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Mindfulness training is becoming a common part of psychological therapy, although you may still not fully understand it. That's a shame, because it's a useful method for aiding behavior change, such as that involved in weight loss, and something that people can practice on their own.
In a recent Consumer Reports survey, psychologists who provided therapy for weight management reported that "mindfulness training to tolerate, and accept hunger, weight, and exercise-related thoughts and urges" was among the more effective weight-loss strategies.
As a clinical psychologist, I have incorporated mindfulness strategies into my therapeutic practice and found them quite effective. At its core, mindfulness involves increasing awareness of four areas: your mind or focus, your body or sensations, your feelings, and your thoughts. As you become better able to observe your own inner workings, it becomes easier to meaningfully apply some self-improving skills.
It's important to observe two principles while increasing your awareness. First, maintain a "nonjudgmental" view of what you notice. For example, its good to be aware that you're overeating, or sticking to your diet, or feeling sad; but that does not mean leaping to self-accusations or wild praise. The second principle is to stay in the present moment. Focus on what you're eating and feeling now, for example, not how you got into this fix in the first place.
To understand how this approach could be so helpful in the realm of weight management, here are some examples of how to think about the role of the mind, body, feelings, and thoughts, involved in eating.
Mind/Focus: Many of us blindly shovel food in our mouths while reading, watching TV, chatting with family, or all of the above. Instead, attend to what and how you are eating. The goal is to become aware and able to focus on the taste and texture of the food.
Body/Sensations: We are programmed from an early age to eat at certain times of the day, rather than when our body truly needs food for energy. Instead, attend to the clues your body provides about hunger throughout the day. Eat slowly to allow yourself to notice when you are no longer feeling hungry, rather than stopping only when you are painfully full.
Feelings: Observe your emotions as you eat, and your general feelings about your weight. Is the delicious food you are eating making you feel happy? Do you feel 'angry' or 'upset' eating something you know isn't good for you? Is it a combination of both?
Thoughts: Note the thoughts you have as you eat. Are you being self-critical because you are eating empty calories? Are you thinking positively about yourself for making the right food choice?
Most people who lose weight using traditional restrictive diets regain it eventually. But becoming an observer of all the moving parts, could provide insight into your eating behavior and lead to some long-standing changes in how you think about your own relationship with food. When it comes to weight management, we are often our own harshest critic. Taking a mindful approach frees you from judging your previous and present decisions, and allows you to focus on behaviors that will help you achieve your weight-loss goal.
For more information on mindful approaches to eating, check out "Am I Hungry? What to Do When Diets Don't Work," by Michelle May, M.D., or "Eating Mindfully," by Susan Albers, Psy.D.
--Andrew Schwartz, Ph.D.