Mindfulness has become a popular topic in relation to weight control. Many are suggesting that learning to eat more mindfully should lead to healthier eating, and possibly to better weight control. That has not been proven yet, although it does seem like a logical prediction. So, what is mindfulness, how do you get more of it, and how does it improve weight control?
Mindfulness refers to a state of mind in which we notice what we are thinking and feeling, without getting lost in our thoughts or trapped in our feelings. Mindfulness training is thought to gradually develop the quality of “equanimity”, which means that we get better at not amplifying our reactions, be they positive (“the ice cream is so good, I can’t stop eating it”) or negative (“I can’t take this feeling and I must make it go away this instant”). In meditation practice, we try to notice everything non-judgmentally, without acting on it.
Engaging regularly in some form of mental practice, such as mindfulness meditation seems to have beneficial effects on the quality of our mindset. To get the most out of our efforts in pursuit of our goals, such as to get in better shape or to increase our overall life satisfaction, it helps to deal with the behaviour change process in a mindful manner, focusing more on the day-to-day process and less on the outcome.
When it comes to weight control, the concept of mindfulness has many implications and applications:
Is mindfulness enough?
When we think about the decision-making process for eating (or exercise), we realize that being mindful about our impulses to eat or not eat may not be enough to produce better choices, although it is a necessary first step. We also need a strategy such as the one I define as "moderation". The question then is how do mindfulness and moderation relate to each other?
Moderation starts with the intention to eat the "right way"; i.e., the optimal amount and types of food. What is "right" or "optimal" is hard to define, so we can think of it more as a general strategy, like a meta goal. There is no specific requirement to follow a particular diet or eating plan, but more like a strategy to eat "reasonably and intelligently."
I sometimes refer to moderation as "intelligent restraint." There are as many variations on what this looks like as there are individuals, because we have our own individual preferences and biological needs for food. The strategy must map on to what we need to support our health and wellness.
Intelligent Restraint is different than the prototypical "diet mentality." The typical diet mentality is a type of "rigid" restraint, based on strict eating rules ("eat this, not that"), anxiety about breaking the rules, and guilt and loss of confidence if and when there's any lapse in the restraint.
In contrast, intelligent restraint is being a smart and reasonable eater. It does not mean being inflexible. For example, taking a small ice cream cone instead of a medium or large one, realizing that the first 10 bites are the best, after which the satisfaction per bite decreases rapidly, and remembering that there will be other occasions to eat ice cream, and this is not the last chance. This mindset, to the extent that we follow it, leads to a significant reduction in unhealthy eating and an increase in healthy choices, while satisfying our taste preferences at the same time.
Thus, the most advanced weight management mindset, and the one that we want to cultivate, is best referred to as "mindful and moderate". The operation of this mindset works on the principles of sensitivity to internal signals, along with an attitude of moderation.
To summarize, you need to learn to pay attention to your body's signals and you also need to sharpen your intelligent restraint. Mindfulness is necessary, but so is good judgment.
In our program, we work to help you move from rigid restraint to intelligent restraint, and ultimately to mindful and moderate eating. These principles apply to the way you eat, and how you regulate your physical activity, stress management, and general health and wellness. In other words, it's kind of an all-purpose strategy, perhaps even a way of life.
Stephen Stotland, Ph.D.
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This blog presents some of our ideas about the key issues involved in achieving successful long-term weight control.