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Instead of dieting, eat mindfully


Instead of dieting in 2013, consider eating mindfully instead. So many overweight dieters fail in the long run that some researchers say diets actually predict future weight gain.

Our biology goes against dieting. Cavemen, our ancestors, evolved to gorge in times of plenty to guard against famines.

Nowadays, we are exposed to food 24 hours a day. I’m not complaining—I’d rather eat Godiva chocolate cheesecake than hunt mastodon—yet I really want to fit into my jeans, too.

Some scientists say that mindful eating can help us sidestep the urge to overeat and help us feel satisfied sooner, which helps manage weight.

There are three things to be mindful of when eating:

  • your surroundings
  • your plate
  • your sensations.


Studies show that most people say “no” only a certain number of times before they cave. So try to reduce your exposure to temptation, prime yourself to think past it and relax the grip of cravings.

If the smell of French fries makes you drool, consider avoiding walking or driving past fast-food restaurants when possible. Also, limit TV. Ads for food have been shown to make you overeat, even when you don’t have those specific foods. One study showed that when elementary-school children watched a 30-minute cartoon with food commercials, they ate 45 percent more Goldfish crackers than kids exposed to a commercial-free cartoon.

What if you can’t avoid the temptations? A Dutch study showed that subtle reminders about your goals, called priming, can help. The study took place at a butcher shop where the tempting aroma of grilled chicken wafted through the air and the manager offered free samples of meatballs on the countertop.

On days when researchers posted a sign on the door advertising a free low-calorie recipe inside, visitors ate fewer samples than when no poster was present. This only affected visitors who said they were trying to lose weight.

The same Dutch researcher did another study training volunteers in mindfulness techniques. Volunteers learned to observe cravings and reactions to food without judgment and to notice how the cravings are often temporary, passing away quickly. Just this awareness quelled cravings.

Another Dutch study showed that when restaurant menus highlighted items with words like “low-calorie,” folks were more likely to order them. Other studies show calorie counts don’t help much—people respond better to words than numbers.

You can prime your own surroundings. Cut out magazine photos of recipes that are labeled “healthy” and post them on your fridge. When you add a lunch or dinner date to your calendar, add a word like “healthy.” On your screensaver, post a photo of a healthy food or of active people, such as people walking along a sunny beach or hiking the Grand Canyon.

Making healthy food convenient and visible makes people far more likely to enjoy it, according to researcher Brian Wansink. For example, keep a bowl of fresh fruit on your kitchen table. And hide the fatty, sugary snacks in the highest cabinet.


If you overeat when tired, stressed, angry, lonely or just when you go too long between meals, what has worked for you in the past? Write a list of 10 quick ways to short circuit cravings. The list might include listening to a favorite song, calling a friend, playing ball with a child or pet, or whatever you enjoy.

If you often feel restless or anxious, you might actually be hungry for movement. Walk, dance, do yoga or a sport. Moving can quell cravings.

And be sure to get enough sleep, which eases the effect of hunger hormones such as ghrelin and GLP–1.


When you’re ready to eat, consider sitting down. Multiple studies have shown that people eat more while driving, standing, watching TV, reading and checking email. Multitasking multiplies calories consumed.

Studies show that when adults receive bigger portions, they eat more, regardless of how hungry they are. Researchers found starting with smaller salad plates helped people eat less. You can always have seconds if you’re still hungry.

And consider what you’ve already eaten that day. A study in the journal Appetite showed that volunteers who recalled what they’d had for lunch ate less for dinner unconsciously.

When you sit down with a plate of delicious food, try taking a few deep breaths. Be mindful and maybe even thankful for the work of the folks who grew, harvested and transported the food for you. Take another deep breath and savor the aromas of the food.

When you take a bite, enjoy the flavor and texture, the feel of the food on your tongue. Don’t judge yourself for what you do or don’t like to eat, or what you think you should or shouldn’t eat. Enjoy each bite in your mouth.

If you find it hard to slow down, try eating with your non-dominant hand. When researchers told volunteers to eat popcorn with their non-dominant hand—right-handed folks had to use their left hand and vice versa—they ate 30 percent less. That’s according to the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Many experts advise stopping after you feel about 80 percent full. That’s because there can be a 20-minute delay between eating and the sensation of fullness.

If you are still hungry, by all means eat some more. The point is to feel satisfied, not stuffed or starved.

Jennifer Motl is a registered  dietitian. Formerly of Fredericksburg, she now  lives in Wisconsin. She welcomes reader questions via her website,, or by email at