Imagine you’re on a diet, but one day, you have an irresistible craving for a cookie, which isn’t a part of your diet. But you just have to have the cookie, so you decide to eat one. How do you go about eating that cookie? Do you stand over the sink and eat it quickly to get it over with and fulfill your craving? Or do you sit down, put the cookie on a plate, make a cup of tea, and really take the time to savor every bite?

Chances are, you probably devour that cookie in a frenzy. And you wouldn’t be alone in doing that. When food is restricted, cravings become stronger and harder to resist. The problem is, if you devour the cookie without taking the time to intentionally enjoy it, you’re going to want another one, and another after that, because you’re not present in the moment as you eat and that internal need is not truly, fully satisfied.

Food can be a tricky topic. On one hand, it is sustenance: it nourishes you, brings people together, and can be an important part of culture and tradition. However, sometimes it’s easy to view food as a problem, or the enemy. It’s all too common, especially in the context of weight loss, to label certain foods as “good” or “bad,” or approach meals thinking “I can never eat this,” or “I can only have that.”

But food doesn’t have to be the enemy, even when it comes to losing weight. Approaching weight management with mindful eating allows you to lose weight in a way that is healthy for you by supporting your natural bodily processes, promoting gut health, and avoiding additional problems in the future. Addressing your mind and body as one helps create a strong mindset and positive long-term habits, resulting in sustainable weight management. Healthy weight loss is a marathon, not a sprint.

Factors in Weight Gain
There are several possible underlying causes for why you might be gaining weight or struggling to lose weight—even if you are exercising consistently. According to Sarah Bird, Functional Medicine Nurse Practitioner at PALM Health, two of the main culprits are gut inflammation and toxicity.

Your body has a programmed inflammatory response that kicks in when an external threat is detected, such as a cut or a burn. The same response applies when there is an internal threat. Certain foods, like sugar and processed foods, can cause this inflammation within your gut, which in turn makes it harder to lose weight.

When your body experiences inflammation, your cortisol hormone levels increase. The rise in cortisol spikes your blood sugars. The result? You’re hungry throughout the day. Sugar and processed foods can put your body in a cycle: you might eat a lot of them, but biochemically you won’t really be full, so you’ll want to eat more. 

Toxicity is another factor in weight gain and gut health. You are constantly exposed to toxins, whether they are from the environment, food, or even from your internal metabolic processes. Your body is equipped to regularly clear a certain amount of toxins out of your system, but once the toxicity level reaches a threshold, your body can’t flush those out on its own.

These leftover toxins still pose a threat to your body, so they have to be stored somewhere where they are going to be inert or inactivated. The safest place for your body to tuck away those toxins is in adipose, or fat, tissue. Thus, toxic overload can cause you to gain weight.

Because toxins are often stored in your fat tissue, losing weight by decreasing body fat means those toxins will be released into the body. If they aren’t eliminated as you continue losing weight, those toxins could potentially end up in more harmful places like your organs or bones. So, all of your body’s natural detoxification mechanisms need to be functioning properly so that when you lose weight and toxins from fat are released, your body can then completely flush them out.

Your body doesn’t want to let go of fat if it means too many toxins will be released that it can’t handle. Thus, in order to effectively lose weight, it’s important to detoxify simultaneously or even in advance. To encourage this process, you must support your natural detoxifying systems the best you can. One way is through your diet. Including whole foods in your diet and limiting sugar and processed foods encourages ongoing natural detoxification and prevents you from developing other symptoms as you lose weight.

Developing a Healthy Mindset About Food
Food is something that will always be a part of your life, so it is very important to cultivate a nourishing relationship with it. This starts with a healthy mindset about eating.

It’s easy to label certain foods as “good” or “bad.” But the truth is, labels like these aren’t always helpful and can perpetuate a rigid mindset that results in unhealthy eating patterns. When you focus on “good” and “bad” foods, this creates a habit of reward dependence. Restricting “bad” foods can actually make you crave them more, and it’s inevitable that you’ll eventually give in to the craving. You are more likely, then, to feel guilty and stressed about the slip-up and end up feeling hostile towards food.

“Rigidity does not allow you to adapt,” says Sarah Bird. “You need to be able to adapt in order to promote your well-being.” Changing your mindset to eliminate labels and accept that most foods are okay in moderation will make it easier to make small adjustments to your diet in the future and adapt to them.

Diets, or food plans, are probably the first thing you’d think of doing when it comes to managing your weight. These can be helpful depending on where you are in the process, but if you’re just getting started on your weight loss journey, you might not be ready to jump into a full-swing diet right away. Not everyone is.

Dieting can be very restrictive, and if not approached carefully, it can lead you back into an unhealthy relationship with food. The good news is, you don’t necessarily have to start with a strict diet. A productive place to start is by incorporating mindful eating practices into your routine.

Mindful Eating
Mindful eating focuses on your awareness and experience of the food you eat. Oftentimes, people tend to eat emotionally—using food as a way to attain fulfillment when stressed, upset, or coping with uncertainty. The goal of mindful eating is to break the habit of emotional eating and really tune your mind into your body. This practice focuses on being present as you eat and understanding where your food comes from and how it makes your body feel.

The point of mindful eating is to depart from rigidity. Extreme strictness in your diets and other habits doesn’t allow you to be present in the moment because your mind’s focus is on the rigidity and everything you “can’t” have, rather than on the food you are actually consuming.

