Fork with sprinkles.
Matthew Reid/

An acquaintance of mine just completed a 25-hour fast. The other night he ate a whole pot of Mexican-style rice, which he followed up with a chaser of Reese’s Pieces and M&Ms. He skipped meals for a day as penance.

“I have an addictive personality,” he said.

But does he? Given that a study released in August found that U.S. citizens consume nearly twice the amount of calories they should be, I doubt that my acquaintance is any more addicted to food than the typical American. I know that all too often I’ve suffered the bloated belly and regret that follows an evening of comfort eating. Working in a deadline-driven environment where sugary snacks are as free flowing as marijuana on Willie Nelson’s tour bus hardly helps matters. That’s why I’ve been researching mindful eating, the meditative eating method in which practitioners take time to notice the texture, aroma, flavor and color of their food.

“Mindful eating is not a diet, or about giving up anything at all,” the New York Times noted in 2012. “It’s about experiencing food more intensely — especially the pleasure of it. You can eat a cheeseburger mindfully, if you wish. You might enjoy it a lot more. Or you might decide, halfway through, that your body has had enough. Or that it really needs some salad.”

Given that I’d rather run a few miles every morning than meditate daily—it took me years, actual years, to finish the mindfulness book Wherever you Go There You Are—I’ve had to trick myself into eating meditatively. If you’re like me in that meditation isn’t your cup of tea, try the five tips below to fool yourself into slowing down as you eat.

Say “Hara Hachi Bu”

Before you sit down for a meal, try uttering the Japanese phrase “hara hachi bu” or its English equivalent, “eat until you’re 80 percent full.” This is what the old timers on the island of Okinawa say, and the expression helps them eat 10 to 40 percent fewer calories than Americans do. If you’re unclear what 80 percent full feels like, eat half to two-thirds of what is on your plate, Dr. Pamela Peeke suggests.

So, why does telling oneself to eat until 80 percent full rather than 100 percent full work? Evidently it takes the brain 20 minutes to register fullness. This means you could be on your second or third serving before realizing you’re full since people tend to polish off a meal in seven minutes, according to Peeke. Ending a meal when you feel 80 percent full gives the mind time to catch up with the body and prevents one from continuing to eat until they’re, say, 115 percent full.

Focus on Eating and Eating Only

There’s no better way to cram in the calories than by eating when you’re distracted—watching television, surfing the Internet or talking with friends. That’s why mindful eating advocates suggest practitioners focus on eating and eating exclusively during meals. It prevents than from shoveling more food into their mouths than they realize and helps them to recognize when they’ve had enough.

“The rhythm of life is becoming faster and faster, so we really don’t have the same awareness and the same ability to check into ourselves,” Dr. Lilian Cheung, co-author of Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, told the Times. “That’s why mindful eating is becoming more important. We need to be coming back to ourselves and saying: ‘Does my body need this? Why am I eating this? Is it just because I’m so sad and stressed out?’ ”

Burger and fries. Reyner Media/

Burger and fries.
Reyner Media/

Distract Yourself Before Giving in to Food Urges

While distracted eating is a no-no, Dr. Susan Albers advises those who want to eat mindfully to distract themselves before “giving into the urge to eat.” Prolonging the urge to chow down may help people determine if they’re really hungry of if they simply want to eat because they spotted a pack of Oreos on the counter. Albers, author of the upcoming book Eat Q, says, “The best kind of distractions…are visual spatial tasks like video games, puzzles, cross-stitching, painting or computer games.”

Eat on Dishes, Not Out of Cartons

Arguably the easiest way to lapse into mindless eating is to snack on foods out of cartons, boxes or bags. Eating food out of containers makes it easy to overindulge because it’s more difficult to gauge how much you’ve eaten. Before you know it, you’ve wolfed down a whole roll of Ritz crackers. Prevent this from happening by getting a plate, setting aside an appropriate portion of food and sitting down. Don’t stand by the kitchen counter or refrigerator absentmindedly popping snacks into your mouth.

Take Care When Eating in a Group

Research indicates that people tend to eat mindlessly when they’re having a meal with companions. In this scenario, diners may be too consumed by the juicy conversations they’re having with friends to notice how much food they’re putting in their mouths. They may also eat faster than usual, a surefire way to eat more. While eating out, do not match the eating pace of your companions, mindful eating experts recommend. Slow down by attempting to take 25 to 30 chews for each mouthful of food, the Times advises. At a restaurant, you can also ask for a takeout box at the start of a meal. Put half of your meal away from the get-go and dramatically reduce the odds of overeating.

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