Developing Mindful Eating Habits

24 Jul

By: Meg Arppe-Robertson

Between constant media messages of unrealistic body images and the obesity epidemic, how is anyone supposed to sift through nutrition information and eat for health?  Even as a nutrition student I find this task daunting, but I would like to share a few articles and ideas I have recently come across that encourage mindful eating.  The message is simple, be aware of what you are eating and how it is contributing to your health.

Image from The Centre for Mindful Eating website <http://www.tcme.org/&gt;

I was recently reading the June edition of Nutrition Action Healthletter, a publication from the Centre for Science in the Public Interest.  What really caught my attention was the cover story Still Not Getting It? 10 messages that don’t seem to stick which described how “subtle cues can make you eat more (or less)”.[i]  The article noted a study published this year in Health Psychology where university students were given Pringles chips to consume while watching a movie.  The chips were either all the normal brown colour or interspersed with a red Pringle every 5, 7, 10 or 14 chips.[ii]  The number of chips eaten was tracked and students were asked how many chips they thought they ate.  Students eating from the mixed Pringles ate fewer chips and were more accurate in estimating the number that they ate (the control group always underestimated their consumption).  This caught my attention for several reasons; first of all I was relieved to learn that Rain Man and I are not the only people who count food pieces as we eat (especially when they are patterned).  More importantly however, in our culture of overeating, this is just one of many examples of factors that override our evolutionary subconscious telling us to eat when food is available (or when that sweet or salty flavour is just too good to stop!).

With alarming proportions of our population unhealthy, food and nutrition research is searching for food-based solutions, maintaining both nutrients and flavour in foods. Pharmaceutical and medical research is looking for cures to obesity co-morbidities as well as prevention pills and methods.  Psychology research, which I will focus on below, is digging into how to avoid the obesity problem by using, training, or tricking our brains.  I have happened upon such techniques several times in the course of my studies and consistently the goal of these techniques is to be mindful of what you are consuming. 

Last semester I worked on a class project that involved writing a book about how to achieve a healthy relationship with food through knowledge of your food, your mind, and your body.  In researching I came across an article by clinical psychologist Dr. Susan Albers, published in the Huffington Post on February 1st of this year.  The article entitled 10 Psychological Tricks for Eating Girl Scout Cookies Mindfully, presented 10 tricks supported by current research on how to eat conscientiously.[iii]  Suggestions included label reading for awareness, taking time and focus while eating to really appreciate a smaller amount of food, and tips to reduce overall consumption including (and here is that red colour again) eating off of a red plate.  According to research done at the University of Basel in Switzerland and published this year in Appetite, the colour red signals the brain to stop, not only when driving but also when eating and drinking, ultimately leading to lower levels of consumption.[iv] 

Were those red chips in the Pringles study also signalling stop?  Would the results have been the same if the interrupting Pringles had been blue or green?  My guess is yes!  Even though red appears to cause avoidance motivation, there is a lot of research supporting reduced intake with awareness of the type and amount of food being consumed.  An obvious way to be aware of what you are eating is to simply write it down.  Food records are commonly used in nutrition research to track participant nutrient intake before (for screening), during (for compliance), and/or after (for carry-over effects) a clinical study, but they are also recommended by doctors, dieticians, and coaches as tools to improve diets.  A recently published article by Anne McTiernan and researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute in Seattle was highlighted this month on CBC online health news.[v]  This study found that keeping a food journal (pen and paper, smart phone app, or online program) to track consumption led to increased weight loss in adult women.[vi]

A few months ago I was researching the various methods available to keep food records, seeking to determine which approaches provide the most complete and accurate information.  I discovered that the largest source of error in using food records for research is participant misreporting (both intentional and unintentional).  For example, someone forgets to write down the latte they had mid-afternoon or neglects to remember and record that they added oil when cooking their stir-fry for dinner.  Alternatively, someone might adjust their consumption to match what they perceive the researcher might think are healthier habits.[vii]  The simple act of writing down everything we eat (and how much) is time consuming, such that it might lead some participants to eat foods that are easier to measure or contain fewer ingredients for ease of recording.

