Overeating? Mindfulness exercises can help

A chalkboard with the drawing of a slice of seedless melon and the words

We all experience moments of indulgence that lead to overeating. If it happens once in a while, there is nothing to worry about. If this happens frequently, you may be wondering if you have an overeating or “food addiction” problem. Before you worry, know that none of these are considered an official medical diagnosis. Indeed, the existence of food addiction is hotly debated.

“If it exists, food addiction would be caused by a real physiological process and you would experience withdrawal symptoms if you didn’t have certain foods, such as those with sugar. But it’s very different from saying you love sugar and it’s hard not to eat it,” notes Helen. Burton Murray, a psychologist and director of the Gastrointestinal Behavioral Health Program at the Harvard-affiliated Center for Neurointestinal Health at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Many people subconsciously overeat and don’t realize it until after they finish a meal. This is where mindfulness exercises can help you stick to reasonable portions.

But it urges you to seek professional help if your thoughts about eating interfere with your ability to function each day. Your primary care physician is a good place to start.

What is mindful eating?

Mindfulness is the practice of being present in the moment and observing inputs flooding your senses. At mealtimes: “Think about how the food looks, how it tastes and smells. What is the texture? What memories does it evoke? How does it make you feel?” Burton Murray asks.

By being mindful at meals, you will slow down the eating process, pay more attention to your body’s hunger and fullness signals, and perhaps avoid overeating.

“It makes you step back and make decisions about what you’re eating, rather than going through the automatic process of seeing food, getting food, eating food,” says Burton Murray.

Prepare for Success in Being Mindful When You Eat:

  • Remove distractions. Turn off phones, TVs, and computers. Eat in a quiet, tidy space.
  • Get ready for a 20 minute meal. Chew your food slowly and put your fork down between bites.

More mindfulness exercises to try

Practicing mindfulness when you are not eating sharpens your “muscles” of awareness. Here are the exercises to do it.

  • Concentrated breathing. “Inhale and exhale slowly. With each inhalation, let your belly come out. With each exhalation, let your belly go in,” Burton Murray explains. “This engages the diaphragm, which is connected to the nerves between the brain and intestines and promotes relaxation.”
  • Progressive muscle relaxation. In this exercise, you contract and release one major muscle group at a time for 20 seconds. As you release a contraction, notice what it feels like when the muscles relax.
  • Take a mindful walk, if only for five minutes. “Use your senses to observe your surroundings,” suggests Burton Murray. “What color are the leaves on the trees? Are there any cracks in the ground and where are they? What does the air smell like? Do you feel a breeze on your skin?”
  • Practice yoga or tai chi. Both of these ancient martial arts practices include deep breathing and attention to body sensations.
  • Keep a diary. Write the details of your day. Try to include what your senses have picked up: the sights, sounds and smells you’ve experienced and the textures you’ve touched.

Don’t worry about trying to be aware all day. Start with a moment here and there and build gradually. The more aware you become throughout the day, the more attentive you will become when you eat. And you may find that you are more capable of making decisions about the food you consume.

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