Health & Food

Food Cravings/Addictions: The Basics of Mindful Eating

When you see these cupcakes, what happens to you physically, mentally, and emotionally?Stop and think about it.  What are you feeling, right now, as you look at these cupcakes?   Figuring out what makes you crave foods, what makes you eat foods, and why you eat what you eat (among other questions) is a key component of a concept called Mindful Eating. I’m not a Mindful Eating pro by any means, but I did use mindful eating strategies to help get me through the time in my life when I had a very poor relationship with food.  I’ll get into that in a moment….

I hear it often; Gina, how do I control my tendencies to overeat”?  Or, “Gina, how do I get over my intense cravings for sugar”? I’ve posted some information in the past (see links below)….

  1. Healthier Snacks for Someone with a Sweet Tooth
  2. Don’t Like Healthy Food? You Can Change Your Taste Buds!

How Do I Decrease My Sweet Cravings?

…..but today I want to talk about mindful eating and how it might help someone who tends to overeat, binge, or even just get insatiable cravings for sugar, salt, or whatever it is.You’ve probably heard of mindless eating before.  Brian Wansink, PhD is basically the expert on the mindless eating concept.  I wrote ablog about it back in January of 2011, if you’d like a review.  Basically mindless eating is happening to everyone, all throughout the day. We are constantly eating more than we think (and more than we need!), mindlessly, and therefore we now live in a country with a 66% obese/overweight population.  I encourage you to read some of Brian’s work, and learn some ways to prevent or reduce mindless eating.

Food Cravings 1

Source: iStockPhoto

One thing to think about is your plate size.  Start serving your dinner on smaller plates, rather than larger ones, and science indicates that you will eat less.

So what’s the difference between mindless eating and mindful eating, aren’t they just opposites? Not necessarily.  Read about this studyf or the perfect example of getting trapped both mindlessly eating, and not eating mindfully.  I’ll briefly explain; the researchers surveyed moviegoers before a special showing of a movie and determined the ones who typically ate popcorn at the movie theater.   The researchers then handed out free popcorn to all of the participants.  Some of moviegoers received popcorn in a large container, and some received popcorn in a medium-sized container.  Also, some of the popcorn was stale (14 days old) while some of the popcorn was fresh.  Those who typically ate popcorn at movies consumed 45.3% more popcorn when given to them  in larger containers, compared to those who received the medium containers (this is mindless, the subtle cue of the larger container automatically made theme eat more).  Better yet, the moviegoers who were given stale, 14 day old popcorn ate 33.6% more popcorn when given a larger container, compared to those given a medium bag.  This is not only mindless, but a perfect example of not being mindful (ie: not actually stopping to think about your food, and enjoy the taste of eat delicious, buttery bite).  If they would have been more mindful, they most likely would have stopped eating because it was stale!

popcorn 1

Source: iStock Photo

The moviegoers ate more, automatically, when they received popcorn in a larger container (mindless eating)
The moviegoers also ate more when the container was larger and the popcorn was stale (mindless eating, and not eating mindfully)

This research study was a perfect example of people allowing subtle cues (the larger container) to increase their calorie intake (mindless eating) but it also showed that the participants weren’t being mindful of the food they were eating, because they still ate a lot even though it was 14 days old (not eating mindfully)!  If they were being mindful they would have savored the food, rather than eating out of habit, and they would have realized it just wasn’t good.

Many dietitians and therapists work with people who have binge eating disorder and use mindful eating strategies to help them become more aware of why they eat, and what they are eating.  However, I am fully aware that anyone can benefit from these strategies, as many people may not have documented binge eating disorder, but still find themselves wondering to the kitchen and eating despite not being hungry. And many of us find ourselves getting out of control more often than we’d like.  As someone with a history of anorexia (and bulimia, as that’s often the next step when trying to heal from anorexia….) I can appreciate the mindfulness approach.Dietitian Magazine

Source: Today’s Dietitian Magazine

  This article talks about the concept of mindful eating (I highly recommend reading it!).  Let’s look at the cycle from the article (pictured above).  These are the questions you might ask yourself as you’re trying to become a more mindful eater and gain a better relationship with food.I will use myself as an example;

During the time in my life when I was trying to overcome an eating disorder I went through a really bad time of binging and purging (my purge was exercise).  Seven years ago, these would have been my answers;

1) Why did I eat? Emotions, stress, felt out of control

2)  When did I eat?  Typically when no one was around, or whenever I had a spare moment to eat something really fast

3)  What did I eat?  Very specific foods, “good” foods, never “fad” foods. And, if they were “Bad” foods I typically binged.