People are often surprised to realize that what they actually eat differs greatly from what they think their diet contains.  Presumably this ‘realization’ is the goal of using diet records for weight loss or gain or to simply create a healthier diet pattern.  The medical community continues to promote balance and moderation in our diets; to aid us in putting this adage into practice and realizing our consumption patterns, various tools are being made available to the public.  For example, Dieticians of Canada have a free tool on their website called eaTracker, which allows users to plan meals ahead of time, track and analyze the food they have eaten, and record physical activity.  All this in turn can be compared to and tracked alongside goals of weight, activity and healthy eating.  Many of these tools exist online, each uniquely tailored to the goals or specific dietary recommendations of the hosting organization (for example, Super Tracker, offered by the USDA, is set up to collaborate with the objectives of the Choose My Plate initiative).  The variety of programs allows each of us to find a good fit for our own goals and lifestyle, for those who are tech savvy some of these tools even come with smart phone apps. 

The message here is that knowledge is power.  A basic knowledge of nutrition helps us to make healthy food choices.  And knowledge of the human mind and behaviour allows us to create a healthy food environment.  So educate yourself, use trial and error to find tricks that work for you (whether it be slowing your eating by using your non-dominant hand, separating food into single portions as it enters your house, using the red equals stop technique, or simply becoming mindful by keeping a food record), and make an effort to be healthier.  Your body works hard for you every day; thank it by developing healthy dietary choices and behaviours!


[i] Centre for Science in the Public Interest.  (June 2012).  Still Not Getting It?  10 messages that don’t seem to stick.  Nutrition Action Healthletter, pp 3-7.

[ii] Geier, A., Wansink, B., and Rozin, P.  (2012, February 6).  Red Potato Chips: Segmentation Cues Can Substantially Decrease Food Intake.  Health Psychology.  Advanced online publication.  doi: 10.1037/a0027221.

[iii] Albers, S.  (2012, February 1).  10 Psychological Tricks for Eating Girl Scout Cookies Mindfully.  Huffington Post.  Retrieved from < http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-susan-albers/mindful-eating_b_1240635.html?ncid=txtlnkusaolp00000079&gt;

[iv] Genschow, O., Reutner, L., and Wanke, M.  (2012).  The colour red reduces snack food and soft drink intake.  Appetite,  58(2), 699-702.

[v] CBC News.  (2012, July, 13).  Keep food journals to lose weight.  CBC News: Health.  Retrieved from < http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/story/2012/07/13/weight-loss-study.html&gt;

[vi] Kong, A., Beresford, S. A. A., Alfano, C. M., Foster-Schubert, K. E., Neuhouser, M. L., Johnson, D. B., Duggan, C., Wang, C.-Y., Xiao, L., Jeffery, R. W., Bain, C. E., and McTiernan, A.  (2012, July 16).  Self-Monitoring and Eating-Related Bahaviors Are Associated with 12-Month Weight Loss in Postmenopausal Overweight-to-Obese Women.  Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Advanced online publication.  doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2012.05.014.

[vii] Poslusna, K., Ruprich, J, de Vries, J.H., Jakubikova, M. and Van’t Veer, P.  (2009). Misreporting of energy and micronutrient intake estimated by food records and 24 hour recalls, control and adjustment methods in practice.  British Journal of Nutrition, 101 (Supplement 2), S73-S85.

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2 Responses to “Developing Mindful Eating Habits”

  1. Emma 24-Jul-2012 at 3:55 pm #

    Great article! I love the really clear tips, especially with the research to back them up. I will definitely be looking into eaTracker.

  2. zquiet 28-Jun-2013 at 1:19 am #

    Spot on with this write-up, I truly feel this amazing site needs far more attention.
    I’ll probably be returning to read more, thanks for the advice!

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