Opinion: keeping track of the food we eat promotes mindful eating and healthier food choices

We are living in a rush. No time to sit down, no time to cook. We rely mostly on ready meals, snacks and takeaways because they are handy, tasty and, most importantly, will immediately suppress hunger at least for a while. Unfortunately, there is less and less time to sit down in front of table and have a meal together. We eat in a hurry, trying to get through daily to-do lists, running from one appointment to another, hoping to save some time to get more done in less amount of time.

Distracted by checking our email or listening to the news, we don't know what and how much of the food we are putting into mouth. Let’s be honest, we cannot focus our attention on two things at the time. We either focus on the meal or on the task. If we are not concentrated on the food we eating, how are we supposed to notice the signal from our body to stop eating? When we are distracted, we continue eating and stop only when we run out of food or finish the task at hand. We over-consume foods which might cause us to gain weight and even compromise our health and well-being in the long-run by increasing the risk of obesity. 

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Keeping track of what, when and how we are eating might help us to regain a focus on our diet. Food journaling allows us to both track calories and identify 'risky’ patterns of food habits. 

"Mindless eaters"

We are living in food-rich environment, where the power of advertising shapes what and how much we eat. The way food is presented affects our choices, while package size, plate shape and even lighting makes it difficult to predict how much of food we actually consume. For example, choosing "family packs" crisps can result in an increase of 45% in the amount of crisps eaten.

An increasing food intake, known as overconsumption, obstructs the body’s satiety signals and may result in extended eating and weight gain which we struggle to notice. When we are distracted by TV, emails and other stuff, we become mindless eaters who are unable to focus on the plate. 

Mindful eating

Every day, we make around 200 decisions about food. The majority of these are made automatically without conscious recognition. If you tend to overeat and gain weight, it's because you are unaware of the food decisions made every day. Mindfulness can bring balance to overeating as a source of pleasure or celebration, shifting the focus from quantity of food to cultivating an overall sense of enjoyment. By applying those strategies to eating, you not only regain attention to your food choices, but also reduce food binges, emotional eating and stress, which may help to reduce your weight and improve well-being. 

Keeping a food journal prompts us to reflect and ask questions about our dietary habits, such as what/when/why and how we are consuming foods

Mindfulness-based practices may constitute a "therapeutic lifestyle change" that can enhance health and well-being. Applying these strategies as part of mindful eating, help us to regain self-control, when it comes to food choices and reduce food cravings 

Mindful eating is described as being aware in the present moment and paying close attention to the senses, including physical and emotional sensation, while consuming food. When we pay attention to taste, texture, and smell during meals, it helps us to notice satiety signals earlier, which results in the reduction of quantity and caloric density of the food we consume, and even healthier food choices.

Did you know that mindful eaters are more likely to choose fruit as snack, rather than sweets? People who are able to focus on the plate snack less often and eat 24% fewer calories than those who are distracted during the meal.

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Food journaling – how to start?

Food journaling promotes mindful eating and healthier food choices. Keeping a food journal prompts us to reflect and ask questions about our dietary habits, such as what/when/why and how we are consuming foods. Recording this information allows us to keep track of our eating-behaviour and spot unhealthy routines (like processed foods), binge-eating or unequal spread of calories during the day. 

Decide how you will track your eating habits, either with apps or pen and paper, and make sure you track all important information, which might differ, depending on your goal.  

The first step is to try to stay mindful while eating. This involves three basic steps which you might want to follow at each meal:

(1) Notice all the senses, tastes, smells and textures of the food you are eating. 

(2) Recognise repetitive habits, such as eating while multitasking, and eating on autopilot without being aware consciously

(3) Be aware of what triggers the initiation and cessation of eating – is it physiological hunger or is it boredom?

Keeping a food dairy can help you to remember what you have eaten during the day, and also the quantities. Remember that too much of even a good thing might be harmful! It is also a good way to monitor your calories, and track them, in order to know which nutrient (protein, carbs or fats) contribute to your caloric intake the most. If you want to start start healthy eating or eliminate junk foods from your diet, tracking what you are eating might be extremely helpful.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