Keeping energy balance
The human body requires energy (calories, kcal) to function; without energy (and water) there can be no life. Energy is not only used by our organs when we perform physical activity, but also when we are sedentary, e.g. when sitting or asleep. The amount of energy a person needs depends on one’s gender, age, body composition, health and activity level.
If energy need (total energy expenditure) and energy intake are the same, body weight will remain the same. If not in balance, a surplus of energy (more food and/or less activity) will result in weight gain, whereas a deficit of energy (less food and/or more activity) will result in weight loss.
A balance between energy need and energy intake not only ensures the maintenance of a healthy body, but also of a healthy mind. It is quite a simple equation in theory (energy need = energy intake) – but in reality, keeping energy in balance is usually not that straightforward. Many factors tend to influence your weight gain or loss, such as appetite, common behaviours, habits, emotions, pleasure derived from eating or exercising, environment, social context, etc. It is a really complex area that requires multifactorial approach.
Our bodies are programmed for survival. Therefore, our bodily systems try their very best to keep us eating and consuming energy. It really does work against us if we, for example, are trying to restrict our energy intake and lose weight. The same is not observed when eating more than needed, so gaining weight comes much more easily than losing it.
There is no food nor macronutrient that is innately fattening; it is the total energy consumed and expended that decide if you will maintain, gain or lose body weight. It is, however, easier to gain body weight when consuming highly palatable foods – that is, foods rich in fat and/or sugar, which provide a lot of energy without filling you up, e.g. cakes, pastries, fried foods and sugary drinks. Moreover, it is usually easier to maintain or lose weight when consuming nutritious foods that fill you up while being low in energy, such as lean, high-quality protein and dietary-fibre-rich vegetables and wholegrains. When feeling content and not ravished with hunger, it is usually also easier to stick to a weight loss diet without feeling deprived. It is that adherence that is key here: the better you follow a specific diet, the more success you will have at losing unwanted body weight.
Mindless eating & energy balance
Being confined to your home during the era of social distancing may cause disruption of your daily health routine. Isolation may cause many different emotions: you might find yourself bored, exhausted or stressed. Then, it is quite easy to get into bad habits of searching the cupboards and fridge for anything edible as a way of coping with the situation. Usually, it comes to this when you’re not feeling physically hungry, and not really paying attention to what and how much you eat – something that is defined as mindless eating.
Mindless eating is rather counterproductive to maintaining energy balance and is associated with consuming more food than planned and wanted, which, in the long run, may lead to an unwanted increase in body weight. In addition, if you’re consuming more energy than you’re expending, and limiting physical activity – especially strength training – the weight gain would mainly consist of fat. Having more fat than muscle is neither beneficial from a body composition nor metabolic perspective, and it can result in easier weight gain.
Resorting to eating because of boredom or stress is not a good strategy. You should be able to experience emotions without turning to food to self-soothe. Yet, if you do experience emotional and mindless eating, acknowledge what you do and move on. There is no reason to have an all or nothing approach where you inhale a whole pack of cookies when you planned on having just one. Acknowledge what is happening, stop, and move on, without guilt and anxiety attached to the occasion.
Become a mindful eater
Being a mindful eater, on the other hand, is all about being present and aware of the moment of consumption, where you’re slowly and fully experiencing the food and savouring every bite of it. It encourages honouring your body through food, listening to your its hunger and fullness cues, and giving your body what it wants without judgement.
“Mindful eating is about awareness. When you eat mindfully, you slow down, pay attention to the food you’re eating, and savour every bite”
Dr. Susan Albers
Mindful eating involves eating at a slower pace, without distractions, using your body’s internal cues and senses to guide eating from start to finish, and, consequently, eating without guilt nor anxiety. Oftentimes, overeating is a reaction born out of restriction, of not allowing yourself to have certain foods. When practicing mindful eating, all foods are allowed, and when fully experiencing the food you’re consuming, you will likely find yourself content and not craving more.
Practicing mindful eating can actually help improve eating habits. It has been shown to reduce overeating, which is often connected to emotional and mindless eating. Mindful eating is not a diet, but a mindset that helps you have a good relationship with food.
Other helpful strategies
There are more helpful strategies to help you become a mindful eater:
• Sticking to a consistent meal routine will help with hunger cues to come at regular intervals. Learn what hunger feels like, it won’t kill you! By being more aware of physical hunger, it becomes easier to distinguish between emotional and physical hunger. If you’re hungry – eat, if you’re full – stop eating. During the meal, don’t just re-fill your plate out of habit, take time to check if you’re full, or almost there. If you feel like eating, take a moment to really think about it: Is this physical hunger? Am I thirsty? Or am I just bored? If not physically hungry, then do something else to get your mind off of eating.
• Preparing meals ahead ensures that you always have balanced and nourishing food on hand, and you don’t resort to quick fixes. Balanced means that they contain high-quality proteins from animal or plant sources, dietary-fibre-rich carbohydrates, healthy fats and filling vegetables. Properly composed meals will help to keep you full, so that you can go longer between main meals.
• Choosing the right snacks when feeling hungry in-between main meals can be done easier if you have the healthy options at hand. Go for fruit and vegetables, low-fat yoghurt with berries, or protein shakes and bars, such as the Natural Balance Shake and Natural Balance Bar. Although they’re healthy, make sure to fit the snacks into your daily energy allowance and don’t add them on top of everything, since you can easily go over target, which in the long run will lead to weight gain. Make sure to ask yourself: am I hungry or am I just bored or stressed?
• Moving your body can help reduce boredom and stress, and get your mind off of food. Try taking mini breaks during the day, when you stand up and stretch, do some jumping jacks or move in other ways to refresh your mind. Also, if you can, try to get outside for a 30-minute walk or jog. The daylight will help to keep your circadian rhythm regular. Take every opportunity to move; every small thing adds up!
Practice makes perfect
The bottom line is to take your time! Mindful eating is not something that is initially easy, and putting old habits aside can be difficult. Learning how to listen to your body requires patience and is a continuous process that needs conscious work. Acknowledge your emotions and be mindful of your reaction, eat a healthy balanced diet and move your body every day!