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How to Eat Less - Mindful Eating

Updated on June 14, 2009

Weight loss gurus always tell us that it's so simple to lose weight: just eat less and exercise more. So millions of us go on diets every year, only to get frustrated when we lose our willpower.

At some point in the journey to lost weight, we realize that diets don’t work. The cycle of restricting your eating, eating foods you don’t particularly like, and struggling with cravings and motivation daily drives most people crazy and rarely leads to lasting weight loss.

The root of the problem is that diets force us to disconnect from our body. The only consideration is that we eat less -- it's not about figuring out why we eat or how to stop eating at the wrong times or for for the wrong reasons. We constantly worry about being “good” or “bad,” as defined by the rules of the diet. Another name for this is the diet mentality and it’s the main reason why so many of us have so much trouble eating normally.

Photo by The Wandering Angel
Photo by The Wandering Angel

How to Eat Less

I struggled with the diet mentality for many years and it always prevented me from successfully losing weight and keeping it off. Each time I did lose weight -- my best efforts usually resulted in a 15 pound loss -- I gained back every pound as soon as I went “off” the diet. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to eat healthy or that I started eating all junk food, all the time. It was that my mind and body produced a kind of backlash to the restrictions of the diet and I just couldn’t stop myself from overeating. 

A few years ago, after another losing/regaining weight cycle, I decided that I just couldn’t go on another diet. I was tired of living my life either on a diet or catastrophically off it. I wanted to stop feeling so out of control around food, and I definitely did not want to keep gaining weight. So I decided to make peace with food and stop dieting. 

My goal was to just maintain my weight, learn how to eat less so that I'd stop gaining, and balance healthy choices with the treats that I loved. Once I stopped thinking of my days as “diet days” and “off days,” the urgency to eat so much lessened. I was able to maintain my weight for a few years and even develop what I consider a pretty healthy lifestyle -- enough fruits and vegetables in my day, not a lot of high-fat foods, regular exercise, etc. I made choices based on what made me feel good, not what a diet said was “good.” 

I felt I had finally escaped the diet mentality, but I still wanted to lose about 30 pounds and didn’t know how to do it without falling back into diet craziness. That’s when I started reading about mindful eating -- also called intuitive eating or conscious eating -- and it finally set me on the path to losing weight without dieting. The irony about this whole journey is that mindful eating is normal eating. It’s just that we’ve forgotten how. 

Mindful Eating

Mindful Eating Principle #1: Eat When You Are Hungry. 

I know that this sounds stupidly simple, but it’s really incredibly effective. Think about how many times a day you eat when you’re not really, physically, tummy-rumbling hungry. Eating breakfast because “I should.” Eating lunch because “it’s time.” Eating an afternoon snack because “I’m tired.” Grazing through the evening because “I’m bored.” 

In my experience, eating for reasons other than physical hunger is the biggest factor in being overweight. Whether we eat for emotional reasons, because of cravings, or out of routine, we are feeding our body calories that it does not need. 

By waiting until I’m physically hungry, I enjoy food more (because it tastes better when you’re hungry) and I feel more in sync with my body. Even better, my body knows exactly how much food it needs in a day, so there’s never any doubt about whether I'm eating too much or too little. 

Mentally, when I know that I will only eat when I’m hungry, I don’t engage in internal debates over whether or not I should eat something. If I have a sudden urge for a cookie, it’s not a big struggle. If I’m hungry, I eat it. If I’m not, I’ll just take a few deep breaths and let the urge go. I know I can have the cookie when I get hungry, if I still want it. 

Mindful Eating Principle#2: Eat Mostly Food You Love.

This principle scares a lot of people. They think that they only love pizza or ice cream or stuff that will surely make them gain a thousand pounds. That’s why I say mostly. If you really love pizza, and you’re genuinely hungry for it, you should have it. But it might be a good idea to have a healthy salad to start, or pick a few slices of veggie pizza instead of meat lover’s supreme. 

I think that most of us who want to lose weight also want to learn how to eat healthier overall. The best way to do this is to make sure that “healthy food” and “food I love” aren’t completely separate in the mind. Focus on healthy foods that you enjoy, and think about making enjoyable foods a bit healthier. 

Whatever you do, never ever make a whole meal out of something you don't like just because it’s healthy. Eating -- and this is difficult for lifelong dieters to make peace with -- should be pleasurable. Our bodies are designed to seek food that’s delicious and enjoyable to eat. When we eat something that we don’t enjoy, we can never feel truly satisfied. 

Mindful Eating Principle #3: Eat Consciously Until You Are Satisfied.

I read somewhere that most dieters think about food all the time, except when they’re actually eating. Then they shovel food in their mouths as fast they can, without properly tasting it, and probably while watching TV or reading or driving. From my own experience, this is completely true! And it doesn’t make any sense.

Like I said before, eating should be pleasurable. Eating consciously is a way to cherish every second of a meal. Truly enjoying food -- its taste, its texture, the feeling of satisfaction as it fills the tummy -- means slowing down and fully experiencing each bite. It also means eating without distractions, which may be a hard adjustment if you’re used to reading a magazine at the table or snacking through your favorite TV show.

It’s very difficult to feel satisfied if you’re not eating consciously. Has it ever happened to you that you were eating something, maybe while reading or while watching TV, and when you looked down at your plate you’d already eaten way more than you realized? Maybe your portion was already mostly gone, yet you weren’t really paying attention and you couldn’t really remember eating it. 

If you can’t remember eating something, how can you ever feel satisfied? You’ll feel full eventually, but you won’t be satisfied (there’s a difference). If you don’t feel satisfied, you’ll always want more food, even though your body doesn’t need it. Eating consciously, to satisfaction, means that you’ll be able to wait until you’re hungry for the next meal without too many cravings in between.

Other Mindful Eating Tips

In my own mindful eating journey, I’ve found it helpful to keep a food journal. Keeping a food journal was always hard for me because I felt like such a “diet police” tool. Having to be accountable for my food choices, even to myself, was just another way of being restrictive. 

Mindful eating has really helped me take a more nonjudgmental attitude toward keeping a food journal. Instead of using my journal as a way to think about what I “should” eat, I simply use it as a way to keep track of the choices I already made, based on the mindful eating principles. It’s a tool to help me notice patterns, to double-check that I’m getting enough exercise, fruits, and vegetables, and, occasionally, to think twice about whether I’m really hungry or wanting to eat for other reasons. 

If you’re interested in learning more about mindful eating, here are some resources that have been a huge help to me. Good luck with your journey and I hope that these tips will help you make peace with food!


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