Mindful Eating and Intermittent Fasting

As a mindfulness teacher, I really should have cottoned on to this earlier.

I blame my horses; they are supposed to be my mindfulness mentors. They are prey animals, so they had better be mindful of their surroundings at all times or end up in the belly of a lion. I have explained at length that there are no lions here in the south of France, so they have taken to watching out for dragons instead. You never know.

It’s not as if I have not watched them, time and again, mindfully munching away on a particularly succulent blade of grass. Still, it took me weeks before I realised

· how much more meaningful mindfulness can make intermittent fasting

· and that intermittent fasting can be an excellent mindfulness exercise.

Just in case you have never heard of either mindfulness or intermittent fasting before, below a short definition of each.

Intermittent fasting is an eating strategy that means you eat all your day’s calories during a number of hours, and you fast for the rest of the time. For example, you eat from 13h00 each day until 19h00 and fast from 19h00 till 13h00, thus skipping breakfast. This eating pattern is called the 18/6 model.

Mindfulness is “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment. Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, sensations and surroundings,’’ according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Method.

Why would anyone want to be more mindful? There are a variety of excellent reasons. Mindfulness can

  • reduce stress and so improve our mental and physical health,
  • increase our productivity and our creativity,
  • enhance our relationships by making couples more accepting of each other and also feel closer to one another,
  • help us process our emotions more effectively and increase our emotional stability,
  • improve our ability to concentrate so that we can learn faster,
  • reduce our vulnerability to pain,
  • improve the quality of our sleep,
  • improve our memory and
  • slow down the ageing process.

In addition, I now know that mindfulness can make intermittent fasting easier, and that intermittent fasting can make you more mindful.

I have been seriously into mindful eating long before I started intermittent fasting. Like many women my age, I have a longstanding uneasy relationship with food. Food has been THE enemy for as long as I can remember. After years of conditioning to believe the exact opposite, it has been difficult to accept Susan Albers’ (author of Eating Mindfully: How to End Mindless Eating and Enjoy a Balanced Relationship with Food) suggestion, that “instead of thinking of food as the enemy, we should allow ourselves to enjoy the process of planning and preparing meals or going out to lunch with friends.”

I have taken on board that mindful eating is about giving your full attention to what you eat, what your food looks, smells, sounds, feels and tastes like (see video below.) From where I am sitting while I am writing this, I can see one of my horses doing exactly that. What has been more difficult to deal with has been the various emotions eating can generate, like guilt, in a non-judgemental way.

Eating Chocolate Mindfully

Intermittent Fasting makes me more mindful

Intermittent fasting changed this. When I started intermittent fasting, I had to become particularly mindful of what I ate and drank during the 18 hours I was fasting, because otherwise, I would mindlessly pop a cocktail tomato into my mouth while I was preparing the meal that I was going to eat two hours later, when I stopped fasting. This meant, of course, that I had mindlessly terminated my fast 2 hours early.

Switching over from café-au-lait to black coffee during my fast made me more mindful of what I was drinking. I hate black coffee, but I am not willing to give up my first brimming-with-bliss cup of coffee of the day and I absolutely want to fast “clean’” to ensure I get all the health benefits from fasting, so I drink black coffee during my fast. I have also become acutely aware of what my first cup of café-crème of the day tastes like, as soon as I break my fast: pure ambrosia!

Sometimes I succumb, on wet, wintery days, and pour a dollop of cream into my coffee first thing in the morning. In the past, I would have felt unbearably guilty about this. I no longer do, because I know that in the long run, the odd cup of café-crème is not going to make much difference to my health. Tomorrow is another day.

Mindfulness makes Intermittent Fasting easier

Many people find it difficult, at least initially and especially with longer fasts, not to binge the moment their fasting time is over. So do I. I use mindfulness to counteract this impulse and to avoid overeating during my 6 non-fasting hours. I eat sloooooowly, using all 5 my senses to experience the food I eat. I pay attention to what the food looks, smells, sounds, feels and tastes like. I also note what I am thinking about while I am eating; for example, freshly baked bread reminds me of my grandmother. Interestingly, the limited eating period also makes me pay closer attention to the quality of the food I eat.

Not only can mindful eating keep you from overeating, but it can also

  • Improve your digestion
  • Help you determine when you have had enough
  • Help you pay attention to portion sizes
  • Reduce food cravings
  • Increase your enjoyment of what you are eating
  • Remind you to be grateful for what you are eating
  • Make it easier to absorb nutrients
  • Stop you giving yourself a hard time if you do eat too much
  • Stop mindless grazing/snacking
  • Enable you to develop a healthier relationship with food.

So even if you are not an Intermittent Fasting aficionado, you could benefit in various ways from eating more mindfully, including by losing weight.

For more in-depth articles about mindfulness, for example, my article about the Mindfulness Made Easy, visit my blog “Coping with Change.”

Disclaimer: While intermittent fasting has many potential and some evidence-based research-backed benefits, it remains a controversial way of eating. Before you make any changes in your eating habits, discuss your plans with your doctor, especially if you are on medication. People who should NOT fast include those who are underweight, have eating disorders like anorexia, are pregnant or breastfeeding, and people under the age of 18.

Dr Margaretha Montagu is a recycled medical doctor, a rogue writer of self-help books and a passable presenter of personal empowerment workshops. She lives on a small farm in the not-always sun-blessed south of France with five opinionated horses and all her books are horse-inspired, subtly French- flavoured and hopefully life-enriching. She shares her somewhat-outlandish ideas with you on her blogTwitter and LinkedIn.