Mindfulness might sound a bit new age, but there’s actually a strong evidence base for it. I like to think of mindfulness as the opposite of autopilot. Mindfulness is about engaging with what is going on in the moment it is happening. Although autopilot can be useful occasionally (such as when driving a car), it is rarely useful in eating, particularly if you are trying to lose weight, and in this section I’ll explain why.
The process of getting nutrients is quite complex and there are also quite a few stages involved. Right at the very beginning comes thinking about food, which then leads to planning to eat. The next stages are deciding what to eat, getting the food and preparing it and only then does the actual eating begin. You put the food to your mouth and start to chew, then you swallow and the rest is out of your control. Sometimes eating doesn’t follow this pattern, such as when someone unexpectedly offers you something to eat, but most of the time it goes this way. Sometimes the triggers are hunger, or break time at work, or sometimes it’s walking towards a cafe on the way to the train, but whatever the trigger, it usually starts with thinking about food.
Have a look at the two scenarios below. The first is a fairly typical "autopilot" lunch.
Scenario One - Mindless eating
You are at work and it’s lunchtime. You are busy so you choose a sandwich because it is convenient to get it from the place round the corner and you choose cheese and pickle because you always have it and you know it tastes OK. You take it back to your desk, open your emails and work your way through them. All the while you are eating the sandwich, automatically putting hand to mouth until the first half is finished. Then you pick up the second half of the sandwich and eat that in the same way. You haven’t really noticed the taste of the sandwich, or the chewing part, but now the sandwich is gone and you can’t really remember having eaten it. You haven’t really enjoyed your lunch and you don’t really feel satisfied. It is now the end of your lunch break so you start work on the project again feeling unrefreshed.
Forty minutes later you feel like you need a break from work as you can’t concentrate properly. You are hungry again but you have had your lunch so you decide to grab a snack. There isn’t much around so you have a couple of biscuits from the jar in the kitchen.
It’s important to understand a little now about how our brains work. Your brain is constantly processing hundreds of signals that it uses to make appropriate decisions about what to do next. If you see someone walking in your path on a pavement, your brain uses that information to step aside so that you don’t bump into them. If you are walking along looking at your phone your brain is focusing on the phone and may not get the information that you are about to bump into someone. The same thing happens with eating.
Your brain uses a lot of sensory inputs to make decisions about food. As I mentioned in the When To Eat section, if you are absolutely starving then your brain will use that signal to decide the best course of action: to eat straight away, whatever is available. If you are slightly hungry the brain uses that signal to decide that the best course of action might be to go and find something nourishing and tasty, even if it takes a little time or effort. This makes perfect sense. Just like when you focus on your phone instead of where you are walking you miss information, if you are focusing on your emails while eating your lunch then there’s a whole host of sensory inputs related to eating that you are likely to miss, particularly information about how much to eat.
Taste, texture, the number of mouthfuls and how many times you chew are all important sensory inputs that affect appetite. If you eat a bland sandwich while not concentrating on it then you miss out on pleasure signals that might normally be associated with eating. You miss how many bites you had so your brain has to decide how much to eat with not much idea of how much it’s had already. You eat until the end of the sandwich because the end of the food is the only concrete input your brain has to go on.
Scenario Two - Mindful eating
You are at work and it’s lunchtime. You are busy but you knew you would be so you have brought in some leftovers from your meal the night before. You take your leftovers to the kitchen and warm them up in the microwave. You go to the lunch room and sit down and start to eat. You look at the food and smell it, and as you chew it you are aware of the taste and texture, which are pleasing. You have enough of the food on the plate and you feel pleasantly satisfied. You enjoyed that meal and it reminded you of the meal last night you had which was also pleasant. It is now the end of the lunch break and you go back to your desk feeling refreshed. You start work on the project for a while and when you feel your concentration going bit, you switch to going through your emails for a bit until you feel ready to carry on with your project.
A few hours later, you are ready for a break and you are a bit hungry so you stop and get a drink and also grab a snack.
The mindfulness began with knowing that you weren’t going to have a lot of time in the first place and preparing for that with some food that was going to be quick and convenient and tasty. Then by sitting down and giving some focus to the food, you tasted it properly and enjoyed it and at the same time got away from your desk and reminisced about the meal you had last night. All those sensory inputs allowed the brain to feel satisfied by the meal and you go back to work satisfied and refreshed.