Like many people, I found myself overweight in middle age. Quite overweight, in fact. With a BMI (Body Mass Index) of 30, I was more than overweight. My fasting blood glucose levels were still in the normal range, barely. My mother continued to remind that I have Type 2 diabetes in my family.
What to do?
As a scientist who has studied obesity and body weight regulation, I knew that dieting was not an option. The starvation response/ diet induced obesity, and all that.
I decided to take my own advice.
Background: There are two kinds of things that influence how much we eat: “Head Factors” and “Gut Factors”.
Head Factors are “psychological” things such as how appetizing the food looks and smells. Social cues or influences, emotional situations, habits and conditioning (e.g. always eating a snack at 4 PM) are also powerful influences on what and when we eat.
Gut Factors are signals from the gut (and/or liver) that convey the gut’s opinion about how much we should eat, and may also influence food preference or cravings. When we first begin to eat, a hormone called “ghrelin” is released from cells in the stomach and pancreas that acts to increase our motivation for food. Which makes sense, because when we start eating we should keeping eating to continue a meal, rather than e.g. wandering away… When food hits the small intestine, though, it’s time to stop eating if you haven’t done so already, and the gut then releases “satiety factors” such as CCK and serotonin. These factors contribute to feeling of “fullness”, and reduce the drive to eat more (and the rewardingness) of what we are eating. This takes about 20 minutes though. So the faster you eat, the more you get down before the satiety factors kick in.
Healthy eating means having a balance between these two kinds of factors.
Unfortunately this balance can be hard to reach. In our society we are surrounded by food, and not all of it nutritious. Food manufacturers know that certain things like fat, salt, and sugar are widely liked and activate head factor-driven eating. And over-eating. And this can cause us to blow right past our gut factors.
How to get to that balance? One thing is to slow down eating enough so that we can listen to our guts. Which can be hard to do if the head factors are telling us how hungry we are- “eat! eat! eat!”
To encourage myself to slow down, I borrowed a demonstration used in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, called the raisin exercise. For this you take a raisin, and put it in your mouth. But you don’t swallow it. You just feel it in your mouth and explore what the raisin is like. Kind of hard and wrinkly. It doesn’t taste like much. Then you bite down slowly, and the squishy inside oozes out. Now it tastes like a raisin! When you have satisfied yourself that you have explored as much about the experience with the raisin as you can, you get to swallow it.
I decided to give the raisin treatment to everything I put in my mouth. How do the tastes and textures of the food work with each other? I also decided to make a real effort to listen to my gut. Instead of eating everything on my plate, and wondering if I want a second helping, I stopped after several bites, and asked myself if I still needed to keep eating. From this I discovered a number of things:
This does serve to slow down eating.
Mindful eating does make food more rewarding, because I am more paying attention to it before it goes down. It also encourages me to eat more interesting, colorful food, which also happens to be more nutritious. Junk food like potato chips and French fries get boring pretty quickly if you are mindfully eating them.
Slowing down eating makes it easier to notice the effects of gut factors, which causes me to eat smaller portions of food.
My gut is WAY happier when I practice mindful eating. I have suffered with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) since I was a teenager. Most nights I experienced gut cramping and pain starting a couple hours after dinner. It usually went away before bed-time, but not always. But since I started mindful eating, my gut is WAY happier. After-dinner gut craps are for the most part, a thing the past.
It took a while (several weeks probably), but I began to lose weight. I had purposely not started this with the goal of losing weight because I did not want to get on the merry-go-round of weighing myself every day- yay! I lost a pound! Followed by crap crap crap I’ve gained two pounds, etc.
I noticed some of my clothes were easier to get on, but attributed this to probable laundry accidents (some things should just not go in the dryer, they get stretched out). But during a doctor visit about four months after I began mindful eating, I found I had lost 10 pounds or so. Cool!
A couple of months after that (and, importantly, after the winter holiday season) I had to go the doctor again, and found I had lost another 10 pounds or so. Very cool! Twenty pounds lost without “dieting” and feeling hungry and deprived all the time.
Since then I have continued to lose another 15 pounds, or so (I have to confess I don’t exactly know what my top weight was because I stopped looking after it went past a certain value). My metabolic values are better too.
Beyond the weight loss, which is important (!), I feel the value of the mindful eating approach to food is that it has been wonderful for me to feel more balanced and in tune with my body.