If you’ve ever endlessly deliberated over which diet to start, you may be an overthinker. Likewise, if you’ve ever been kept awake at night by inane questions like "how much protein does tofu have?", you may also suffer from overthinking. And yes, overthinking may also make you feel anxious if you exceed your calories or break into a cold sweat at a restaurant when you realize you can't weigh your food.
But I’m going to share my top weight loss secret: stop overthinking it.
Most of us believe that if we overthink something enough, we can save ourselves from making the wrong choices and gaining weight. An article published on behalf of the American Heart Association tells us that "although we pay significant attention to studying diets to determine which is the most effective, we still come up with the same answer: they are all effective in the short term, and none is effective in the long term."
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The reality is that the perfect diet doesn't exist, overthinking doesn't make you immune to failure, and weight loss isn't always about cutting out foods; it's about adding crucial life skills. The skill most of us are missing is mindful eating.
WHAT IS MINDFUL EATING
According to Harvard's School of Medicine, mindful eating is "an intentional focus on one’s thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations in the present moment. Mindfulness targets becoming more aware of, rather than reacting to, one’s situation and choices. Eating mindfully means that you are using all of your physical and emotional senses to experience and enjoy the food choices you make." If you've ever mindlessly made your way through a bag of chips, this quote will hit you where it hurts. I call this lack of awareness "sleepwalking" through your meals. Still, I believe we deserve more than this; we deserve to enjoy and feel guilt-free from our food.
This awareness derived from practising mindfulness can lead to you making subtle but seismic shifts in how you eat. This, in turn, will lead to weight loss without you needing to overthink your food choices. As the meditation app, Headspace says about mindful eating, "when we're more aware, the mind is calmer; when the mind is calmer, we're less prone to being agitated or stressed to eat in an emotional way."
Therefore, overthinking “what” to eat isn't as important as understanding the "why" we are eating in the first place. That's where mindful eating bridges the gap between understanding our physical and emotional needs and the role that food plays between the two. After all, we can't avoid cake forever. Developing our "mindfulness muscle" during meal times gives us the tenacity for long-term weight loss results by making us more confident in our food choices, whether healthy or indulgent.
Overthinking can lead to failure because overthinking is heavily fixated on a single outcome: your weight loss goal. It's a desperate attempt to cut, eliminate, squish, and punish your body at all costs to reach your final destination. Instead, process goals, such as mindful eating, are much more beneficial because they help you build the skills you need to lose weight while improving your relationship with your body. Mindfulness is a way to bring peace to the dieting process, making food and eating much more enjoyable while still seeing results. As a weight loss coach, I recognize that most of my clients have spent multiple attempts trying new diets only to see minimal short-term results. This ends up with them beginning to disconnect from or hate their bodies because they aren't doing what they are begging them to do. They want more rules but, in reality, need a connection between their body, mind, and food.
HOW TO FLEX YOUR MINDFULNESS MUSCLE
Learning to be more mindful during mealtimes can be just as tricky as adhering to dieting rules. Just like picking up a barbell and practising bicep curls for the first time will feel awkward at first, practising mindfulness may feel a little uncomfortable initially. This is why most people don't enjoy it at the start. However, just like the results of being regular at the gym — getting stronger and gaining more skills — will see us being more motivated to continue, eating mindfully is a habit that will grow on you.
There are a few ways to practice mindful eating. A great way to start is to ask yourself a few questions before eating something during the day. Positive Psychology says mindful eating questions can be "who, what, when, where, and why." By answering these questions each time we want to eat, we can better understand our eating patterns and make positive diet changes. After all, you can’t change behaviours that you don’t know you have.
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For example, ask yourself these questions at mealtime:
1. Why do I want to eat? Am I even hungry?
2. When am I most hungry? How often do I feel like eating?
3. What do I eat? When I am hungry, what do I usually reach for the most?
4. How do I eat? Do I eat quickly before running out the door when distracted?
5. How much do I eat? How does my body feel when I'm done eating?
6. Where do I invest the energy I consume? Do I exercise throughout the day?
It works best to ask yourself these questions during one meal of the day when you are less distracted. Journal your answers to watch for trends. Over a few weeks, add these questions to more meals during your day to gain an awareness of your eating habits. You can glean tons of helpful information from this exercise; for example, perhaps you eat in front of the television each night, which causes you to "switch off" your mindfulness muscle, and you tend to overeat when that happens. A good reaction to this is to move the setting of your meal, perhaps to the table, and listen to soothing music instead.
Another helpful activity to create stronger mindful eating skills is to focus on enjoying your food. I tell people to slow their mealtimes to 20 minutes and see how their eating habits change during the 20 minutes. Think this is easy? Most clients take between 3-6 minutes to eat (and perhaps overeat) a meal. What happens if you slowed this process and enjoyed the textures, flavours, smells, or, heaven forbid, the mealtime conversation? Would you notice your body feeling fuller sooner? Do you stop eating sooner as a result? Do you feel more satisfied with your meal? Do you feel less guilty knowing you didn’t overeat?
If you struggle to sit and focus on your food, don't worry, I have the solution. This micro-activity, created by Jon Kabat Zinn, will do the trick; it's called "raisin meditation." Here is how it works:
1. Hold the raisin in between your fingers.
2. See the raisin; look at it as if you've never seen a raisin before.
3. Close your eyes and turn the raisin over in your fingers to feel the texture.
4. Place the raisin in your mouth without chewing it. Roll it around.
5. Start chewing, 1-2 bites at a time, and notice how the flavours seep out.
6. Follow the raisin after swallowing, imagining it in your stomach.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight-loss coach