Want to lose weight? Enjoy your food


A highlight of my day as I grew up was the appearance on the dinner table of a large dish of boiled potatoes. I liked potatoes – I still do. I consider them the caviar of Irish cuisine.

Because I had parents and siblings, I had competition for the potatoes, and so made a point of getting as many as I could onto and off my plate as quickly as I could.

Today I still feel the urge to clear my plate at some speed. Somehow my relationship with food is still governed by that sibling competition as much as it is – perhaps more than it is – by hunger.

I was reminded of my competitive eating streak when I read that psychologists studying overweight and obesity believe part of the problem is a disconnection from hunger and fullness signals and from the enjoyment of the taste of food.

In other words, many people think they eat when they are hungry but, in reality, their awareness of their own hunger signals is poor. They eat because they are bored, because there’s lots of food on the plate, because it’s one o’clock, because they crave that first shock of taste of something sweet (I’m thinking of you, Crunchie bar), because they feel bad about themselves, and so on.

The disconnection I mentioned above has a few components. One is the loss of awareness of the hunger signal. Eating because it’s snack time or because your boss doesn’t appreciate you has little to do with actual hunger. The same goes for eating large portions just because they are on the plate.

Another component of that disconnection is that we stop enjoying our food but we keep eating anyway. Suppose your taste buds would like some chocolate and – surprise, surprise – a big bar is sitting there in front of you saying, “Eat me”. The first few pieces are going to be delicious. But as you work your way through the bar your taste buds gradually decide they’ve had enough. But do we stop eating at that point? Are you kidding?

Then there’s the failure to notice the fullness signal. A point comes at which your body tells you, “It’s OK, I’ve had enough, you can stop eating now.” But when we are out of touch with the bodily experience of eating, we may not even notice that fullness signal.

What this seems to mean is that overweight and obesity have little enough to do with the enjoyment of food. If we can re-establish that connection, we may enjoy more and eat less. Prof Jean Kristeller, who has been interested in this subject since she began to study the regulation of food intake at Yale, teaches people with weight problems to reconnect with the enjoyment of food. She and other researchers have found that people who undertake a 10-week course of eating with awareness actually reduce their food intake but get more enjoyment out of meals.

One researcher found that obese women who practised mindful eating experienced a reduction in belly fat.

Read more about this on PsychCentral at iti.ms/UZbdAZ.

You can try this approach out for yourself easily enough. Begin to pay attention to whether you feel hungry as you sit down to eat. Pay attention also to the taste of your food and to your enjoyment of it, and notice when the enjoyment stops. Also notice the feeling of fullness when you have had enough. You may be surprised at how quickly your mind slips away from paying attention to your eating, though.

And go easy on the spuds. They’re mine.

Padraig O’Morain (pomorain@yahoo.com) is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book Light Mind - Mindfulness for Daily Living is published by Veritas. His monthly mindfulness newsletter is available free by email.

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