4)  How did I eat?  Fast, very fast, and not mindfully. I even ate fast around others, because I didn’t want them commenting on what I was eating.

5)  How much did I eat? It really depended on if I was alone, or not, and what time it was, and what I was eating.

6)  Where did I eat?  Anywhere but at the table (unless we were out to dinner)

 Over the past 7 years I have learned to put a pause between my trigger (emotion to want food) and response (eating the food), which is one of the purposes of this mindful eating exercise.  Here are my answers today;

1) Why do I eat? Sometimes it’s still emotions that cause me to eat, such as stress, sadness, or most often boredom, but I am much more aware of this now and I am more likely to grab a healthier snack than something like cake or chips  (or multiple spoons of peanut butter, which is what I used to do, over and over again)

2)  When do eat?  Any time I please!  I am trying really hard to eat only when I’m hungry, physically.  Sometimes this happens at different times throughout the day, so it really depends. I let my body lead the way.

3)  What do I eat?  Whatever sounds good.  And I no longer call foods “good” and “bad”.  I eat to make my body and brain feel energized.  I’ll write a blog post soon about my daily eats….they are very similar each day but always foods I love to eat!  And, if I eat something that isn’t so good for me, I don’t dwell on it, I enjoy every succulent morsel

4)  How do I eat?  I still eat fast sometimes, and I’m continuing to work on this.

5)  How much do I eat? Most of the time I eat just enough to make me feel slightly full.  There are still times when I overeat, and feel uncomfortable, but these times are few and far between.  The best part is that when this does happen, I don’t beat myself up.

6)  Where do I eat?  This is something else I’m working on.  I tend not to eat at the table, but instead on the couch.  I don’t know why, but I prefer the couch.  If the TV is on, it’s on mute, but still….. the good news is that I don’t eat while standing up or while in the fridge (something I used to do).

Ok, now you try!  

1)  Think about the above questions, and try to put a pause between your trigger (often the trigger is some type of emotion) and the response (eating a specific food, or binging on specific foods).

2)   Journal your answers if you’d like.  This will help you make more sense of your relationship with food.  Write in your journal daily or weekly (you can read more tips and activities the article).

3)   Remember to stop and savor the texture, smell, and taste of your food.  The more you appreciate each and every bite, and really grasp the deliciousness that it is, the more satisfied you will be, and the less likely you are to continue eating beyond your control.

4)  If binging isn’t your issue, but (like me sometimes) you often find yourself eating (whether it’s salty or sweet foods, or whatever it is…) despite not being hungry, you can still use these tips.One thing I do when I find myself staring at food in the fridge, is to stop and ask myself; “Do the healthy foods I love sound good to me right now?” If the answer is “No, I want chocolate, or chips”, then I know (most of the time) I’m not really hungry and I’m just acting on a craving, which has been triggered by an emotion (most of the time it’s boredom!).  Clearly there are times when I’m not hungry and I really just want to eat some chocolate, and I do….. and that’s ok sometimes!

Again, I’m not an Mindful Eating Expert, but I truly believe in the concept.  I encourage anyone who is reading this to check out some of the resources provided by Today’s Dietitian Magazine (below) to learn more and start practicing eating more mindfully (and teach these concepts to your clients, if you work with people who might be struggling with their relationship with food).

Source: Today’s Dietitian Magazine

***NOTE:  If you truly believe you have an eating disorder, be sure to find a good therapist and dietitian to work with you as you try to create a better relationship with food, and yourself.  These are great resources, but some people truly need more than a book, a journal, and/or a blog post.  And there should be no shame in that.***

I really enjoyed this recent article from the Washington Post, which discussed the “sour side of a sweet tooth”, ie: the sugar crash (acute) and long term health problems (chronic). I thought the tips they provided were helpful; add a protein, fat and/or fiber to your sweet treat and it will reduce the glucose and insulin spike, therefore theoretically reduce the crash (and perhaps reduce the urge to continue eating more sugar!).Tofu Mousse

Tofu Mousse topped with blueberries; lots of fiber, and just enough sugar to keep me satisfied (oh, and chocolate of course)Tofu Mousse 1Fruit and nut bars (homemade); again lots of fiber and very little added sugar.  But, of course enough sugar to satisfy.  I eat these very slowly and enjoy every tiny morsel.  By the time I’ve finished my “sweet cravings” are typically gone and I can move along.

QUESTION: Have you ever read about mindful eating?  Have you ever used these strategies to help reduce your urge to binge, or overeat?  When was the last time you really thought about the smell, texture, and taste of your food, and savored every tiny bite?

About author


Hi, my name is Rebecca Houston and I am a writer. I write about health, healthy food and daily meal plan for various websites.
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