Why Can't Dieters Eat Mindfully?

02/10/2012 07:38 am ET | Updated Apr 10, 2012
  • Judith S. Beck, Ph.D. World Expert in Cognitive Behavior Therapy and President of Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy

A recent article in the New York Times, "Mindful Eating as Food for Thought" (Feb. 8, 2012), describes the importance of eating mindfully -- in short, noticing and enjoying every bite you eat. Why is this so important? If your goal is to lose weight and keep it off, you will have to eat fewer bites than you'd like. So you ought to get as much enjoyment from each one as you can. It's especially crucial to learn this skill if you have a tendency to binge or "graze" (eating small amounts of food off and on for a period of time). You'll be much less likely to allow yourself to eat in this way once you've fully mastered this skill.

In our cognitive behavioral approach with dieters, we've found it can be difficult -- initially -- for some people to learn the skill of mindful eating. Why? It's due to a combination of practical problems and "sabotaging" ideas. Below are the most common difficulties dieters face and some solutions:

  • Lack of awareness. Some dieters are simply not cognizant of how quickly they eat. It's often an eye opening experience when dieters complete a mindful eating exercise and recognize how much more pleasure they get from food when they pay full attention to their eating. Visual reminders, such as using oversized utensils, a different place mat, a Post-it note on the table, a rubber band around the wrist, or a soft alarm that goes off every minute can help dieters learn to slow down and enjoy their food.
  • Scheduling problems. Many people have a tendency to consume their meals and snacks on the go, because of an overly-busy schedule. They don't set aside an appropriate amount of time to eat. They often say, "I can't take the time to eat properly (sitting down, slowly, and mindfully) because everything else is more important." They need to examine their activities and decide what they can skip, what they can delegate to others, what they can postpone, and what they can do less well.
  • Fooling oneself. Some dieters, especially those who like to eat quickly, have the sabotaging thought, "I can still lose weight and keep it off without taking the time to eat mindfully." The truth is that almost everyone can lose at least a little weight without learning the essential skill of mindful eating. But they don't continue to lose weight if they don't consistently implement this skill -- or they eventually gain back the weight they've lost. We help dieters recognize that eating quickly or mindlessly has never served them well in the past and has contributed to their inability to reach their goal of losing weight or keeping it off.
  • Avoidance of guilt. Many dieters feel guilty when they eat something they know they're not supposed to eat. Therefore, they try not to pay too much attention to what and how much they're eating. If they did, they'd feel too guilty. These dieters need to learn to prepare themselves in advance for this kind of mindless eating. They need to continually remind themselves of the consequence of deviating from their eating plan and the advantages of sticking to their plan.
  • Distraction. Even when dieters are sold on the idea of mindful eating, they can have difficulty maintaining their focus on eating when their attention is pulled away, often because they're multi-tasking. They're not only eating but also reading, watching television, and/ or using the computer. Many weight loss programs prohibit these activities at meal and snack times. But even if dieters aren't engaging in these behaviors, there are other distractions -- conversation with others, for example. So the goal is to learn to eat mindfully, no matter what else is going on. First we have dieters learn the skill of mindful eating when no one is around and when they aren't doing anything else. After they have successfully implemented this skill for a few meals, we ask them to add the distractions back in and use the kinds of reminders described above to maintain focus on their eating.

Mindful eating is a skill, much like learning to ride a bike or operate a new electronic device. It takes proper instruction and practice. And while it may be more difficult at first, it gets easier and easier until it becomes automatic.

For more by Judith S. Beck, Ph.D., click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.