Mind over munching: when eating habits go bad

Jane O'Shea from Diet Effects says we need to think about why we're eating. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER
Jane O'Shea from Diet Effects says we need to think about why we're eating. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER

We've all done it. Devoured a bag of chips while spending a lazy night on the lounge. Nibbled away unnecessarily at cheese and crackers at a party. Finished the last slice of pizza in the fridge just because it's there.

But mindlessly munching away at food isn't the best idea. Eating out of habit or because you're bored, on holidays or because someone else is snacking plays havoc with the ability to actually detect hunger and nourish ourselves properly in response.

Accredited practising dietitian Jane O'Shea from Diet Effects in Warrawong says focusing your thoughts on why you're eating can help curb problems such as overeating and undereating.

"Often when people eat they don't focus on the reasons why they're eating and have lost the innate ability to figure out if they are hungry and how hungry they are. They are very food suggestible and influenced by outside triggers," she says.

"It could be time of day; they sit down and have two biscuits with tea without thinking whether they actually want those biscuits. They're eating without thinking."

O'Shea says people need to adjust their thought processes as they choose their meals and snacks. They need to consider if they are hungry, why they are eating and if they are making good food choices.

While it seems simple, she says many people struggle when their mind is already full of work, family and other commitments. It's easier to just grab a blueberry muffin or consume last night's leftovers when you get a spare minute at work than acknowledge your grumbling tummy.

"Very often things that sound simple are quite complex and humans are very complex. With our busy lifestyles, clever marketing, all these outside influences, social media and the internet, we are bombarded with suggestions of what you should do, what you should eat," O'Shea says.

"Everyone's needs are different, everyone's lifestyle is different and we seem to trust someone else more than believing ourselves.

"Mindful eating brings your needs in. All it is is thinking, thinking about your options and what is best for you at that time.

"It's quite liberating, it takes the power of food and advertising away and brings it all back onto you."

O'Shea is a licensed facilitator of the Am I Hungry? program, which has been run in the United States for many years. Mindful eating is a skill perfected with practice, and the course helps people to take those first steps. She says it's not about denying yourself food but listening to what your body actually wants and needs.

It's okay to have a bowl of ice-cream, a few squares of chocolate, provided you eat what your stomach needs and not what your eyes want.

"It's to listen to that little signal in there that says 'I'm hungry, it's time to eat', and then you eat and then you're satisfied, and that is what we're supposed to do," says O'Shea. "It's really encouraging people to stop and think and give themselves the opportunity to trust themselves."

The Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating course at Diet Effects begins on Wednesday, and another on Saturday. Visit dieteffects.com.au for more information.