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Confessions Of Your Dietitian: How Mindfulness Changed My Relationship With Food

By New Jersey Bariatric Center Staff | November 8, 2017

I played sports year round from a very young age until I graduated from high school. Aside from my dad making me eat carrots daily or have an apple before eating something “unhealthy,” I never really paid close attention to what or how much I ate on a daily basis and never felt I had to since I was so young and active. It wasn’t until after my fall semester of college at Virginia Tech that I realized my eating habits and patterns were catching up to me. I went from being an extremely active athlete through organized sports to just walking around campus. I had a meal plan where I could get endless amounts of delicious food (Virginia Tech is always found on Princeton Review’s “best campus food” list). It’s no surprise when I came home to my family at Thanksgiving break that there was a noticeable difference in my weight (which I didn’t notice until it was brought to my attention).

Never in my life had I thought about my weight. What do I even do to get back to where I was before college? Start going to a gym? How do I work out on my own? Do I have to watch my food choices and portions? I used to eat the most pasta out of anyone on the team at our team pasta dinners. Aside from the Intro to Nutrition elective that I took freshmen year, I didn’t have much knowledge on what I should be eating to help with weight loss, but I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to choose Cinnabon as a quick breakfast anymore.

When I got back to school for spring semester, I had a plan for exercise. I was going to start going to the gym or running Monday through Friday, a habit I have continued with ever since. As for my eating plan, I put myself on my own “diet” and decided to completely restrict my portions and unhealthy food choices or “bad” food Monday through Friday afternoon, and then not pay any attention to them on the weekends. Eating bread during the week? No way. As I was doing this, I realized that I was forming a terrible relationship with food. I had “good” and “bad” foods in my mind, and if I ever ate one of those “bad” foods during the week, I felt horrible about myself. How could I have eaten that? However when the weekends came around, it didn’t matter how much or what I ate, and most weekends I almost felt out of control because of how much I restricted myself during the week. This technique I created wasn’t even producing much weight loss but in my mind I was “dieting” so it must be working. It wasn’t until after becoming a Registered Dietitian, and learned more and more about mindful eating and being aware of visual/social cues, that my relationship with food greatly improved and I learned how to have a good balance.

Balance means avoiding an all or nothing mentality or categorizing foods as good and bad. Instead, we need to focus more on why we’re eating. Are you eating because of an actual internal cue such as hunger pains? Or are you eating because of external cues. Let’s take a closer look at what external cues we should try to pay attention to.


Portion Size

The average portion size has increased by almost double over the past 20 years. Our culture demands bigger portions and we expect it. But 20 years ago, we survived with the smaller portions. So in your mind, picture what a smaller portion would be and serve yourself that, or take home ½ of what is given when dining out.

Shape and Size

If you are consuming food from a large container or package, what you’re eating may not seem like a large quantity because of where it’s coming from. Picture yourself at a party next to a large bowl of chips. How easy would it be to continue to pick from the bowl and not even put a dent in the amount of chips in the bowl? Or imagine yourself at home pouring cereal from a large cereal box from Costco. You may be more likely to pour more from that large box than if you were pouring from a small box.




Visual Cues/Visibility

Do we eat more food when food is in sight? Researchers conducted two small studies to find out.

  • Soup Study: 54 participants, ½ were given a normal bowl, ½ given a bowl that refilled automatically.
  • Results: Participants with the refillable bowls increased consumption but not perception of consumption. They ate more without realizing it and completely underestimated calories consumed.
  • Conclusion: When you lose the visual cue, you eat more! Those that did not have the refillable bowl, saw their soup was done and were satisfied.


  • Pistachio Study: 17 faculty and staff under two conditions=empty shells left on the table (visible) and empty shells cleared from the table.
  • Results: Those with shells cleared from the table consumed 56% more than those who had empty shells in front of them. There was no difference in satiety levels between the groups even though consumption was 56% greater.
  • Conclusion: When shells were visible, people ate less because the visual was never lost. Those who had the shells removed had their visual cue removed.

Social Cues

You just had dinner at your favorite restaurant and are feeling full and there is no way that you could imagine eating anything else. When the waiter comes to ask if anyone wants dessert, your friend next to you says yes. The dessert comes to the table with a bunch of spoons to share and you eat some because it’s there. If your friend had said no to dessert, you wouldn’t have had any. Sound familiar? Pay attention to the people around you and whether you’re choosing to eat because someone else is.


To be more mindful, always ask yourself, why am I looking to eat right now? Is it because you have physical hunger pains (internal cue) or is it because you saw chocolate sitting on your coworker’s desk (visual external cue). Pay close attention to how you’re feeling before, during and after you eat.
As I learned with my experience in college, it’s easy to fall into the “all or nothing” mentality. But when we work on mindfulness, we give ourselves the opportunity to have a good relationship with food. We stop categorizing food as good and bad, get rid of feelings of guilt or punishment and learn that we can be healthy, fit and still love food.


Source: “Food Psychology: Why We Eat More than We Think” webinar presented by  Jim Painter, PhD, RD, University of Texas.

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