No doubt this country has a serious problem with food. Two out of three adult Americans are now either overweight or obese and one of six children is obese. We live in a food environment that is programmed to put on the pounds. Huge food portions are everywhere and meals are often eaten at our workplaces in a rushed fashion. Even a cyclist sticking to a good training program may not find that regular exercise is enough to keep from packing on some extra pounds. Excess weight increases risk for a number of diseases, and the current weight epidemic is actually an overeating epidemic. In fact, Americans are exercising more now than before.
Cyclists learn a lot about what to eat and how to time their food intake around training, and often want to drop some weight or improve their eating habits around training. Perhaps you feel that you have tried a number of techniques and strategies for controlling food intake in an attempt to lose a few pounds, but true success seems elusive? That’s why it is not only important to pay attention to what you eat, but to also be aware of how and why you eat. Many of our problems with food may actually lie in our mind, so it might be good for your training program and your health to become aware of the practice of mindful eating.
What mindful eating is not
Have you ever had the experience of using food or a caffeine laden beverage as a reward? For example, you may be busy working on a project or under deadline at work. You keep holding off, but finally decide it is time for a treat. You dig in and within seconds the food or beverage is devoured. Where did it go? Perhaps you even want another since you really did not experience the satisfaction of the first treat.
What is mindful eating?
Mindful eating is a product of mindful meditation, which has been used for the past 25 years to help treat a variety of health problems. It is all about being present when you eat and becoming aware of many food related experiences, including your hunger and satisfaction. Mindful eating can help with chronic overeating and even the more extreme binge eating. Most importantly, mindful eating involves paying attention to the full experience of eating and drinking including smells, colors, textures, flavors, temperatures and even the crunch of food.
Mindful eating draws upon several components whose function is to improve your relationship with food and ultimately your weight and health. One important component involves making choices on beginning and ending a meal based on your own physiological hunger and satiety cues. Next time you sit down for a meal or snack, ask yourself a few questions. What does hunger feel like? What does it feel like to be half full, or three quarters full? What is an appropriate level of fullness? Do you ignore your body’s feedback? Identify how your body tells you that is hungry and full. Eat slowly and really experience the food.
Focusing on the quality of the food rather than the quantity is also essential, as is experiencing the sensory experience of food as well as the fueling and nutrient aspects. Another important component is learning to identify your own personal triggers for mindless eating such specific emotion or social situations. Notice the emotions or situations that start you and stop you from eating. Mindful eating also involves being observant and non-judgmental regarding what you learn about your habits around food.
Putting into practice
Knowing how much food you require before or after training and providing appropriate amounts is part of mindful eating. Even in the process of recovery eating after a hard training ride, your body can only process so many nutrients every few hours to replenish fuel supplies and repair and rebuild muscle. Stuffing yourself after a ride is counterproductive and excess calories are stored as fat.
Probably one of the most frequent situations in which we practice mindless eating is restaurant eating. We love to get a food bargain, such as all you can eat or two for the price of one. You might feel that you need to get your money’s worth in regards to a large portion. In mindful eating you should carefully consider whether a large portion of cheap food is really a bargain. It really isn’t if it is more fuel than you require at that particular meal. Many restaurant foods also contain the unholy threesome of sugar, salt, and fat, often triggering mindless cravings because their taste and texture stimulate many satisfaction centers in our brain. Is restaurant eating often the result of cravings or lack of planning for the coming week of training?
While mindful eating is not about a lot of rules, a bit of structure can be good. Determine ahead of time what you will consume for meals and snacks. Do some planning, grocery shopping, and packing of foods. Figure how much you might need at specific meals and eat on time — or when modest hunger signals kick in — not when you are starving. Rather than going back for more food or looking for more food, sit and experience your feeling of fullness after a meal or snack. Choosing foods in their more natural state can help you experience the real flavor of fresh food. Notice how a ripe piece of fresh fruit can satisfy a sweet craving.
French eating culture may be a great example of mindful eating. In a country abundant in butter, cheese, and croissants, the French consume less fat than we do and have a lower incidence of overweight and less heart disease. Their portions are much smaller and a long lunch in the middle of the workday is not unusual. If you don’t have this luxury, pay full attention to the meal in the time available. If you notice the impulse to check email or voicemail when eating, just notice it and return to eating. It takes about 20 minutes for your meal to reach the first part of the small intestine, when chemical signals of satiety are sent back to the brain. Fast eating can result in putting too much food in our bodies before satiety signals are reached.
Be mindful about the environment
Mindful eating can not only break you of some bad eating habits, but can also have a positive effect on environment and become green eating. Some practices can include consuming foods grown or produced within a 100 mile radius of home. These foods are more likely to have retained greater nutritional value because the time to reach our plate is shorter and carbon emissions related to packaging and shipping are reduced. Choosing organic, particularly for the top 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest level of pesticides is good use of your food dollars. As identified by the Environmental Working Group they are peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, kale, lettuce, imported grapes, carrots, and pears.
Treats and mindful eating
Treats do have a place in mindful eating, but these favorites can sometimes present a challenge when they “call” out to us. Have what you really want and try to savor each bite, without moving past a comfortable level of fullness. You can pay attention to how often you may crave a “favorite” food and consider the health consequences or the affect on your recovery and training of consuming these foods. You can then balance out these foods with your nutritional needs around training and racing for cycling. The same can be done for favorite restaurant indulgences.
With mindful eating you can add another component to your training nutrition plan that can help you appreciate what drives you to consume certain foods and how to eat any type of food in a healthy manner, while still being able to enjoy treat in a more moderate way.
Monique Ryan, MS, RD, LDN is a nationally recognized nutritionist with over twenty-four years of experience and is owner of Personal Nutrition Designs, a Chicago based nutrition consulting company that provides nutrition programs for endurance athletes across North America (www.moniqueryan.com).