How much attention do you pay when you eat? Is eating a singular event, or something you often do while you watch TV or check e-mail?

Taking a more mindful approach to eating may be the best first step if you want to lose weight, according to a recent study. “Mindful eating is about paying more attention to the foods you eat, and eating with purpose and awareness, rather than just eating foods because they come across your path,” Carolyn Dunn, lead author on the study, told TheDoctor.

Another trick is to take as much as a minute to eat that first bite of food at every meal. Chew slowly, and really taste the food.

Dunn and her colleagues had developed a 15-week online program for weight management: Eat Smart, Move More, Weigh Less (ESMMWL) in 2006. But they had never investigated in a scientific way if ESMMWL helped people become more mindful about their food choices and eating habits and if that increase in mindfulness helped people lose weight.

The answer to both of those questions is yes: the researchers were able to help ESMMWL participants become more mindful when it comes to eating, and those who completed the program lost weight compared to a wait-listed control group that did not participate in the program, Dunn said.

Mindfulness is not new. It dates back centuries and has its roots in Buddhism. To eat more mindfully, the first thing Dunn suggests is tracking the food you eat, and how much you eat and the emotional circumstances, if any, surrounding your meal. You can use a paper and pencil, take a picture with your phone, or use an app on your phone. “We have a saying: if you bite it, write it!,” said Dunn.

You can look back over that record and see if you were eating out of sadness, happiness, anger or fear, said Dunn. You can ask yourself, do you always get that meal at the fast food place, or were you really hungry and needed that meal?

Doing this, “You become much more aware of your eating habits,” said Dunn, adding that people are often shocked when they look back at what they ate and how much. “They said things like, ‘I don’t even remember that I had a snack at the end of the day, or that I had two desserts that day, at lunch and dinner.’”

We go through so much of our days mindlessly that, “tracking what we eat and how much really brings us back to being more mindful and purposeful about food,” she explains.

Another trick is to take as much as a minute to eat that first bite of food at every meal, Dunn said. Think about that food: where are you, who are you with, who prepared that food? Chew slowly, and really taste the food. This technique also brings your mind back to the meal you are eating.

The researchers are looking at using the mindfulness strategy as part of a diabetes prevention program, while they continue to use ESMMWL to help participants be more mindful about their eating, said Dunn.

The current research was presented at the recent European Congress on Obesity. It has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.