Can Mindfulness Curb Restaurant Overeating?

January 10, 2012

Although the rationale behind mindful eating makes intuitive sense, only a handful of small trials have tested whether the approach is effective for weight management. And Timmerman’s study, despite the promising results, is itself merely a pilot study that will need to be expanded and strengthened to confirm the benefits of mindful eating in restaurants.

A major shortcoming of the study is the fact that the women in the control group received no intervention at all and were simply put on a waiting list, says Barbara J. Rolls, PhD, a professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University, in State College.

“Previous research shows that simply spending time with the [instructor] can affect the outcome, so it is important to match ‘face’ time,” Rolls says. A thorough test of Timmerman’s six-week program would entail comparing the effectiveness of the mindful eating sessions with a similar number of general nutrition sessions, as well as observing “what the patients did in the restaurants,” she says.

Timmerman is planning a larger follow-up study that will incorporate a more active control group. In the meantime, some of the principles that underlie her mindful eating program may be useful for people who are trying to manage their weight but aren’t willing to forgo nights out. Here are some tips to try on your own:

Think twice before ordering. People can fall into a rut of eating the same dishes at the same restaurant, or they may say yes without thinking if a waitress suggests an appetizer, Albers says. Mindful eating involves “breaking those autopilot habits that we have around eating,” she says.

Make each calorie count. Think about what you really love to eat, and save your calorie budget to spend on those foods, Timmerman advises. “Does that cheese on the burger really make it for you? If not, that’s about a hundred calories,” she says.

On the side, please. Gravy, salad dressing, butter—if you can ask for something on the side, do it. “Then you have control of how much…you really need or want on there,” Timmerman says.

Think before you eat. Before you dig in, take a moment to ask yourself how hungry you are on a scale of 1 to 10, and how that hunger matches up with what you’ve got in front of you. Remember, you don’t have to clear your plate.

Pay attention. “When you’re eating, really be aware of…the sight and the texture and the taste of food,” Timmerman says. “We go out to eat because it’s enjoyable, it’s pleasurable, it tastes good—all of that. If you’re really paying attention, maybe you don’t have to eat the whole basket of fries; you can eat just a handful.”

Slow down. It can take our bodies up to 20 minutes to register the fact that we’re full—and during that time we’re often continuing to stuff ourselves. Proponents of mindful eating recommend taking your time, chewing your food carefully, and treating a meal as a leisurely stroll rather than a race.

Drop the fork. While you’re eating, put your fork down for a moment and assess how you’re feeling. “We get into such a habit of picking up the fork and putting food in our mouths, without even checking in with ourselves to see, ‘Am I still hungry, or am I full?'” Albers says.

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