8 Lessons About Intuitive Eating From the Eat Well Challenge

As a chronic dieter for most of my life, it hasn’t been easy to kick the dieting habit.

I grew up in a home where food was so restricted that my siblings and I learned to “sneak” snacks and sips of soda. My mother was on and off diets for as long as I can remember, a habit she unknowingly passed on to me.

I loved my mom dearly, but one of our last conversations was about dieting. She was in hospice, and I was on Jenny Craig. I remember when my brother brought a bowl of microwave popcorn into the hospital room and I reached for it, and my mom gently chided me for breaking my diet. “Tara, you’re being bad,” she said. I know those weren’t her last words to me, but it’s what I remember.

Since then I’ve tried many different weight loss approaches — intermittent fasting, cutting carbs, Whole30 and, most recently, Noom — all of which have felt like restrictive diets wrapped up in different marketing packages. “Diet culture has been so shape-shifting that even diet companies now are saying, ‘We’re not a diet,’” said Evelyn Tribole, a registered dietitian and a co-author of the popular book “Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach.” “But yes, they are.”

Now there’s mounting scientific evidence to suggest that restrictive dieting makes you want to eat more, slows your metabolism and makes it even harder to lose weight in the future.

Tired of the dieting roller coaster, I made the decision about a year ago to never diet again. I put my energy into practicing mindfulness, learning to meditate and enjoying cooking.

The science of mindful eating

No restrictive diets have ever been proven to result in sustainable, long-term weight loss for the majority of people who try them. To be sure, there is only limited research on the effectiveness of so-called nondiet approaches, often called mindful eating, intuitive eating or attuned eating.

What all these approaches have in common is that they don’t restrict foods, but instead focus on paying attention to internal cues, like hunger, fullness and cravings. But it takes practice. In one study, it took participants at least 10 to 15 tries — and for many people it took 38 or more attempts — to begin to reshape their eating behaviors through mindfulness.

A Brown University study of 104 overweight women found that mindfulness training reduced craving-related eating by 40 percent. Another review by scientists at Columbia University found that training in mindful eating often resulted in at least one benefit for metabolic or heart health, such as better glucose levels, lower cholesterol or improved blood pressure. A 2014 review of 20 mindful eating interventions showed improvements in psychological health, including less depression, better self-esteem and improved quality of life.

Success doesn’t always mean weight loss

Although some people who practice mindful eating may end up losing weight over time, proponents say it’s best to start by listening to your body and bringing awareness to how foods make you feel.

“Just focus on paying attention as you eat,” said Dr. Judson Brewer, an associate professor in behavioral and social sciences at the Brown University School of Public Health.

Traci Mann, a University of Minnesota psychologist and author of “Secrets From the Eating Lab,” advises people to set new health goals unrelated to weight loss.

“Maybe the goal is to eat more vegetables, because that carries all the healthy stuff our bodies need,” said Dr. Mann. “If the outcome is reducing personal shame or guilt, getting you to stress less about your diet or getting you to not diet, those are all excellent goals. That will make you healthier even if it doesn’t make you thinner.”

Dr. Rudolph Leibel, a professor of medicine at Columbia University’s Institute of Human Nutrition, said he encourages his patients to focus on the metabolic benefits of healthful eating and small amounts of weight loss, rather than their appearance. “More modest reductions are easier to sustain than the ones people often go after for cosmetic reasons,” said Dr. Leibel.

Lessons from the Eat Well Challenge

Asking myself the simple question, “How will eating this make me feel?” has helped me improve the quality of my diet without the perils of food restriction. To my surprise, I’ve even lost a little weight, albeit very slowly. While I’m still overweight, it has been liberating and even joyful to stop dieting and start eating mindfully.

Ms. Tribole said one of the biggest challenges for chronic dieters is to stop restricting foods and listen to their bodies instead. “There’s a tendency to become rule-based when you come from diet culture,” said Ms. Tribole. “Dieting is such a profound disruption between you and your body and trusting your body.”

This month, we’ve heard from hundreds of readers who texted us their own lessons for reshaping their eating habits. For the final installment of the Eat Well Challenge, I’m sharing tips from readers about mindful eating.

Eat on a fancy plate!

I love this tip for turning an everyday meal into a celebration. Creating a colorful and appetizing plate of food and reveling in the joy of cooking and eating are all ways to practice mindful eating. Studies suggest that the health benefits of Mediterranean-style eating, which includes an abundance of vegetables, olive oil and seafood, are likely enhanced by the tendency of people in the region to enjoy and savor their food and to turn every meal into a celebration with friends and family.

No more multitasking while eating.

Many readers have discovered they have a habit of looking at their phones, reading, doing work or watching television while eating. While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying your food while watching the Super Bowl or during family movie night, mindful eating is best achieved when your focus is on the meal.

“My biggest aha moment so far: slowing down and really being present while I eat,” shared a reader. “I put my phone or book elsewhere and just focus on the taste, smell, texture, look of my food. I enjoy the food so much more when I savor it!”

Put the fork down.

A number of readers shared this advice, noting that once they became more aware of their eating habits, they noticed that they had a tendency to scoop a new forkful of food before they even finished chewing. Learning to put the fork down between bites helped them focus on the taste and texture of their food, rather than the next bite. A consistent theme I heard from readers is that mindful eating also helped them to slow down at the dinner table, and made them realize how fast they had been gobbling down their food, a habit often learned in childhood.

Use smaller plates.

A number of readers have told us that using smaller dishes has helped them serve smaller portions and tune in to their body’s hunger and satiety signals. With smaller plates, seconds are still an option if you’re still hungry.

“American dinnerware is huge, and it’s really easy to fill the plate,” shared a reader. “Many of us were also trained by our parents to clean our plates, and so we don’t stop eating when we’re full.”

Never grocery shop while hungry.

Paying attention to hunger signals helped readers notice that it’s better not to shop for food while they’re hungry.

Ride the wave of food cravings.

For many readers, accepting that food cravings are normal has been a revelation. Evan Forman, a psychology professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia and the director of the university’s Center for Weight, Eating and Lifestyle Science, teaches his clients to “ride the wave” of food cravings by identifying the craving, noticing how you feel and accepting it, rather than trying to suppress it.

“The simple visual concept of ‘riding the wave’ has been amazingly helpful for me,” said a reader. “I used it three times last night to overcome post-dinner snacking. Worked like a charm!”

Just add vegetables.

Some readers suggested adding more vegetables to meals — rather than restricting other foods.

“I vowed never to diet after having a daughter but rather eat healthfully and be active,” shared a reader who has focused on eating more vegetables. “I didn’t want her to obsess like my friends, sisters and I did.”

Get more sleep.

Mindful eating made several readers more aware of a tendency to snack at night and to snack more when they stayed up late. A number of studies show that foods can affect our sleep, and lack of sleep can affect our eating patterns.