Mindful eating is a way to stay accountable and make choices with awareness. This will keep you on track without creating an unhealthy mentality. So, what are some ways you can incorporate mindful eating practices into your daily routine?

Inclusion Over Exclusion
Again, highly restrictive diets can be a tough adjustment if you’re new to weight management. Forcing yourself to exclude foods you just can’t seem to give up may not be a practical starting point. Instead, try focusing on things you can include, rather than exclude, to make your meals healthier.

Vegetables are the most important food to heavily include in your diet. Start by adding a serving of vegetables to each meal every day, with the eventual goal of 5-10 servings per day for better health. As you acquire a taste for more veggies, it becomes easier to start gradually cutting down on the foods that could be perpetuating weight gain, such as soda, fast food, and sugary snacks.

Mealtime Habits
You’ve probably had times when you’ve been so hungry or so excited to eat that you ended up gulping food down without really thinking about what you were eating or paying attention to how full you were getting. At every meal, it’s important to be present in the moment. This may sound like a difficult thing to do, but Sarah Bird gives several tips that help encourage a present mind.

“Start by having one ‘mindful meal’ per week,” says Sarah. This means no distractions, no television in the background, no work in front of you, and total silence. Pay complete attention to each bite you take and take the time to make observations about the food itself and how you’re feeling. What is the color, smell, and texture like? How do you feel after finishing the first half? Are you still hungry enough for the rest?

Another way to do this is to be mindful about the first three bites of each meal you eat, every day. This may be more difficult, especially if you are a big snack lover, because you have to be consistent and remember to pay attention every time you start eating. Making observations about your food for the first few bites can help you start to notice when you actually are hungry versus when you may just be picking up a snack to fill the time.

You can also keep a journal and jot down notes on how you feel after each meal. If this is difficult, you can start by doing it just after dinner rather than after every meal. Writing down your experience as you eat helps keep you accountable and can help you notice patterns and make observations about your eating habits.

Avoiding Emotional Eating
Emotional eating can be a big factor in the struggle to lose weight—and a habit that is hard to notice. Becoming aware of emotional eating and using mindful practices to change it is a useful first step in getting your weight under control. “If you’re about to have a snack and you’re not sure what the motivation is, take a moment to think about where you’re hungry in your body,” says Sarah Bird.

Are you actually hungry in your stomach for food? If so, it’s important to be mindful about choosing a food that will nourish you. Are you feeling emotional, and is it your heart that is really hungry? Before you pick up a snack, take three deep breaths and take the time to think about what else you can do to feed your heart and soul in that moment other than eating. Try having a cup of tea, going for a walk, or calling a friend.

In order to start managing your weight in a healthy way, you have to be mindful of not only your food choices, but also the ways you can take care of yourself to feed the deeper, emotional part of your being.

Set Yourself Up for Success
Long-term, maintaining a healthy weight and a happy gut is all about making sustainable behavior changes—changes that require setting yourself up for success in your own environment. Creating a routine that helps you keep yourself accountable is key.

For the Newbie
If you’re just getting started and simply want to focus on including healthier habits and foods in your diet, take a look in your fridge and pantry and make a list of items to start including on your weekly grocery list. Add a few types of vegetables you might want to try. Try swapping out white bread for whole wheat or whole grain.

For the Busy Bee
If you find that you tend to run out and buy lunch every day because you’re busy, or if you do purchase vegetables but they end up sitting uneaten in your fridge until they rot, meal prepping might be something to consider. Take a few hours on a weekend to prepare a few days or a week’s worth of meals.

Need a few recipes to try for your weekly meal prep? Sarah Bird recommends these two tasty vegetable recipes that can easily be prepared in advance and eaten throughout the week. Cooking is critical; it is almost impossible to lose weight without cooking for yourself. In addition to meal prepping, think about limiting the number of times you eat out at restaurants every week.

For the Sweet-Toothed
You might be a seasoned pro when it comes to including veggies in your meals but are ready to start cutting down on sugar and processed foods. Again, strict restrictions and labeling certain foods as “bad” is not productive, but in order to structure your diet to include less sugar, set up an environment that helps you stay on your goals. When you go to the store, buy fewer sweets and processed foods that you know you have a soft spot for.

For the Planner
For those who are ready to start incorporating more structure into their diet, Sarah Bird recommends setting up a meal plan. It’s important to decide on a meal plan that gives you a clear structure but isn’t so restrictive that it leaves you with a hostile relationship toward food. Providers at PALM Health can help you formulate a plan that includes options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner that optimize your intake of carbohydrates, protein, and fat in a way that is most conducive to your personal weight management journey.

Letting Go of Judgment
Relationships are something we actively spend time and energy on, whether those are with parents, kids, spouses, or friends. Your relationship with food should be approached with the same care and energy. Mindful eating can help you develop a healthy relationship with food and build the foundations for eating habits that allow you to maintain a healthy environment within your gut and lose weight in the most sustainable and effective way possible.

At the end of the day, creating mindful eating habits is about letting go of the judgments you have toward certain foods and instead, developing awareness of how food affects your physical and mental health. If you are able to pay attention to your diet without guilting or shaming yourself, you will set yourself up for successful, sustainable change.

PALM Health is an innovative, whole-person medical and wellness company that helps people reach and maintain well-being. Our experts in medicine and wellness empower people to transform their health, become more resilient, and feel their personal best in mind and body.