THE SCIENCE BACKED METHOD TO LOSING WEIGHT WITH ONLY YOUR MIND
A virtually endless amount of information has been written about the various types of diets, which foods are healthy and which are not, and the effect of different eating behaviors on weight loss. However, there is one strategy that can immediately help you lose weight, that has a tremendous amount of research backing it up, but is rarely discussed. Paying attention to your food while you’re eating it, or not eating while distracted, otherwise known as Mindful Eating.
INTERESTING EATING EXPERIMENTS
In 1985, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania performed an experiment. They studied a famous amnesiac, nicknamed H.M. (his real name is a secret, as he has participated in well over 100 experiments) who has no ability to form new memories (similar to the movie 50 First Dates, but in H.M.’s case, his memory is refreshed every minute).
The experiments fed him a complete dinner. As soon as he finished his meal, one minute later, he was provided with a second dinner. He ate that one as well, never realizing that he was full or that he had just eaten.
In a follow up study, done in 1998 with two patients who suffered from Anterograde Amnesia, this time with patients that had a working memory of about 20 minutes, a similar experiment was done. This time, the patients were fed lunch 10 to 30 minutes after their first lunch. They were given a 3rd lunch 10 – 30 minutes later (the experiment was performed on three separate occasions). Again, the patients failed to remember that they had previously eaten lunch and failed to realize that they were not hungry.
As a matter of fact, one of the subjects, R.H., announced that he would “go for a walk and get a good meal” about 20 minutes after he had completed his 3rd meal in less than an hour. From the researchers:
“We have shown that in the absence of conscious memory of having recently eaten, two densely amnesic people consumed multiple meals. This observation suggests that, at least under certain circumstances, memory for eating and the current eating situation are more predictive of consumption than physiological signals resulting from recent meals.
The hunger ratings of amnesiacs covered a narrower range than did the ratings of control subjects, and did not show reliable reduction after eating. For R.H., the hunger rating prior to a second or third meal typically returned to the level of the original rating, before any meal consumption. This return to prior reported hunger levels is surprising because nutrient absorption should reduce hunger.”
It’s pretty clear from these experiments that hunger doesn’t come from our stomach alone, and that our memory and social signals play a big part in telling our body that we are hungry.
THE ENDLESS SOUP EXPERIMENT
In another experiment, participants were shown different amounts of soup – some were shown 500 ml and others were shown 300 ml. They were then fed the soup, but some who saw 500 ml were actually given 300 ml, and others who saw 300 ml were actually fed 500 ml. There were a total of 4 groups – those who saw and actually ate the amounts shown, and the two other groups who were “tricked”.
Hunger was then tested 2-3 hours after the experiment. Per the experiment,
“Immediately after lunch, self-reported hunger was influenced by the actual and not the perceived amount of soup consumed. However, two and three hours after meal termination this pattern was reversed – hunger was predicted by the perceived amount and not the actual amount. Participants who thought they had consumed the larger 500-ml portion reported significantly less hunger.”
There are a number of other experiments that corroborate this test, including the famous “endless bowl of soup” experiment, in which students were given free soup filled in bowls that secretly had a pump on the bottom of the bowl to keep the bowl full. The students ate an average of 73% more soup, but did not believe they had consumed more or perceive themselves as more sated than the control group of students who ate from normal bowls.
What all these experiments show is that eating and feeling full is dependent on visual cues and memory in order to determine if you stay sated or become hungry again.
What’s the best way to pay attention to what you’re eating?
Mindful eating means to eat with intention and attention. It means eating with no other distractions and paying full attention to each bite of food you are ingesting. Mindful eating is the best way I know of to reduce the calories you eat while feeling satisfied with the meal.
The best part is that you don’t have to change anything else for this to be effective – just pay attention to what you eat – not your phone, your television set, or your computer.
A meta-study that reviewed 24 other studies determined that “attentive eating is likely to influence food intake, and incorporation of attentive-eating principles into interventions provides a novel approach to weight loss and maintenance without the conscious need for calorie counting.”
There are a number of studies that clearly demonstrate two issues that mindful eating can solve:
- Distracted eating results in eating more food.
Check out this study that shows that watching television during lunch increased the caloric intake of young women.
