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How Mindfulness Can Make Dining Out Healthy

First Posted: 01/09/2012 11:12 pm EST   Updated: 01/07/2013 2:03 pm EST

It's often said that people who eat out regularly tend to gain weight, but a new study argues that doesn't have to be the case.

By using mindful eating strategies, people can frequent restaurants several times a week, the study finds, and drop pounds.

"The advice for weight loss is often just, 'Well, eat out less,' which is just not very realistic these days," said Gayle M. Timmerman, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin's School of Nursing and one of the study's authors. "For many people, it's an important part of their lifestyle and it's an important part of their social life -- even with the economic downturn."

Bearing this in mind, Timmerman and her colleagues devised a strategy to prevent weight gain in a group of 35 healthy Texans -- all middle-age women -- who eat out at least three times weekly. They coached the women for several hours over six weeks.

Though the intervention was aimed solely at weight maintenance and not weight loss, members of the group lost an average of nearly four pounds over six weeks without cutting back on the number of visits to restaurants, according to results published Tuesday in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

Overall, the women cut their daily intake by about 300 calories -- only one-third which came from restaurants. That suggests the dining out strategies seeped into meals eaten at home.

So what exactly did the study participants do?

Much of the intervention was basic knowledge-building, Timmerman told The Huffington Post.

The women learned about healthy alternatives and portion sizes. They asked themselves questions about what they were willing to substitute or change, and discussed healthy options specific to certain cuisines (for example, Italian, Chinese and Mexican) and meals (breakfast, dessert and beverages).

Another key component was mindfulness training.

Over the study's six weeks, the women were led through mindful eating meditations. They were given raisins and strawberries, which they were told to savor and to describe the smell, texture and taste. They tried hunger awareness exercises, taking time to question how full or satiated they were before eating more. Overall, the focus was both on limiting portions and on enjoying food.

"If you eat mindfully, you're paying attention -- you're more satisfied," Timmerman said. "How many times are people throwing french fries into their mouths when they're soggy and cold? If you're able to pay attention, if you really savor it when it's hot -- could you be satisfied with less?"

Judy Caplan, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, praised the study, saying the concepts have long been understood as "seminal" to success by weight loss professionals. However, Caplan said many non-professionals overlook the importance of mindfulness or awareness when eating out, given our "on-the-go" society.

Dr. Jan Chozen Bays, a pediatrician and author of "Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship to Food," said the popularity of mindful eating strategies is growing. While formal training can help, people can easily adopt mindfulness on their own, he said.

Bays suggested that diners make an effort to focus on what they're eating -- pausing conversation to concentrate solely on their food, or not reading a newspaper or book if they are out and dining alone. This, she said, allows you to both enjoy what you're eating and to focus on how satisfied you are. Bays also suggested waiting to order an entree until you have eaten your appetizer, in order to pause and consider how hungry you are. Such strategies, she said, free people to eat foods they really want without necessarily gaining weight.

"There's a saying: 'When eating, just eat,'" Bays said. "So thoroughly enjoy and get pleasure out of your food. But be aware of how your body is feeling and when you are full."


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  • Use A Bigger Fork

    A study published in the <em>Journal of Consumer Research</em> shows that restaurant-goers who <a href="" target="_hplink">eat with really big forks</a> (20 percent bigger than a normal fork you'd find at a restaurant) eat less food and leave more on their plates than people who eat with really small forks. A possible explanation for this finding is that when people use small forks to eat, they feel like they are not making any big <a href="" target="_hplink">progress in eating their meal</a> and quelling their hunger pangs, <em>TIME</em> reported. In addition, the restaurant-goers who ate with the smaller forks and were given bigger portions of food at much more food than if they just had the smaller forks or if they just had the bigger portions.

  • Eat From A Smaller Bowl

    Research from the Georgia Institute of Technology shows that people eat 31 percent more ice cream when they eat out of a 34-ounce bowl, rather than 17-ounce one, ScienceDaily reported. Researchers explained that's because people eat about 92 percent of what they serve themselves -- so if you <a href="" target="_hplink">serve yourself more, you'll eat more</a>.

  • Get Some Sleep

    Columbia University researchers found that <a href="" target="_hplink">sleep deprivation can also lead to more calories consumed</a>. They found that women who only got 4 hours sleep the night before ate 329 more calories in a nine-hour period compared with if they weren't sleep deprived, while men ate 263 more calories when <a href="" target="_hplink">sleep-deprived</a>. "It has an impact on cognitive restraint," study researcher Marie-Pierre St. Onge told ThirdAge. "High-fat food is tempting, and maybe on <a href="" target="_hplink">short sleep you can't restrain yourself</a> as well, while on full sleep you can resist more easily."

  • Mind Your Environment

    <a href="" target="_hplink">WHERE you eat your food</a> could also factor in to how much you eat and whether you're eating food even though you're not hungry, according to research from the University of Southern California. Researchers had movie-goers say whether they were regular popcorn-eaters or not, and then they had them eat either stale popcorn or freshly popped popcorn. The regular popcorn-eaters ate just as much stale popcorn as fresh popcorn, while people who didn't consider themselves regular popcorn-eaters ate significantly less stale popcorn than fresh since it didn't taste as good. "The results show just how <a href="" target="_hplink">powerful our environment can be</a> in triggering unhealthy behavior," study researcher David Neal said in a statement. "Sometimes willpower and good intentions are not enough, and we need to trick our brains by controlling the environment instead."

  • Hide The Junk Food

    Research from Cornell University shows that we are three times more likely to <a href="" target="_hplink">eat the first thing that we see</a>, compared with the fifth thing we see. In that study, researchers took photographs of 100 kitchen cupboards and asked the owners to keep records of what they ate. Researchers also tried moving the food around in the cupboards to see if that impacted their food choices -- and found that it did. The research shows that "we end up being masters of our own demise, to some extent," study researcher Professor Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think," told HuffPost.

  • Eat Using Your Non-Dominant Hand

    Research published in the <em>Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin</em> shows that <a href="" target="_hplink">eating with your non-dominant hand</a> can help you to decrease the amount of food you consume, CNN reported. The finding was part of the same movie-theater/popcorn study, where it was discovered that environment plays a part in mindless eating. Like in that experiment, researchers gave study participants either fresh or stale popcorn. They found that people who used their non-dominant hands and ate the stale popcorn ate 30 percent less than if they used their dominant hands, CNN reported.

  • How to Avoid Mindless Eating

    Food Think with Wansink: Economy-size snacks can cause you to eat more