When people go on fad diets, they’re cutting out more than just carbs, fat or even whole food groups: They are eliminating core elements of a healthy diet, such as enjoyment, satisfaction and attention to food quality and source.

So says Gail Todter, Ph.D., a long-time practitioner and instructor of “eating mindfully” who has taught courses on the subject at the U.Va. School of Medicine’s Mindfulness Center.

iStock Photo

Eating mindfully, she says, can result in improved mood, weight loss and a better overall sense of well-being.

“As you’re sitting down to eat and you’re about to eat, you notice the food on your plate,” she says. “You encourage yourself to chew the food and taste the food, to bring some appreciation to where the food came from, appreciation to the people who prepared it—whether it was yourself or someone else.”

Also referred to as “intuitive eating,” the practice involves slowing down, eating without multi-tasking or using electronic devices and noticing hunger and satiety, says Cynthia Moore, an assistant clinical nutrition manager for the U.Va. Health System who counsels and teaches University employees.

In an era of high rates of obesity and diabetes among Americans, mindful eating can help steer people away from what may be tempting but minimally nutritious processed foods, Moore says. It can also help people cut down on “stress eating” and prevent them from overeating.

“What it means to eat mindfully on a practical level is to be aware of one’s own hunger level and one’s own fullness level,” she says.

Through sessions with Moore, U.Va. nurse Clara Winfield has learned to keep almonds in her locker and pause for a snack rather than wait until she feels ravenous. By eating at the right times and choosing nutritious foods, she keeps hunger at bay.

“I got into it because I knew what I was doing wasn’t working, and I needed to get a better understanding of food and how it works, and not fall prey to the different fads,” says Winfield. “I feel like I am so much more in control now. I’m really feeling healthier because I’m making wise choices.”

In the process, she has stopped passing judgment on herself. And that has brought back enjoyment.

“I’ve got permission,” she says. “It’s OK to have a Hershey’s Kiss, but don’t have five.”

Other tips for eating mindfully:

  • Check your speed. Avoid sifting through email or watching TV while eating so you can pay attention and chew more slowly. “The whole digestive machinery for us humans takes a while to process foods,” Moore says.
  • Use a 1-10 rating scale for hunger and fullness, Moore says. If a “1” is famished and a “10” is stuffed, aim to begin eating when you’re somewhat hungry (a “3”) and stop when you feel satisfied (a “7”). This helps with weight management, Moore says.
  • Notice how you feel after eating. “Are you alert? Do you feel energized? Do you feel good about the choice you made?” says Todter. Apply lessons learned to the next meal.
  • Develop other good “self-care” habits such as walking and spending time outdoors, Todter says.
  • “To get started with mindful eating, find a peaceful spot and bring attention to the food you’re about to eat,” Todter says.
  • For further reading on the subject, Todter recommends the book Nourishing Wisdom: A Mind-Body Approach to Nutrition and Well-Being by Marc David, and Moore suggests Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.

Cynthia Moore’s next EBT-Emotional Brain Training classes will begin on on April 3 for U.Va. employees through the Hoo’s Well Program on Grounds. For more information, contact Robert Fitzgerald at rf7r@virginia.edu.

Gail Todter’s next course, titled Food, Mood & Energy, will run for eight weeks starting in April at her Integrative Health Services office in downtown Charlottesville. For more information, go to leadingforth.com.