Mindful Eating to Manage Weight

Free seminar offers tips on tapping brainpower to change eating habits

Participants in a DukeWell seminar practiced eating a chocolate candy mindfully. Photo by Marsha A. Green.
Participants in a DukeWell seminar practiced eating a chocolate candy mindfully. Photo by Marsha A. Green.

Angela Airall peered at a Hershey's Kisses chocolate in her hand. Following the instructor's lead, she slowly unwrapped the purple foil and raised the chocolate to her nose. She inhaled and slowly placed the candy in her mouth. She waited, allowing the chocolate to soften, then bit down for the explosion of flavor.

"It was really different to take the time to create a conscious relationship with a piece of candy, using all my senses," said Airall, a senior consultant with Learning & Organization Development.

This mindful eating exercise was part of "Managing Your Weight from the Inside Out," a free seminar about tapping the power of one's mind for managing eating habits. DukeWell, Duke's health management program, sponsored the seminar, which was taught by Ruth Wolever, director of research and health psychologist at Duke Integrative Medicine.

"Many eating issues can be conceptualized as a disconnect between mind and body," Wolever told two dozen participants gathered in a Duke Integrative Medicine conference room for the January seminar. "We often make choices about food that don't feel like choices because we are on auto-pilot."

Wolever offered the following tips for mindful eating:

Break habits that lead to the fridge. Much of our eating is based on habit, not hunger. "If you regularly come home, put your purse down and open the refrigerator door to get a snack, your brain links that sequence of behaviors and you are eating without thinking," Wolever said. "Try spotting those habits and changing the first part of the sequence. Walk in a different door for a while, and that will help knock you out of autopilot." Once off autopilot, it is easier to think about whether or not you should be snacking.

Listen to your body. Many people eat based on external clues, such as the time of day or the pressure of a peer group, rather than eating when hungry and stopping when full. Wolever suggested periodically pausing before and during a snack or meal to gauge hunger. "We live in a culture that celebrates the clean plate club," Wolever said. "We decide to stop eating based on an external clue - the state of our plate - rather than listening to what is going on inside our own bodies."

Savor the flavor. Taking the time to focus on the look, smell, texture and taste of food, rather than simply shoveling it down, can actually reduce the amount of food eaten, according to Wolever. "You may eat less, but you get more enjoyment," she said.

Take a few breaths. Periodically pause and pay attention to what is happening in the body and mind to reduce stress. Being mindful of senses and thoughts without judging them creates mental space for choices.  "Interrupting our chattering mind with mindfulness practices give us a chance to react with our wise mind, rather than with our automatic behaviors," Wolever said.

Airall, the Learning & Organization Development senior consultant, said she attended the DukeWell seminar because in her own work she often invites leaders to pause and become more aware of their senses to anchor them and allow them to reflect more consciously on their leadership choices and decisions.

"The seminar was a helpful reminder about using mindfulness to create self-awareness in every aspect of life," she said. "As we serve cookies and fruit to our classes at learning events, I can invite myself and others to pause and practice mindfulness to make healthier decisions."