Next, take time to appreciate the food on your plate. Notice the colors and textures.
Take a bite. Slowly experience the tastes on your tongue. Put down your fork and savor.
"Most people don't think about what they're eating -- they're focusing on the next bite," says Sasha Loring, a psychotherapist at Duke Integrative Medicine, part of Duke University Health System here. "I've worked with lots of obese people -- you'd think they'd enjoy food. But a lot of them say they haven't really tasted what they've been shoveling down for years."
Over lunch, Ms. Loring is teaching me how to eat mindfully -- paying attention to what you eat and stopping just before you're full, ideally about 5½ on that 7-point scale. Many past diet plans have stressed not overeating. What's different about mindful eating is the paradoxical concept that eating just a few mouthfuls, and savoring the experience, can be far more satisfying than eating an entire cake mindlessly.
It's also a mind-blowing experience: I'm full and completely satisfied after three mindful bites.
The approach, which has roots in Buddhism, is being studied at several academic medical centers and the National Institutes of Health as a way to combat eating disorders. In a randomized controlled trial at Duke and Indiana State University, binge eaters who participated in a nine-week mindful-eating program went from binging an average of four times a week to once, and reduced their levels of insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes. More NIH-funded trials are under way to study whether mindful eating is effective for weight loss, and for helping people who have lost weight keep it off.
One key aspect is to approach food nonjudgmentally. Many people bring a host of negative emotions to the table -- from guilt about blowing a diet to childhood fears of deprivation or wastefulness. "I joke with my clients that if I could put a microphone in their heads and broadcast what they're saying to themselves when they eat, the FCC would have to bleep it out," says Megrette Fletcher, executive director of the Center for Mindful Eating, a Web-based forum for health-care professionals.
Using food as a reward or as solace also interferes with eating mindfully; if you're eating to satisfy emotional hunger, it's hard to ever feel full. "Ask yourself, what do you really need and what else can you do it fulfill it?" says Ms. Loring.
Chronic dieters in particular have trouble recognizing their internal cues, says Jean Kristeller, a psychologist at Indiana State, who pioneered mindful eating in the 1990s. "Diets set up rules around food and disconnect people even further from their own experiences of hunger and satiety and fullness," she says.
Mindful eaters learn to assess taste satiety. A hunger for something sweet or sour or salty can often be satisfied with a small morsel. In one exercise, Ms. Kristeller has clients mindfully eat a single raisin -- noticing their thoughts and emotions, as well as the taste and texture. "It sounds somewhat silly," she explains, "but it can also be very profound."
Mindful eating also means learning to ignore urges to snack that aren't connected to hunger. And it's critical to leave food on your plate once you are full; pack it to go, if possible.
In contrast to other diet programs, the researchers involved with mindful eating avoid making weight-loss claims; that's still being investigated. But some practitioners say it's life-changing.
"I don't think about food anymore. It's totally out of my mind," says Mary Ann Power, age 50, of Pittsboro, N.C., a lifelong dieter who thinks she's lost eight or 10 pounds in two weeks since learning the practice at Duke. "I think you could put a piece of chocolate cake in front of my nose right now, and it wouldn't tempt me. Before, I could eat three pieces."
One mindful meal at Duke made a big impression on me -- I was satisfied with minimal meals for days afterward. But it's hard to sustain. I find myself eating mindlessly again in front of the TV, or at the computer.
"Try to eat one meal or one snack mindfully every day," advises Jeffrey Greeson, a psychologist with the Duke program. "Even eating just the first few bites mindfully can help break the cycle of wolfing it down without paying any attention."
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