How Mindful Eating Helps with Yoyo Dieting and Diabetes
By Michelle May, M.D.
A dietitian once told me, “Many of my patients diagnosed with diabetes are my yoyo dieters all grown up!” While that may be an overstatement, receiving a diagnosis of prediabetes or diabetes doesn’t make it any easier to stick to a restrictive diet long term. Although fear can lead to drastic changes in diet and exercise at first, it’s not a sufficient motivator for sustainable change.
Mindful eating is an alternative to yoyo dieting and rigid diabetes self-management. According to The Center for Mindful Eating, “Mindful eating has the powerful potential to transform people’s relationship to food and eating, to improve overall health, body image, relationships, and self-esteem.”
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is simply awareness of the present moment. While that includes savoring your food as you eat, mindful eating is much more than that. By using the information available to you right now, you are able to make better self-care decisions. For example, mindful eating helps you:
- Use your natural signals of hunger and satiety to guide about when and how much to eat.
- Recognize environmental and emotional triggers for eating—without judgment.
- Choose foods that balance enjoyment and nourishment.
- Notice how your choices affect how you feel.
- Use all of your senses to explore and savor the experience of eating for optimal satisfaction.
- Discover physical activity that feels joyful and energizing.
With diabetes, mindful eating also encourages curiosity about the connections between eating, physical activity, medications, and blood glucose levels. Rather than just trying to adhere to some expert’s recommendations, you can tap into your “inner expert.”
Whether you have diabetes or just want to improve your eating, try this little experiment. The next time you notice that you want to eat something, pause. Tune into your body. What do you notice? Are there any physical symptoms of hunger—like hunger pangs, growling stomach, a dip in your energy level, or other signs that your body needs fuel? What else do you notice? Thirst? Fatique? Boredom? Stress? Cravings? Something else?
By pausing to become aware of what’s happening at the moment you feel like eating, you increase the information available to help you make the best decisions for yourself.
When you aren’t aware of what’s really going on, your brain has no choice but to react—meaning, that you’ll re-act out the past based on habit, like eating when you’re stressed—rather than responding to your true needs.
So does it work? Recent research by Mario Ciampolini in Italy has shown that teaching individuals to identify hunger signals before eating helped them:
- Improve insulin sensitivity
- Lower HbA1c and other cardiovascular risk factors
- Lower pre-meal blood glucose levels
- Decrease energy (calorie) intake
- Decrease BMI
- Lose more weight compared to a control group practicing dietary restraint
While mindful eating sounds pretty simple, it’s admittedly not that easy. It’s common to “check out” rather than notice physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions. For example, you may be distracted by television or the Internet, preoccupied with memories of the past or worries about the future, or unconsciously responding to triggers you learned years earlier—like cleaning your plate instead of stopping when you’ve had enough.
With mindfulness, every choice you make is an opportunity to experience and better understand why you do the things you do, and to choose differently next time if it will serve you better. Unlike restrictive eating which just seems to get harder and harder with time, mindful eating becomes more natural with practice. Before long, these mindfulness skills begin to positively affect your relationships, work, and other important aspects of your health and life too.
Are you a mindful eater? Do you listen to your body? Or do you eat on a set schedule?
Michelle May, M.D. is the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat, with Diabetes: A Mindful Eating Program for Thriving with Prediabetes or Diabetes – the first book to apply the ancient concept of mindful eating to the current issue of diabetes.