Nutrition Articles

What is ''Normal Eating''? --Part 3

Eat Mindfully, Lose Weight, Be Happy

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Do you often feel like your weight loss efforts are a constant battle, with as many defeats as victories? Are you plagued by frequent cravings when you stick to your diet, and by guilt or shame when you don’t? Do you even remember what real hunger feels like? How much time do you spend thinking about food, counting calories, and worrying about your weight—enough to think that something is seriously “wrong” with you?

If these examples sound like you, then you're probably still living in a “diet" mentality. With this mentality (and its narrow focus on numerical results), you are fighting against the very thing that can help you lose weight without all the suffering and distress—your own hunger. Furthermore, the tools and strategies that can actually help you succeed (nutritional knowledge, calorie counting, self-discipline) become transformed into weapons of self-defeat.

This article is the third in a series that describes "normal" and abnormal eating habits. (Part one looked at some of the basic characteristics of normal eating. Part two contained a checklist of behaviors often associated with disordered eating.) This article will explore mindful eating, an alternative approach that can help you turn around the problems described above. It involves learning to recognize, respect, and respond to your hunger, and making conscious, purposeful decisions about eating in the moment, not just before or after the fact.

The Roots of Mindful Eating: Paying Attention to Your Hunger

Hunger describes the escalating, physiological sensations you experience when your body actually needs food: rumbling, unpleasant stomach contractions (hunger pangs), mild lightheadedness, difficulty concentrating, irritability, faintness, and headaches. For most people who regularly eat a balanced diet with adequate calories, hunger will set in about four hours after the last meal, and will escalate after about five hours.

Feelings of fullness or satiety will occur when your stomach reaches a certain level of fullness (about 75% of its maximum capacity). These sensations also escalate from mild fullness, to "stuffed" to bloated and uncomfortable. Even if your stomach is nearly full, you may want to continue eating for a couple of reasons. One—it can take up to 20 minutes for your brain to receive the signal that your stomach is full and for the brain to send the “stop eating” signals to you. And two, eating feels good!

Dieting doesn’t work for many people because it doesn’t offer anything you can actually use in the moment, when deciding what, when, and how much to eat. In that moment, success or failure at achieving permanent weight loss is determined. Making good choices in the moment requires three skills:
  1. the ability to recognize your innate hunger and satiety signals;
  2. the ability to distinguish between hunger, appetite (preferences, habits, tastes), and impulse;
  3. the ability to stay grounded in your self and your goals so that it is you making the decisions—not hunger, appetite, impulses, or your diet rules.
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About The Author

Dean Anderson Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.

Member Comments

  • Looking at the comment by Brooklyn Born, I have to say that, yesterday, I was reading drink a whole water between bites as a strategy and today I am reading this approach - and I agree that it has to be "whatever works based on knowing ourselves" more than anything.

    Mindfulness is one of those key words lately. The thing is practicing mindfulness isn't always even practical. Family meals and holiday meals are almost never mindful meals and if you eat lunch with coworkers, that isn't mindful either. You have to choose between mindfully paying attention to the people you are bonding with or the food. And, if you are working, most snacks come at times when it isn't easy to stop the whole world to eat one either - again you have to choose between being mindful about focusing on work or on the food.

    Keeping track of what is eating works better for me than trying to do that process.

    - 3/25/2016 12:48:29 PM
  • I really like this article and think that it makes really valid points with great advice. Another poster mentioned about not trying it during crazy weeks - with 3 busy teenaged sons, most weeks during the school year are crazy with activities, etc. Still, even trying to be mindful and implement what parts I can help to make me aware of monitoring true hunger versus needs/cravings/et
    c. - 2/5/2016 9:33:08 AM
  • I totally understand the intent of the article. Making us think about how we eat is a good thing. HOWEVER, for me while eating alone, I AWAYS do something else between bites. Right now I'm typing this during my morning snack. I can't eat if my fingers are typing. Breakfast and lunch follow the same pattern. If I just sit by myself and think about chewing my food, I feel weird. Dinner is with DH, so no other distractions then. Think about it, find what works for you. In my 6th year of maintenance, I'm an expert on ME, only me. - 9/10/2015 11:14:14 AM
  • I always laugh when I read a suggestion like "Donít plan to do this experiment during a week when you know things are going to be crazy or unusual" since no two weeks in my life are even remotely the same - there's ALWAYS something nutzNutzNUTZ going on.

    However, that doesn't mean that mindful eating is an impossibility. It just means that I need to be mindful about being mindful (makes sense to me!). - 9/9/2015 9:27:51 PM
  • This would be a good topic to make into a challenge. I realized that I was eating my morning bowl of cereal while reading the article! I think I need this. - 9/9/2015 10:26:32 AM
  • BED treatment in my country says to never leave more than 3 hours between meals, and to wait for at least 2 hours after a meal or snack. Six moments of eating are advised, and it is NOT advised to go by signals of hunger or craving nor of satiety but to start out by using a food plan that contains ENOUGH calories - think about 2000 for the average woman. Even when trying to lose weight it is warned that one should NEVER go below 1500 calories, and this is to be attempted only for a long time after the person's emotional / disordered eating has ceased.
    If a person has problems with diet mentality or emotional eating, the body is too messed up, blood sugar levels are wild, and the person cannot trust feelings like hunger or craving, nor feeling 'full'. (For example someone may resist eating breakfast saying they are still full from last night, or feel very hungry even right after a meal). My idea is that it is not nearly as easy and simple to normalize one's eating patterns as it is suggested in these articles.
    - 9/4/2015 4:34:55 PM
  • Is there a way to track your hunger scale in SparkPeople? If there is, I just can't figure it out. Any help would be appreciated! - 6/11/2015 1:05:12 PM
  • I agree with TXHONEY, eating six small calorically balanced meals more close together has helped me immensely. I had surgery on my esophagus and I had to eat this way. I had no choice but to eat mindfully and be aware of satiety and hunger because there would be repercussions if I didn't. Now that I have been doing it for a while, it comes pretty naturally to me. - 5/21/2013 9:38:16 AM
  • This article proved to be timely. I am journaling my hunger before and after each meal in order to be more mindful and identify physical hunger instead of appetite or cravings. Adding a link to the hunger scale would make the article even more useful.
    Thank you! - 3/2/2013 7:10:24 PM
  • Just controling when you eat does not work. I think portion control and quality of food are necessary adjuncts to frequency of eating. I found that once I suffered through the first few weeks of not just eating to be stuffed, my need to eat massive quantities of food abated. - 8/29/2012 1:45:04 PM
  • First, I agree that there should be links within each article. Second, I agree that the earlier articles were better than this one. I sort of think it was a bit of a simplistic approach for someone who has such trouble 'sticking with'. However, I do like the idea of re- RESPECting hunger.

    As one who had hypoglycemia tested ages ago, it was often more obvious to others when it was time for me to eat than me. Now i know when it is 'too late' and it is hard to get people to understand when i reallllllllllly need to eat before it is too late. That's when bad habits and reaching for foods that are not food happen.

    oops going on here, mayy blogg or journal this. Guess i'm getting mindful?

    PS DO have to say that these articles put together have really given me much food for thought and good ways of looking at things.

    - 7/20/2011 2:02:13 AM
  • I've always known that my attitudes towards food and eating weren't healthy, but now I know that they're seriously unhealthy!

    I now plan on doing the mindful eating experiment next week to see how I go. I pretty much eat the same thing for brekkie and lunch anyway, so it should be easy for me to plan the meals. Will be interesting to actually see when I get hungry. - 6/30/2011 5:06:02 AM
  • Thank you for these articles! It is really helpful to understand why I eat the way I do and this gives me to tools to be more aware of why. - 4/19/2011 10:41:39 AM
  • It was truly helpful for me too. These days I experienced most of the tendencies of a disordered eating routine( I started eating candies just to find one that I really loved...but while I was searching it, I didn't realize that I was eating all those chocolate candies. Besides the fact that I was angry on my stupidity and incapacity to stop in the right moment it seemed also funny to count all the empty wraps -there were seven :)) So, to compensate next day I ate two oranges-that was all my food. It seemed the only way to gain the self respect and positivity .)
    Disordered meant also the constant concern for the number of calories I have. I was surprised, while reading the three articles to see all these problems mentioned, identified as I'm not sick (mental), there are other people that suffer just as me. And I can do something about it. Hope so.
    Thank you Spark People for all the great articles that I daily find here . - 12/28/2010 10:40:38 AM
    Thought provoking. As an obese person who has lost, been healthy, done it right, then gained it back, it sadly seems to take a bit more than thoughtful eating to maintain, because it's just too easy to "fall off the wagon", I also found that 3 meals and 1 or 2 snacks spaced so far apart leads me to a lot of distracting hunger (and even more food obsession) even when keeping my protein up and carbs under control. Now, eating 6 small, more calorically balanced, meals spaced a little closer together truly fills me up - to the point that often I can't do the last small meal of the day. I'm not diabetic, but I'm thinking those diabetic counselors and my fitness trainer (money well spent!) know what they're talking about!

    Great articles though, I've gotten a lot from them and been encouraged. Thanks. - 10/18/2010 4:13:48 PM

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