Mindful eating

Ria Catsicas encourages you to reflect on your relationship with food and to practise mindful eating.


Part of living well as a person with diabetes requires that you sometimes need to take time to reflect on the choices you make and how they impact on how healthy you live your life. 

The types of food you should eat is well documented in the media. What we often neglect to recognise and fail to communicate is the how, when and why we eat. These are equally crucial factors that need to be considered. They impact on the quantity of food you consume which affects your weight, blood sugar and blood fat levels.

Research has demonstrated that when mindful eating is practised, less food is consumed at a meal, satisfaction is experienced earlier during the eating process and as a result there is a feeling of content after the meal. Mindful eating assists you to change from being an impulsive eater to become an intuitive eater.

Observation 1: Control where and when you consume your food

It is essential that you ask yourself: where you eat and when you eat. You will identify eating patterns which may be as follows: eating too fast; eating second portions; sneaking food; and eating in places other than your dining room, such as in your car, in the supermarket, in front of the TV and in the kitchen while cooking. All these locations are inappropriate and impact your weight negatively.

Observation 2: After identifying the habits, identify the rewards you receive

You must ask why you keep practising these poor eating habits if you intuitively know they result in weight gain. The logical answer to the question, is that they benefit you in some way. In other words, you feel rewarded by practising the behaviour. As you cannot change what you don’t acknowledge, it is important to identify the reward.

What rewards do you receive? 

  • Pleasure of food: You place value on the pleasure the taste of unhealthy foods provides and get instant gratification. The challenge is to control the frequency and quantity of consumption of instant gratification foods. You need to gain control of this – the ‘pleasure seeking taste’ as it contributes to the deterioration of your health and life.
  • Physiological calm: Consuming pleasurable food releases a ‘high’ in our brain. This triggers a desire to consume more and this desire is difficult to control.
  • Emotional relief: The act of eating can provide us with relief of emotions we do not want to face or resolve, such as fear, anxiety, anger, aggravation, frustration or sadness. The problem is that eating provides only temporarily relief. Ultimately, the weight gain causes feelings of guilt and disappointment that can erode your self-esteem.
  • Irrational rewards: You use food as a reward of enduring a stressful day. A typical scenario is coming home after a stressful day and you start consuming salty snacks with your glass of wine, or rusks with your cup of coffee.
  • Being sociable: You might find yourself part of a circle of friends and family that often get together and enjoy large lavish meals. It is easy to start to copy their behaviour as you want to belong and be accepted in the group.
  • Safety: Being overweight becomes a convenient excuse of not acting to change your life. It can serve as an excuse to do the difficult risky things in life that need courage. How many times have you told yourself – as soon as I lose weight I will start socialising, or resign from a low-paying job and seek a better job?

The bottom line

There is nothing wrong with the rewards we receive from consuming food. We all want to belong, be accepted or need emotional relief and have some pleasures in life. The problem is when we use food to reward. Excessive consumptions of all types of food causes weight gain, which will result in both physiological and physical illness that will impact on the quality of your life.

Strategy of eating better

You need to start a process of replacing bad unhealthy eating habits with good healthy eating habits. Practising the following steps will assist in doing so:

STEP 1: Replace the unhealthy habits with competing activities

Identify the triggers that result in eating outside your normal meal times or snacking consistently. This can be the time of day (after dinner) and the environment (coming home).

Make a list of activities you can do to replace the act of eating. They need to be incompatible with eating. Example, you cannot eat a packet of crisps whilst you are walking the dogs.

Choose activities that can be done with little effort. Keep these activities on your phone, or at a place where you can access it easily. Example, when you feel aggravated or upset; instead of eating, phone a friend, browse Facebook, read, or watch a movie on TV, or play a game on your computer. This is an everyday exercise consistently replacing the act of eating with a competing activity. Soon you will have changed the habit of inappropriate eating.

STEP 2: Resolve impulsive eating

Luckily the impulse or urge to eat does not happen all the time. It happens at certain times of the day. Resolving impulse eating requires two strategies:

  1. Identify the triggers (internal and external) that create the desire to eat impulsively. The urge to eat can be triggered by external triggers, such as the sight or smell of food as you are shopping, walking past the nuts and dried fruit section. The trigger might also be internal, like coming home and you become stressed by your children, who turned the house upside down.
  2. Create a defence strategy to combat the urge to eat. It starts by changing your thoughts, then soon the urge to eat at that time disappears. Change the buying nuts action by buying water as you enter the shop; this will help you to be more disciplined towards what you add to your trolley. When coming home, you can decide to make yourself a cup of tea and quickly create a game for your children, such as whoever picks up most of the toys will win a price.

STEP 3: Change your eating style to mindful eating

How you eat plays a key role towards gaining unnecessary weight. The eating styles that need change are the following:

  • Gulping down your food.
  • Consuming excessive portions, or second portions, or your child’s leftovers.
  • Eating while standing, on the move, or in the car.
  • Cooking and eating at the same time.
  • Snacking while watching television, or eating in other rooms in your house other than the dining room.
  • Overeating at parties or social events.

Mindful eating is about becoming aware and obeying sensations, such as hunger, fullness, taste and satiety cues. To change your style to mindful eating, you need to practise the following skills:

  • Slowing down the pace of eating by chewing slowly. An effective way is to start a conversation that will force you to slow down.
  • Eating your main meal away from distracting activities, such as eating in front of the TV or whilst working on your computer. Mindful eating should take place at a beautifully laid table.
  • Becoming aware of your body’s hunger and fullness cues and using them to guide the decision to start and end the meal.
  • Choosing to eat food that is both pleasurable and nourishing, using all senses while enjoying the experiencing of eating.

STEP 4: Create rewards that work for you – see yourself where you want to be

The objective is that the behaviours you have chosen to replace eating should let you feel so good that you will find them more attractive than eating food.

Stop using the excuse ‘I love food.’ Most of us love food. The question is how do you manage food in your life to optimise your health and your life. Mismanaging food causes you to become overweight and depressed.

Ultimately, to make these new behaviours or rewards, you need to practise them for at least a month. Be patient, you might not feel immediately that they will work but just persevere. Soon you will feel more in control and happier.

Example 1: Instead of going straight home rather change your route home and go to the gym. This will eliminate the urge to snack, which normally occurs when you sit in front of the TV.

Example 2: You have the habit of eating leftover food, especially the food your children have left on their plates. You should rather keep these leftovers and pack them in your lunchbox for the next day.

Example 3: To get out of the office, you and your colleague use the excuse to visit the cafeteria, which normally results in purchasing a chocolate. You should now convinced her that you two should take a walk outside the building and spend 10 minutes a day in the garden, next to the fountain. You should now decide it is a 10-min break to soak up some sun for vitamin D, and maybe even develop a game of identifying images in the clouds.

The rewards need to leave you with a feeling of having fun, a sense of accomplishment, feeling of calm, relaxed and in control. So, you are no longer driven by the instant gratification, self-destructive habits impulses or urges.

STEP 5: Visualise yourself, and create concrete reminders to stay on track

Visualisation of yourself – where you ultimately want to be and how this will feel – will strengthen your motivation. Create an image of yourself looking and feeling extremely good. Be specific in terms of place, time, the clothes you’re wearing and the remarks of the people. It can also be an image or photo of you doing something exciting, such as competing in a cycling race or dancing at a party. Look at this image daily.

Because tempting food is everywhere around you and part of your daily lives, it helps to create concrete reminders to stay on track. This can be a photo of yourself on the fridge, or your dress or pair of jeans that you would like to fit in that you now hang outside your cupboard, as a reminder that you will fit into. It is only a matter of time.

The key to reducing unhealthy food consumption is to develop strategies that allows for the replacement of food as a reward. They should be new positive constructive habits that let you feel good about yourself and your appearance.


Ria Catsicas
Ria Catsicas is a dietitian in private practice and completed a master’s degree in nutrition. She has a special interest in the nutritional management of chronic diseases of lifestyle and authored a book The Nutritional Solution to Diabetes.