Mindful eating: taking the time to enjoy your meal can help deal with those extra kilos.
Mindful eating: taking the time to enjoy your meal can help deal with those extra kilos.

Being conscious of good eating habits goes a long way towards winning the battle of the bulge.


Mindless eating over the December holidays has probably left many of you with extra weight clinging to your bodies.Mindful eating, says the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa, helps to control the urge to eat too much – and it will deal with those extra holiday kilos.

Jessica Byrne, a dietician at the foundation, says mindful eating is about being aware of what you are eating. In other words, slow down and be conscious of the textures and flavours of the food and your response to it. Enjoying the process of preparing meals is part of mindful eating. It is also about paying attention to feelings of satiety.

A 2015 article in the journal Current Obesity Reports says “evidence suggests that mindfulness intervention becomes more effective for weight regulation when they clearly direct participants to improve eating behaviours, weight loss or maintenance. Participants need to display some intent to improve their eating behaviours or weight regulation; otherwise it might take some time to come around to the idea of mindful eating.”

Eating on “autopilot”
Byrne says: “We are all guilty of mindless eating – eating not because you’re hungry but just because the food is there and you’re not paying attention to what you’re doing. Being aware of how behavioural factors influence our eating patterns can help us to avoid overeating. Certain factors may make you go on to autopilot and eat mindlessly.”

Factors that contribute to mindless eating include being in the company of friends and family or the converse, eating alone.

Parties and celebrations can also trigger overeating because meals and snacks are so readily available.

“Emotions such as feeling bored, depressed, nervous or happy may make you turn to food,” Byrne warns.

Along with being mindful of what and how you eat is the amount you eat. Overeating leads to weight gain. Mayo Clinic, a United States-based medical research organisation, says people “consistently eat more food when offered larger-sized portions”, so portion control is important when trying to lose or maintain weight.

Increased portion sizes
The increase in levels of overweight and obesity around the world has seen a parallel increase in food portion sizes, which results directly in people “eating more than they should without even realising it”, according to the foundation.

Byrne says: “Eating larger portions of food means you are taking in more energy (kilojoules) from food, which can lead to weight gain over time.”

She warns that being overweight or obese puts people “at risk for conditions such as heart disease, strokes, high blood pressure and diabetes”.

In South Africa, two-thirds of women and a third of men are overweight or obese, but research shows that modifying behaviour that leads to overeating can help with weight loss and maintaining a healthy body weight.

Byrne says the “plate model” can be useful in helping to determine correct portions when creating meals. “Simply divide your plate into quarters: one-quarter should consist of a high-fibre starchy food, such as brown rice or sweet potato; a quarter contains a protein food, such as meat, chicken or fish; and the remaining two-quarters can be filled with vegetables and salads.”

Use smaller plates – or plates with a darker-coloured rim because “one will tend to only serve food on the lighter-coloured portion of the plate” – to help reduce the size of the meal.

Variety is key
But it’s not just the size of the meal that is important. A 2012 survey by the Human Sciences Research Council found that the diet of nearly 40% of South Africans was low in diversity and of poor nutritional quality. Almost 20% of the participants in the survey had a diet high in fat and sugar, and the diet of one in four was low in fruit and vegetables.

In addition, South African adults have an average general knowledge about nutrition. In the survey only one in five achieved a high score, 14.5% had low scores and the majority achieved a medium score (5.3 out of nine). Furthermore, almost half of adult South Africans eat outside the home: 28.7% reported doing so monthly, 20.3% more than once a month, and 28.3% weekly.

But many restaurants serve more food than is appropriate for one person, says Byrne. “Control the amount of food that ends up on your plate by sharing a meal with a friend or asking the waiter to put half the meal in a takeaway container before it is brought to the table. Alternatively, order a salad and a starter as your main meal.”

Some takeaway eateries offer “supersize” meals. Byrne says these should be avoided because “the portion is more than you need”.

Byrne has other tips to avoid overeating. Excess food should be kept out of reach. And don’t eat in front of the TV because you are “not paying attention to signals of becoming full, thereby leading to overeating. If snacking in front of the TV, put a small amount of the food into a bowl or container and put the rest away.”


Your hand is a ready measure

  • Palm of your hand: Make protein food portions the size of your palm, which is about 90g. Good choices include fish, chicken without the skin and lean red meats. 
  • Tip of your thumb: Fats are important for health, but they’re also dense in energy (kilojoules), so it’s advisable to keep portions of oils, butter, margarine and mayonnaise to the tip of your thumb, which is about one teaspoon.
  • Clenched fist: Keep the portions of fruit and starchy foods (such as cooked rice, cooked pasta and potatoes) to about the size of your clenched fist, which is equal to one cup. Remember to choose wholegrain or high-fibre options.
  • Two handfuls: This is a good portion of vegetables to be included at most meals.
  • Thumb: Use the length of your thumb to measure the amount of hard cheese or peanut butter to eat.
  • A handful: This is a good portion of raisins or unsalted nuts for a healthy snack. Two handfuls of home-made popcorn is another great snack option. – Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa

Enjoying your food makes good sense

  • During meal times, focus on your food. People who eat when they are distracted tend to eat much more than those who concentrate on their food.
  • To help you focus, eat at a table. Step away from your desk or TV, put away your cellphone and get out of the car. You’ll be more aware of what you are eating and you will appreciate it more.
  • Focus on each mouthful – savour the flavours and textures. This will help you mentally to acknowledge your food and to understand when you are full. It takes time for your brain to get the message from your stomach that you’ve eaten enough. If you eat in a hurry, you may be full and not yet know it.
  • Put your cutlery down between mouthfuls to help you slow down and enjoy your meal instead of rushing through it.
  • Before grabbing a snack, ask yourself whether you’re hungry or whether you’re reacting to your thirst and emotions, or eating out of habit. Eat less by not using food to cope with problems or to distract you from them. – Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa