Making Healthy Choices Through Mindfulness and Appetite Control

Many of our nation’s greatest health challenges, including obesity and related diseases, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, stem from poor nutritional habits and binge eating. But making healthier eating choices isn’t just about …

Many of our nation’s greatest health challenges, including obesity and related diseases, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, stem from poor nutritional habits and binge eating. But making healthier eating choices isn’t just about losing weight: it can also be about learning to enjoy and appreciate one’s food, rather than eating to tamp down uncomfortable emotions.

At PMR, we emphasize holistic, comprehensive approaches to health, and we understand that a healthy lifestyle often begins with the way we eat. That’s why we have registered dietitians and nutritionists on our staff who help our patients to overcome their dietary challenges every day.

Though a significant component of healthy eating remains choosing healthy foods to eat, it’s important to recognize how much of our eating patterns originate in the brain. Eating is often a response to a signal from our brain—including our feelings of increased appetite, stress, boredom, or loneliness. We can learn to listen to these signals by applying methods of appetite control and mindful eating, which in turn will help us to re-shape our relationship with food. In the long run, developing these habits makes it easier to choose healthy foods—and brings even more enjoyment to chowing down.

Appetite vs. Hunger

Though we often use the two terms interchangeably, there’s actually a difference between appetite and hunger—and it’s a difference that’s especially significant when we consider our eating choices.

The simplest way of understanding this important contrast is that hunger is an actual need, communicated to us by physical signals in the body, whereas appetite is a feeling or desire, derived from smells, sights, signals in the brain, and emotional responses. If we don’t eat when we’re hungry, we’ll usually experience low blood pressure, feel tired, and rapidly lose precious energy. But we can work up an appetite even when we’re not hungry—perhaps because we saw delicious food in the window of our favorite restaurant, or because we’re bored and our brain is searching for ways to relieve that boredom.

If you’re having trouble distinguishing between the two, try to trace back the feeling. Hunger usually comes to you gradually, developing over the time since you’ve had your last meal. By contrast, appetite is often sudden. When deciding whether or not you’re truly hungry, a little bit of awareness can go a long way.

Controlling Your Appetite

You can’t control your hunger—and in fact, if your body is sending you physical signals of hunger, such as pangs in your stomach, then you probably need to eat. Hunger isn’t something that you should ignore.

However, your appetite can be controlled, to a certain extent. If your appetite is strong, but not tied to hunger, then there are steps that you can take to reduce it. First, try drinking water—people often mistake their dehydration for hunger. Second, eat smaller meals and snacks throughout the day, rather than overloading on two large meals, as many Americans do. If your appetite stems from a feeling of boredom, try spending at least half an hour with a favorite hobby, such as playing a musical instrument or even working out.

Keep In Mind

In some cases, your appetite may seem especially difficult to control. Some people struggle with a lack of appetite even when they should be hungry, leading to undesired weight loss that feels outside of their control. Other people may feel a strong increase in appetite, or an appetite that doesn’t go away. Often, these experiences are related to illness, side effects from medication, or even aging. If your appetite seems irregular, you should speak to your doctor about it.

Emotional Eating and Triggers

More often than not, when we’re talking about appetite, we’re really talking about emotional eating. Stress, boredom, sadness, anger—the list of emotions and experiences that can lead us to eat mindlessly goes on and on. You may go through a stressful or painful experience, then reach for a comforting, unhealthy food, only to have it disappear before you can really enjoy it.

When you eat emotionally, you don’t really appreciate or experience your meal, and though you may escape uncomfortable feelings temporarily, they’ll still be there when the food is gone. The feelings that lead to emotional eating may be different for each individual. For some, it may be boredom, while for others it might be a deep anxiety or loneliness. We call these feelings triggers, and learning to identify them is an important step towards mindful eating.

Dealing with Negative Emotions Without Food

If we learn to accept our feelings—even the negative and uncomfortable ones—they will eventually pass. That’s one of the core principles of mindfulness training. By choosing to eat when we have these feelings, we’re actually pushing them away, choosing not to experience them. Once you’ve identified the triggers that lead you to eat emotionally, try to sit with the feeling, experiencing it instead of burying it.

Mindful eating is about pausing to take a moment between the trigger and the action of eating in response to the trigger. You don’t necessarily have to deny yourself the food. Simply taking the time to see the connection between the emotion and the eating that follows will help you to make better choices.

Five Tips for Eating Mindfully

  • Learning to eat mindfully won’t happen in one day. With that in mind, here are a few tips for bringing a sense of mindfulness to your eating habits:
  • Be aware of social challenges. The holiday season or the pressure of friends, for example, can lead you to eat more than you really need to.
  • Start small. Put less food on your plate—you might find that a smaller portion is enough.
  • Pause and reflect before eating. Think about your emotions and physical needs before making an eating choice.
  • Chew your food. Some guidelines suggest chewing each mouthful up to 40 times. The number doesn’t matter: simply take your time to savor the tastes, noting the ingredients and flavors, before beginning your next bite.
  • You don’t have to eat it all. Just because there’s food on your plate, doesn’t mean you have to finish it.

To learn more about making healthy choices, contact us at PMR today!