Mindful Eating

If you want to eat less, is it better to snack on small, calorie-restricted portions at frequent intervals - or to eat two or three larger meals per day? Or is the way we eat more important than how often we eat?

Should we eat smaller meals, more frequently?

That’s what Jorge Cruise’s book, The 3-Hour diet claims. It suggests that after more than three hours without food, your body goes into “starvation mode”.  This means that your body stores fat, burns muscle and slows down metabolism, making you more obese.

Or fewer, larger meals?

Others suggest the more small snacks you eat, the more likely you are to feel hungry, leading you to consume more calories and gain weight.  There are theories that when you eat bigger meals less frequently, you feel more satisfied, and you’re less likely to take in more calories. So what is the truth?

The evidence so far?

There isn’t any hard evidence to prove that snacking is better for you. An analysis of published research, in 2016, concluded the opposite i.e. that having fewer meals may help control body weight, although recognising that most studies were too short and small scale to be able to form firm conclusions. The authors argue that when we eat may be significant, in particular the value of eating during the day time rather than at night i.e. in line with our body's internal clock. 

What about the 5:2 Diet?

The 5:2 Diet has achieved a degree of popularity, perhaps because it suggests you can eat what you want for five days a week, provided you cut your calorie consumption down to no more than 600 calories for men and 500 calories for women for the other two days. However, a 2016 review of nine published studies found no evidence of intermittent fasting being superior when it comes to weight loss.

Might mindful eating be the answer?

According to the Harvard Medical School there is a small but growing amount of research to suggest that mindful eating is an important factor in a healthy meal. 

Mindful eating is based on a Buddhist concept. You focus in detail on the food itself - including the colour, the texture and the flavour.  You also chew food thoroughly for at least 20 minutes and avoid distractions such as a book or the TV.  Mindful eating is said to work because eating slowly and carefully without distraction aids digestion.

Mindfulness itself is becoming more popular and may have wider health benefits.

Two 2016 analyses of the research published so far came to rather different conclusions. The first, which considered the results of fifteen different studies, concluded, 'Mindfulness-based interventions may be both physically and psychologically beneficial for adults who are overweight or obese.' The second considered the results of twelve different studies. It concluded that mindfulness training had no significant effect on weight loss, but tended to reduce impulsive eating and binge eating and have a positive effect on physical activity levels i.e. encouraging healthier behaviour but not necessarily reducing weight.

Can we protect ourselves against mindless eating?

Mindful eating may sound like the way forward for a healthier lifestyle. However, Brian Wansink, an American Professor in the field of consumer behaviour and a nutritional scientist suggests a different approach. He says, "Most of us have too much chaos going on in our lives to consciously focus on every bite we eat, and then ask ourselves if we're full... the secret is to change your environment so it works for you rather than against you”.

Wansink’s book, titled ‘Mindless eating’ encourages us to take small steps to change our food environment.  For example eating from a smaller plate, not eating in front of the TV, moving snacks out of sight in the kitchen and avoiding over-presentation of food to reduce the risk of over-eating. This also fits with research that suggests we typically eat more when serving ourselves from a buffet than when a waiter serves us in a restaurant. Wansink’s theory is that attractive menu descriptions and food packaging can influence us to over-indulge far more than we care to admit. A faculty research paper by Wansink and a co-author explains mindless eating in more detail.

Some research has questionned whether using smaller plates actually works. An analysis of the evidence, published in 2016, found mixed results but did identify a pattern i.e. when we serve ourselves (as opposed to someone else serving us) the size of the plate seems to affect both how much we serve ourselves and how much we consume. 

Conclusions

  • Whether we eat fewer larger meals or more smaller meals doesn’t seem to make much difference to our weight.
  • Following the 5:2 Diet probably won't make much difference either.
  • However, eating during the day rather than at night may help control weight.
  • If we have the time mindful eating may help – taking time to enjoy the colour, texture and flavour of our food, to aid digestion.
  • Perhaps more important is to avoid mindless eating by choosing visual cues and environments which help us control our eating.
  • Good examples here are: serving ourselves on smaller plates, avoiding buffet meals, not eating in front of the TV and keeping snacks out of sight in the kitchen. 

Eliie Giffard August  2014. Reviewed and updated by Charlotte Christopherson, May 2017. Next review date April 2020.

Mindful Eating quiz

Mindless Eating

Professor Brian Wansink explains what Mindless eating is – and how to avoid it’