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Mindful Eating

A timely interview with psychologist Susan Albers for the holidays.

Stock-Free, Public Domain
Source: Stock-Free, Public Domain

Fellow Psychology Today blogger, Susan Albers is a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic who specializes in mindfulness and eating. Her new book is Hanger Management: Master Your Hunger and Improve Your Mood, Mind, and Relationships.

Marty Nemko: Why does someone need a whole book on this? Doesn’t it come down to just eating modest amounts of (usually) healthy food when slightly hungry so it doesn’t build into emotional overeating when ravenous, and then forgive yourself for the occasional mindless eating?

Susan Albers: It would be nice if it were that easy! But we all know that it’s so much more complicated than wanting to change our eating habits. I use a lot of psychology to easily change habits. For example, research shows that people tend to struggle less with creating new habits rather than trying to stop troublesome old habits. For instance, instead of trying to stop eating fast food, focusing on building a new habit of daily eating a new healthy snack will crowd out the old behavior with less struggle. Also, we are more likely to act if we’re exposed to examples and research—head and heart, especially regarding something as abstract as mindful eating.

Hanger Management is a book filled with personal and client stories. For example, readers find motivating this true story: I recall the embarrassment of being kicked out of church because my daughter was hangry and, let’s just say, wouldn’t be quiet! Parents and significant others know the power of hunger to turn your loved one into a not so pleasant version of themselves.

On the research side, the book summarizes a wealth of studies that demonstrate that when we’re well fed, we concentrate better, make wiser decisions, are nicer to our spouse, and perform better at work. It can even make judges nicer: They appear to give harsher sentences before lunch!

Also, people are more motivated to act when they learn a clear explanation of the problem. So the book discusses what I call The 3 B’s. We are Blue, Busy or Bothered by our hunger. People get overly busy and eating well gets pushed down to the bottom of the priority list. Or they feel that deciding what to eat is too much of a bother. Or they’re blue and don’t feel like they are worth it. I designed tips in Hanger Management to combat the three B’s.

MN: What is an example of a tip to help?

SA: Here are two easy tips!

Make a fist. New research on “embodied cognition,” found that you can use your body's position to help shape the way you think and act. You're more likely to stop talking and to slow down if you make a “stop” gesture. When you don’t want to mindlessly overeat, think “no” and make a fist. Fist + thinking no = no to mindless eating.

Use a red plate. In a study on red, blue and white plates, participants ate least off of red plates. That's because when we see the color red, we automatically slow down. That enables you to slow down with minimal effort.

MN: Any advice for people who think about food too much?

SA: Mindfulness is training your mind to notice and be aware without obsessing. Not an easy task but possible. I discuss how to change your mindset, and part of that is changing your self-talk. For example, instead of focusing on all the "what if's" your brain sends you, we need to focus on what is—taking control of the moment instead of future unknowns.

MN: Let’s talk about the “angry” part of “hangry.” When people are calm, it’s easier to be mindful of incipient hunger and when they’re not longer hungry. But when we’re angry, we have less control. Any advice other than “Try to stay mindful?”

SA: Drastic swings in blood sugar are a big cause of hanger. Cinnamon can help regulate your blood sugar. In a 2016 study, 25 people with poorly controlled diabetes consumed just 1g (a bit less than half a teaspoon) of cinnamon daily for 12 weeks and that reduced their fasting blood-sugar levels. So you might want to toss a shaker of cinnamon in your pocket or purse. Add cinnamon to your coffee or cocoa. Use cinnamon sticks as a stirrer for your coffee, tea, yogurt, or soup. Toss a stick in the pan while cooking meat or vegetables

MN: What’s another study that your book cites that might help motivate people to eat more mindfully?

SA: A study found that when people’s blood sugar is low (hangry), they’re more likely to stab a voodoo doll of their spouse. Kind of scary!

MN: A diet du jour is intermittent fasting: Confine your daily eating to an eight-to-twelve-hour window. That would seem to conflict with your book’s advice. No?

SA: I’ve seen people get extremely hangry when intermittent fasting. They learn, first hand, the power of food on your emotions. They often have to apologize for what they said or did in the throes of hanger. For people with a predisposition for eating disorders, fasting can be a huge trigger. Dieting in general sets off very unhealthy patterns. That’s what I really like about mindful eating. It gives people a healthy alternative.

MN: You write that certain foods are more likely to cause mindless eating. What are they?

SA: Foods that wreak havoc on your blood sugar cause much mindless eating, particularly “breakfast foods” like cereal, muffins, and toast. They’re a morning sugar bomb, dessert masquerading as breakfast. Many people are starving by mid-morning.

Break out of the mindset that breakfast need be traditional breakfast foods like cereal and muffins. In other parts of the world, people eat protein-rich foods like slices of meat, cheese, baked beans, fish, rice. So, in the morning, if you’re craving a not-traditionally breakfast food that gives you a lot of protein like a turkey and cheese wrap, go for it.

MN: What are some other habits that make us more likely to eat mindfully?

SA: Mindful Smile. A study found that more school kids chose white milk over chocolate milk when a smiley face was added to the white milk’s container. In another study, at a college cafeteria, a sign bearing a heart with a smiley face was placed above a display of healthy fruits and vegetables. Ah, marketing! So, you might want to draw a smiley face on healthy foods’ packaging or stick a Post-it Note with a smiley face on a fruit or veggie

Vitamin D-rich foods. There’s a link between low Vitamin D and sadness. You can add vitamin D–rich food to your diet with fish like tuna and salmon, milk, vitamin D–fortified soy milk or orange juice, some cereals, swiss cheese, and egg yolks.

Sleep. Just 15 minutes more sleep can reduce vulnerability to hanger — sleep helps regulate your appetite hormones so you don’t feel ravenous. If you have difficulty sleeping, try tart cherry juice. In two studies, adults with insomnia who drank eight ounces of tart cherry juice twice a day for two weeks slept an hour and a half longer and reported better sleep quality compared to nights they didn’t drink the juice.

MN: Your book lists 10 S’s of mindful eating. What are a few that you’d like to highlight?

Sit down. Have a seat! Avoid nibbling at the fridge or snacking in your car. You’ll enjoy food more and eat less when you give eating your full attention.

Slowly chew. Eat with your non-dominant hand. Research indicates that eating with that hand can reduce how much you eat by 30% Intentionally chew slower than the person you are eating with. “Pace, don’t race.”

Smile. Smiling can create a pause between your current bite and the next one. In that moment, ask yourself if you are satisfied (not full.) ”To manage stress, take a breath.”

MN: We’re entering the holiday season, a dangerous time for mindless overeating. Any advice?

SA: It’s okay to eat the holiday treats you love. Just do so mindfully!