On Your Health

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Mindful Eating or Dieting: What's the Difference?

Paying more attention to what we eat, whether it's the quality of our food choices or the quantity is something we're frequently encouraged to do when we're trying to lose weight. Most of us have dieted, or paid a little extra attention to what (or how much) we've been eating. 

Mindful eating takes the idea of paying attention to what we eat even further. The idea is that a slower, more careful or thoughtful way of eating may help us to enjoy our food more, choose more healthful foods and make us less likely to overeat.

Dieting, generally speaking, is about controlling what we eat with the general aim of consuming fewer calories to create a calorie deficit. As we all know, there are many types of diets, ranging from the sensible, like the Mediterranean Diet, to the less sensible, like the old-fashioned grapefruit and black coffee diet. 

Eating mindfully is about what we eat and also about how we eat. Mindful eating is based on the broader concept of mindfulness, a Buddhist practice in which we try to be fully aware of everything happening around us and within us in each moment. When we eat mindfully, we dine in a distraction-free environment, with no television, iPad, books or magazines. This shifts our focus to our food: its taste, aroma, texture and color. We can focus on chewing more slowly, and not rushing. We choose what we put in our bodies more carefully, too, making meals from whole foods, like fresh vegetables and lean protein. 

Really, at its heart, eating mindfully is about savoring and enjoying what we eat. We often find ourselves quickly devouring something or other while standing over the sink, while sitting at our desks answering emails or while mindlessly scrolling on our phones. It's hard to know when you're overeating this way, and, really, there's not a lot of joy in wolfing down a burger and fries before your next meeting.

Instead, mindful eating experts suggest that you slow down and really enjoy your meal. Some tactics to help you take a slower approach are to set a timer for 15 or 20 minutes and eat your meal during that time. Take small bites. Use a fork and a knife, chew thoroughly, one bite at a time. Trick yourself into slowing down by holding your fork or spoon in your non-dominant hand or eating with chopsticks. Notice your eating habits.

Ideally, as this slowing down becomes more comfortable, it will give us time to examine our relationship with food, whether food or overeating is linked to specific emotions, and if so, how we might react to our emotions in healthier ways. 

Dieting, on the other hand, is more about what and how much we eat instead of how we eat. Generally speaking, going on a diet means cutting calories. There are thousands, maybe millions, of diet plans, books, apps and videos, and some are definitely better than others. 

The best diets have a few things in common. Good diets emphasize portion control, rather than declaring foods to be 'good' or 'bad/forbidden.' Recognizing proper portion size is a great tool to get the hang of, one that will help you stay on track whether you're in your kitchen or dining out with friends. Flexibility is another critical component of a good diet plan – if we make terrific food choices 85% of the time, we can allow ourselves a little grace the other 15% of the time.

Good diets should also encourage physical activity and eating whole, rather than processed foods. Eating whole foods means you're shopping for ingredients, not ready-made foods when you're at the grocery store. Fresh fruits and veggies, healthy lean proteins like chicken, fish, eggs or tofu, healthy fats like those found in avocados, nuts or olive oil and foods high in fiber like beans or greens are ideal. They're packed with nutrients, can be simply prepared and will keep you feeling sated.

Physical activity is an essential part of any healthy eating or diet plan. Getting in about 150 minutes of movement per week is a manageable goal for most people. Exercising regularly can increase your metabolism, which means you'll burn more calories even when resting. It's also a known mood booster. 

Diets that are extreme, either because they severely restrict calories or because the number of foods you're allowed to eat is pretty small, are not sustainable and don't help ingrain ongoing healthy habits. They may create a quick loss of a few pounds, but because they're so rigid, as soon as you deviate from their constrictions and start to eat more normally, the weight will return. Slow, steady, health-driven should be the guiding criteria when choosing a diet.

Combining elements of mindful eating and dieting in a way that feels tailored to your unique needs, goals and preferences might just be the best of all worlds. Here are some ways to do it.

Mindful eating and healthy diets both emphasize eating whole foods over processed foods. Cooking for yourself allows you to control ingredients and portion size and preparing a meal for yourself can be another mindful act of self-care. Preparing meals for the week, say, on a Sunday afternoon, can feel like a meditation. Carefully planning, chopping, cooking and placing foods into containers can be calming and even fun!

Diets often encourage us to eat more slowly, because it takes about 20 minutes for our brains to tell the rest of our bodies that we're full. If we're eating quickly, it's easy to blow past the quantity of food it actually takes to feel full. We've all done it – say you come in from your day and you're famished. Before you know it, you've eaten half a pizza! Or most of a bag of cookies. By the time your brain catches up with your hands and your mouth, you're uncomfortably stuffed. Eating slowly heads this mistake off at the pass. 

Mindful eating also encourages us to eat more slowly, but the logic behind it has more to do with enjoyment. When you slow down and savor, you can better appreciate the beauty, aroma and flavor of each morsel of well prepared, healthful food. 

If you have questions about making healthier eating choices, INTEGRIS Health has a team of dieticians to help you get started.


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