“Watching television while eating lunch was associated with a reduced vividness rating of the memory of the lunch. These results suggest that the effects of television watching on food intake extend beyond the time of television watching to affect subsequent consumption. They further suggest that this effect may be related to an effect of television watching on encoding of the memory of the meal.”
There are similar studies for both men and women here, here, here, here, and here. All of them demonstrate that distracted eating leads to consuming more calories, both in the current meal and throughout the day.
- Faster eating results in eating more food.
Again, there are a number of studies that show that faster eating is linked to a higher Body Mass Index (BMI). These studies include men and women, various ages, and the testing of populations in various countries. You can take a look at the various studies here, here, here, here, and here.
Basically, if you can teach yourself to eat mindfully, you’ll eat fewer calories at the meal, and you’ll also have a deeper and more vivid recollection of the meal later in the day, which will translate to smaller meals later.
HOW TO EAT MINDFULLY
Now that we know mindful eating works, all we have to do is learn how to do it. Mindful eating is about reaching a state of full attention to your experiences, cravings, and physical cues while eating. It involves the following steps:
- Eating when actually hungry – We frequently eat when not hungry. This may include getting up from work just because you need a break or a stretch, eating when the people around you are hungry, or eating due to habit. Many times we eat when we’re just thirsty. Be mindful of eating due to reasons other than your own hunger and need to eat.
- Eating slowly – Next time you sit down for a meal, really appreciate it. Don’t just rush through it. Chew each bite thoroughly. Put down your silverware between bites. If you’re with a group of people, try to be one of the last ones to finish your meal, not the first.
- Eating without distraction – This is one of the most important things you can change, and probably one of the easiest. Pay attention to your meal. One of the best ways to do this is to turn off the TV, put your phone on silence and out of site, and don’t eat while doing something else. Put 100% of your focus on the meal you’re eating and each bite you take.
- Listen to hunger cues, and eat only until you are full – Many people (myself included) have a habit of finishing the meal in front of you. Even though you’re sated halfway through the meal, you eat until the plate is done. If you’re eating at a restaurant, ask them to set aside a portion of the meal for take-out. If you’re at home, try to only place small portions on your plate – it’s much easier to go back for a second helping than to feel obligated to eat when you’re no longer hungry.
- Engaging your sense of smell, texture, taste, sound, and sight – Sometimes when I’m at a high end restaurant, my wife will make me a “perfect bite” of food. A bite that includes a little bit of everything on the plate, in order to really experience the bite of food the way the chef intended. When I actually take the bite, I first look at it, smell it, and then when I put it in my mouth, I close my eyes and focus 100% of my attention on the bite of food in my mouth. No conversation, no distractions, just 100% of all my senses focused on enjoying the single bite of food. These are easily the best and most enjoyable bites of the whole evening. Try it – it doesn’t have to be at a restaurant – just try to take a perfect bite of food and enjoy it fully with all your senses.
- Noticing the effects food has on your mood, energy levels, and appetite – If I drink two cups of coffee, I’ll notice that my heart rate increases. If I eat a big plate of pasta or even a sandwich for lunch, I know I’ll feel sluggish thirty minutes later. If I eat a bunch of candy (which happens sometimes despite going through the steps to beat sugar addiction, I’ll get a sugar high followed by a huge crash. Through my own personal experiences, I know what foods will make me alert and which ones will drag me down. Which foods will make me hungry again (sushi!) in an hour, and which meals will keep me sated for several hours (nuts and dried fruit).
- Giving thanks for your food – One of the best habits you can create is the habit of gratitude. It’s easy to forget how lucky we are that we live in a time of abundance of food. I think it’s especially important to realize when eating any animal protein that another creature actually died so you could eat – take one second to appreciate the life it gave up.
Eating while distracted by the television leads to consuming significantly more calories, both while distracted and later in the day. The reason for this is that memory plays a very big role in determining how hungry you are.
In addition, fast eaters usually are heavier than slow or medium speed eaters.
The best way to reduce the amount of food you eat while enjoying your meal more is to practice mindful eating.
Mindful eating simply means to focus 100% of your attention on the food you are eating at the present moment. This can be done by eliminating distractions such as the phone or TV, using all of your senses fully while eating, and being aware of your own internal condition before, during, and after you eat.