Mindful eating the key to weight loss and feeling better

Awareness eating: Food should be completely satisfying, according to traditional Ayurvedic medicine.
Awareness eating: Food should be completely satisfying, according to traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Photo: The Age

A few months ago a sultana stopped me in my tracks.

Trawling the internet for information about the self-awareness tool, mindfulness, I came across a YouTube clip of a psychologist quietly instructing a room full of people to eat a raisin incredibly slowly in order to become more present in daily life.

Intrigued by the magic of a dried grape, I raided my children's sultana supplies and returned to the clip on my laptop to be told to choose, look at, feel, smell and taste the morsel without haste or incredible hunger. The aim is to become absorbed in the experience of eating the raisin – or sultana, in my case – and quietly revel in that moment.

I'm not fond of dried fruit but it did the trick – it made me think about how mindlessly I eat food of any kind for sustenance and gobble chocolate too readily for a quick fuel intake as part of the increasingly chaotic timetable that is life. Those few minutes sitting quietly initially made me feel twitchy and frustrated but eventually alerted me to the fact that I could choose to eat better and make wiser choices about the amount, type and source of my food intake.

"Most of us eat raisins by grabbing a handful, throwing them in our mouths, giving them a quick munch before swallowing," says one instructor from the web-based tutorial How a Raisin Can Teach You About Mindfulness Practice.

"The next raisin you eat is going to be quite a different experience, so pause for a moment, grab a raisin – just one or a similar dried fruit if raisins aren't your thing then sit comfortably. It's time to wrap your senses around your raisin."

Mindfulness is a mental wellbeing tool, first embraced in some of the world's oldest cultures, that encourages us to live in the present.

Anything can be done mindfully but mindful eating is showing promise in clinical studies for its ability to curb disordered eating and promote wellbeing by reducing anxiety.

Mindful eating is not a diet but is meant to induce a sense of awareness and appreciation of food and feeling of being nourished. It encourages us to eat more slowly and make better food choices.

Sensory-based intervention can be a "promising approach to improving eating-related attitudes and behaviours" among women with concerns about dieting and weight control, according to a pilot randomised controlled trial published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

In a randomised controlled study published in the Journal of Obesity, mindfulness was successful for obese women in increasing responsiveness to bodily sensations, reducing anxiety and eating in response to emotions.

Dr Craig Hassed, Mindfulness for Life author and a senior lecturer at Monash University's Department of General Practice, says instead of arriving home and immediately fronting up to the fridge, first take notice of whether or not you're hungry.

"The ability to stand back from urges with non-attachment to them, whether it's an urge to eat, smoke or anything else, is sometimes called 'urge-surfing'," Hassed says.

"Eating more mindfully generally means slowing down and tasting the food, consciously, without eating on automatic pilot. This helps us to not only enjoy the food more but also to be in touch with our body's messages about what it wants and when it has had enough."

Experiencing the taste of food is a practice also used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine. In his latest book What Are You Hungry For?, doctor and author Deepak Chopra outlines the need to incorporate the "six tastes of every meal" – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent.

"In the centuries that preceded modern nutrition, including all six in every meal ensured that the major food groups and nutrients were represented but it also provided a feeling of complete satisfaction, which in Ayurveda is just as important," Chopra says.

Chopra says in his move to "awareness eating" his body felt lighter, he lost weight effortlessly, stopped doing unconscious things like taking phone calls during meal times and didn't deprive himself of food.

The result? He lifted his mood, energy and buoyancy. I'm hoping to do the same, one raisin at a time.