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Can Mindfulness Work on Your Waistline?

I’ll admit I was skeptical when I began reading The Joy of Half a Cookie: Using Mindfulness to Lose Weight and End the Struggle with Food.

If the book had been called “The Joy of Half an Avocado” or even “The Joy of Half a Slice of Cherry Pie,” I wouldn’t have been so dubious. But who can eat half a cookie?

Still, Jean Kristeller, Ph.D., the author of the book, is not to be dismissed lightly. A professor emeritus of psychology at Indiana State University, she is the creator of the NIH-funded Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT). She’s been studying meditation and people’s experiences around physical hunger, fullness and the pleasures of taste for decades. Part of what has driven Jean has been her own issues around compulsive overeating.

While most of us would not mind losing a few pounds, my motivation in reading this book wasn’t primarily weight loss. Rather I wanted to learn how to hit that sweet spot of satiety: enjoying every bite of what I’m eating without crossing the line to being overly stuffed. I wanted to avoid food hangovers: the grogginess, lethargy and headache that I experience after a night of too much sugar, fat and salt.

An introduction to mindful eating

You won’t find a list of forbidden foods, daily menu plans, calorie counts or recipes in this book. What you will find are the tools that help you “tune in to your own hunger experiences” and begin your journey toward mindful eating. The starting point is the “Keep It Off Checklist.” (You can download the checklist at MB-EAT.com.) This helps you recognize where you are today in your relationship with food, guides you to make small shifts toward “a more mindful style of eating” and to “notice and celebrate your growing self-awareness.”

By filling out this checklist weekly, you’ll document how often you eat mindfully (“I stopped eating when I noticed I wasn’t tasting the food as much”), as well as those times when you’re eating without awareness (“I overate after feeling upset about something”).

The Joy of Half a Cookie is filled with practices that will help you make healthier choices around food with fewer struggles. Here are two key exercises:

Be mindful of physical hunger

Pick a time of day when you’re likely to be somewhat hungry; say, a few hours after your last mealtime. Follow your breath in and out bringing your awareness to your body. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being as hungry as possible and 1 being not at all hungry, assess your hunger. Now, consider the physical sensations that led you to the number you chose. A feeling of emptiness? Stomach growling? Lightheaded? Be aware of other triggers that may be fueling a desire to eat or a specific food craving. Are you anxious or blue? Are you sitting in a restaurant or at your kitchen table? In front of the TV?

Over time, with exercises like this one, you’ll be able to tell the difference between physical hunger and other urges to eat, like stress or boredom. Then, Jean says, “you’ll be able to use this information to help you decide whether to eat, how much to eat, and whether to continue eating.”

Cultivate taste

Choose a chocolate food that you like but isn’t your absolute favorite; say, supermarket brownies rather than the to-die-for ones from your favorite bakery. (If you’re one of the rare people who doesn’t like chocolate, pick another snack food.)

1. Place a medium-sized brownie or large cookie in front of you.

2. Cut it into four or five bite-sized pieces. (Four Hershey’s Kisses can work, too.)

3.  Close your eyes and relax with a few deep breaths.

4.  Opening your eyes, place a piece of chocolate in your mouth and chew it very slowly, savoring the taste.

5. Continue to eat the small pieces of chocolate slowly and mindfully. Pay attention to when the flavor and satisfaction begin to decline. After the fourth piece, decide whether you want to continue eating.

6. If you do decide to eat another piece of chocolate, ask yourself why. Are you still finding the chocolate pleasurable? Or, are you “chasing the flavor, seeking to experience the first bite that is no longer in your mouth”?

As you cultivate taste awareness, you’ll likely find that the fourth or fifth bite isn’t nearly as satisfying as that first bite. That’s because, Jean says, “our taste buds are capable of experiencing and registering flavors fully for only a short period of time.” If you carefully pay attention, she says, you’ll be surprised to find how quickly “taste satiety” sets in and satisfaction drops.

Last night I tried a slightly different experiment with two small scoops of vanilla ice cream, which I ate slowly and mindfully, topped with strawberries and fresh mint. Instead of heading to the freezer for seconds, as I’m usually tempted to do, I placed my bowl in the dishwasher with no regrets and no guilt.

Shelley Levitt is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles and an editor at large for Live Happy.

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