A smarter eating style

This approach is the opposite of old-school calorie counting and self-restraint. In fact, the new diet thinking ensures you enjoy food more than ever and still slim down.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
This approach is the opposite of old-school calorie counting and self-restraint. In fact, the new diet thinking ensures you enjoy food more than ever and still slim down. 
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Brainpower – not willpower – is the real secret to losing weight. The way you think about food is directly linked to how much you eat, experts say. If you fully concentrate on your meals, take pleasure in them, and enjoy the taste of each dish, you’ll begin to eat only when you’re truly hungry, stop when you feel satisfied, and be able to have any kind of food you want without overindulging in it. 

It may sound too good to be true, but research proves that this strategy – known as mindful eating – works. And it works well. A study published in the journal Appetite found that mindful eaters are less stressed about food in general and have a lower BMI than those who don’t practise the technique. 

“Mindful eaters consume fewer calories because they really savour their food,” says Susan Albers, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic in the US and author of Eating Mindfully: How to End Mindless Eating and Enjoy a Balanced Relationship with Food. “They feel satisfied sooner than people who eat when they’re distracted.” 

And that’s the thing: Most of us eat virtually every meal on autopilot. We grab breakfast as we’re heading out the door, we eat lunch while working at our desk, and we have dinner in front of the TV or computer. 

We barely focus on our food, and so we don’t really register how much we’re gobbling. As a result, distracted dining can cause us to consume hundreds of extra calories a day and still feel unsatisfied, Susan says. 

Mindful eaters, on the other hand, are adept at recognising their body’s hunger cues. They have learned what real hunger feels like, and when their system signals them that they need to eat, they do. That keeps them energised, so they’re not ravenous by dinner time. 

In fact, people who eat mindfully are actually less hungry throughout the day. In a study published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine, partici pants reported a significant decrease in overall hunger after six weeks of mindfulness training. 

“External factors like emotions or boredom can make us want to eat when we don’t really need to,” explains lead study author Jeanne Dalen, a research assistant professor at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center. 

“When people learn to distinguish between true hunger and emotional hunger, they don’t feel famished as often because all the emotionally driven urges to eat are stripped away,” adds Jeanne. 


Like anything worth doing, eating mindfully requires practise, and it takes some time to kick in. Stay committed. After a few weeks of following the approach, it will become second nature. The following are the key strategies to get you there. 

Get to know your body “True hunger comes with definitive signals: Your stomach feels empty; it growls; you can’t concentrate; you feel irritable; and you yearn for food in general, and not something specific like chips or cookies,” says Jean Fain, a psychotherapist at Harvard Medical School in the US and author of The Self-Compassion Diet: A Step-By-Step Program to Lose Weight with Loving-Kindness. 

If a nutritious dinner like grilled chicken with steamed broccoli sounds pretty amazing, chances are you’re truly hungry and you need to eat something. If it doesn’t, figure out what the real problem is – boredom? loneliness? – and deal with it. 

Follow the three-minute rule Eating slowly, without distraction, is a basic principle here. In a study at Texas Christian University in the US, diners who ate a meal in 22 minutes consumed 88 fewer calories than those who ate the same food in nine minutes. 

But it’s often not possible or practical to linger quietly for 20 to 30 minutes over every meal. So try this easy compromise: Turn off the TV, put your computer to sleep, switch off your smartphone, and take just three minutes to savour the first few bites of your meal or snack. 

That small amount of time is enough to help your brain register pleasure and the beginning of satiety, says Jean Kristeller, a professor emeritus of psychology at Indiana State University in the US and author of The Joy of Half a Cookie: Using Mindfulness to Lose Weight and End the Struggle with Food. 

Find your satisfaction sweet spot Many people don’t consider themselves full until they’re actually stuffed. Your goal should be to stop eating when you no longer feel hunger and your stomach is just comfortably full. “Think of fullness on a scale of one to 10,” she says. “People often shoot for a nine or a 10 but are usually satiated much sooner, at about a six.” 

To determine when you’ve hit the satisfaction point, she advises that you “put down your fork for a few moments several times throughout your meal to gauge where you’re at and whether you still feel hungry. Also think about how the food tastes. When the flavour is no longer exciting, it’s a sign that you’ve probably had enough.”  

Never deprive yourself One of the best things about mindful eating is that you can have all your favourites because the practice is about embracing pleasure and taste. “Typically, when we experience the urge for an unhealthy food, we try to ignore it, which causes stress,” Susan says. 

And stress triggers the release of the hormone cortisol, which encourages our bodies to store fat. So, instead of trying to fight a craving, acknowledge it and think for a moment: Are you hungry? Do you really enjoy eating it? Is it something special that you don’t get to have all the time? If you can answer yes to these questions, she suggests that you go for it. 

This concept, however, can be scary for women who have banned certain treats because they don’t trust themselves around the food. They’re afraid that if they allow themselves one scoop of ice cream, they’ll plough through the whole tub, or that a handful of potato chips will turn into eating the entire bag. 

If that sounds like you, Susan recommends adding foods back into rotation slowly to build trust: “If chocolate is your weakness, consciously eat a 28g square every day. After 10 days, you’ll be used to having just a little and no longer feel the impulse to binge.” 

Be a food snob Mindful eaters are picky about food in a good way. They pass up things that don’t bring them pleasure and won’t eat something just because it’s sitting in front of them, Jean says. 

At a cocktail party, for instance, they’ll skip the pigs in blankets and wait for the coconut shrimp; at the office birthday party, they’ll say no to the chocolate cupcakes if they prefer vanilla . “They see no point in eating foods they consider mediocre,” Susan explains. “There’s no pay-off.” 

Try this technique the next time you’re faced with cookies or a muffin you’re not crazy about. “Skipping it could save you 300 calories,” Susan points out. “It’s more than worth it to save up for the good stuff.”