Stress Snacking? Answers to Your Questions About Mindful Eating

As we’ve been learning in the Eat Well Challenge, mindful eating can take some time and practice, and many of you still have questions. For help answering them, I called on two of the leading experts on mindfulness and habits. Dr. Judson Brewer is the director of research and innovation at the Brown University Mindfulness Center and the creator of the Eat Right Now app. Evan Forman is a psychology professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia and the director of the university’s Center for Weight, Eating and Lifestyle Science.

Q: I must be missing something. Maybe I don’t truly understand this concept of mindful eating. So far, it’s been a license to keep eating whatever I want.

Dr. Brewer: Typically, this question comes when someone is not actually paying attention when they’re eating. It’s not about understanding the concept. It’s about putting it into practice. It’s not about thinking. It’s about feeling. What does it feel like when I eat too much?

The goal is to listen to the body’s signals. Our feeling body is much smarter than our thinking brain. Our body knows when we’ve had enough; our brain doesn’t. How much do you pay attention when you eat? What does it feel like when you eat too much?

Ask yourself with each bite, “Is this more pleasurable or more rewarding than the last one?” What that does is help you pay attention. Your body is designed to stop when it’s full. We overeat only when we’re not paying attention. It is all right to eat as much as we want, but if we listen to the wisdom of our bodies, we’re not going to overeat, and that’s where we can shift our behavior.

Q: When I reach for food, I am able to observe that I am not hungry, but it does not change my behavior. The most common time for me to reach for food is when I’ve hit an impasse at work.

Dr. Brewer: This is about wants versus needs. Ask yourself: “What do I need? If I’m not hungry, why am I driven to eat? Is it boredom? Stress?” I want to empower the reader to sit with these questions.

But maybe the answer is: If I’m stressed, maybe I need a stretch or a walk break. If I’m stuck, maybe I need to take a moment and reflect or talk to a colleague. The “want” is a habit. Meeting your “need” is going to help you not reach for food. Snacking isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if we snack a lot and it becomes our go-to when we have writer’s block, it can teach us two things: to eat when we’re not hungry, and to eat instead of doing something that might actually help with the writer’s block.

Q: It’s really hard to manage food portions as a single person. What tips do you have for cooking for one?

TPP: I also live alone most of the time, except when my college student is home. Cooking for myself helps me plan, prepare and eat food far more mindfully than if I order takeout. But it can be hard to shrink a recipe for six servings down to a recipe for one. I usually try to cook two portions. When I prepare my plate, I take the second portion and put it in the fridge for tomorrow’s lunch. This keeps me from mindlessly nibbling on seconds when I’m not really hungry.

I’ve also learned to shop more mindfully to avoid food waste. Instead of buying protein in presorted packs, I ask the butcher or fishmonger in the store for a single chicken breast or piece of salmon. I try to buy small portions of vegetables when I can. I have also started composting at home because sometimes foods go bad before I can eat them.

I’ve always liked the cookbook “Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One” by Joe Yonan, the food editor at The Washington Post. (I worked with Joe at The Daily Texan, my college newspaper, many years ago.) Because I am cooking for one, I’ve always kept a pretty spare cupboard and fridge, but Joe believes in stocking up on spices, condiments, sauces and staples, especially if you’re single. “I’m a zealot about the fact that if you’re fully stocked, making something quick at the end of a long workday is that much easier,” he writes.

Q: I’m struggling with the craving wave. When I’m stressed, I go for chips or alcohol. Can you break down the craving wave more?

TPP: As a reminder to readers, “urge surfing” means “riding the wave” of your thoughts, feelings and cravings rather than acting on them, and it’s a successful strategy often used to treat substance use. The four steps include identifying your craving, noticing how you feel, accepting the craving and then coexisting or “surfing” with the craving as it rises and falls.

Dr. Forman: Many people eat in response to emotions, and as a way of managing the emotion. Once you have done this a few times it becomes an ingrained habit. However, you can break this habit.

1. Work at understanding the source of your emotion, and see if you can address the root cause. Can you alter what is causing you stress? Are you anxious about a future that hasn’t happened yet, and maybe never will? Are there non-eating activities that could fill your boredom?

2. See your emotions as something that are part of being alive, and part of being human. Instead of wishing they would change or go away, embrace them. In this way, you can adopt the attitude that these emotions can coexist with you, rather than being dependent on eating to make them go away.

3. Work hard at breaking the association. Each time you have the urge to eat in response to an emotion, mindfully notice the urge, but don’t actually eat. Eventually, over a few weeks, the association between emotion and eating will weaken, and the urge will be less powerful.

Q: Any recommended substitution for a chocolate craving? I haven’t found a satisfying one.

Dr. Brewer: There’s nothing wrong with eating chocolate. But if you say, “I eat too much chocolate,” then we can find a solution.

For me, I used to mindlessly eat chocolate. Now, I really pay attention. Since dark chocolate has less sugar, it creates less of a craving. I’d suggest you ask yourself what type of chocolate would give you the balance between the satisfaction of eating chocolate and the feeling of craving more. Milk chocolate, because of the high sugar content, is going to make you crave more.

Try an experiment. Eat milk chocolate and dark chocolate and see which one makes you want more. Pay attention and ask yourself: How much is enough? When am I satisfied? You don’t have to find a substitute. You can satisfy the chocolate craving and have a little bit. You’ll feel better because you won’t feel guilty for eating it, and there’s more chocolate for later.

Q: My craving is not food specific, but rather time specific, such as eating late at night. Any suggestions?

Dr. Forman: In our modern life, we take in many more calories than we actually need, so it is rare that we are truly, biologically hungry. As a result, our eating tends to be cued by things other than hunger. The most common cue is time. If you want to stop eating at a particular time, you will need to make a committed decision ahead of time. You should then fully expect, and even welcome, that every day at that time you will experience powerful urges to eat. This is how brains work! By embracing the urge, you can adopt the mentality that you will live alongside it, but not eat in response to it. Over many weeks, you will notice the association between the time cue and the urge to eat weakening.

Q: What’s your advice on routine weight check or ignore the scale? What’s best?

Dr. Brewer: This is an individual thing. If you feel as if you have to weigh yourself, don’t weigh too often. Take a scale holiday and listen to your body for a while.

Q: When I signed up for this challenge, I was very interested in participating and getting some new ideas. But with the Omicron variant taking over our lives, I don’t have the energy or interest.

Dr. Brewer: If you’re eating food, you might as well just pay attention while you’re eating. Why not? It’s not going to take more time. It is going to take moving away from devices and just paying attention.

The question suggests that mindful eating feels like another thing you have to do. But paying attention isn’t another thing you have to do. You’re not adding a new activity. You’re tapping into something that your body already wants to be doing. Your body wants to be paying attention when you eat. It doesn’t take extra energy, and it doesn’t take extra time. It takes a frame shift.

The Week in Well

Here are some stories you don’t want to miss:

Dani Blum has the science about “super immunity” after a breakthrough infection.

Gretchen Reynolds explains whether it’s best to work out in the morning or evening.

I’ve written a new mask guide to help you avoid counterfeits.

And of course, we’ve got the Weekly Health Quiz.

Let’s keep the conversation going. Follow me on Facebook or Twitter for daily check-ins, or write to me at [email protected]

Stay well!