Why Mindful Eating Is More Effective Than Fad Diets with Senior Clinical Dietitian Gabrielle Gambino

An expert explains why rigid diet plans don’t work and how people eating more mindfully can lead to healthier eating habits.

Gabrielle Gambino, a senior clinical dietician at NewYork-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center, shares how we have eight types of hunger and how a more mindful approach to eating can lead to better health.

Episode Transcript

Welcome to Health Matters, your weekly dose of the latest in health and wellness from New York Presbyterian. I’m Faith Salie.

Many people start the new year committed to eating better. This week, I talked with Gabrielle Gambino, a senior clinical dietician at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, who shared how to create healthy habits through a more mindful approach to eating. 

Gabrielle explained why rigid diet plans don’t work, and how we can be more compassionate to ourselves when it comes to our food choices — a key to sustaining a healthy lifestyle.

Faith: Gabrielle, welcome to Health Matters.

Gabrielle: Thank you so much for having me, Faith. I’m so excited to be here.

Faith: So, we are in January 2024. Happy New Year. Um, Gabrielle, if someone is going to change their approach to food this year, What are some things that you would suggest they consider?

Gabrielle: Number One, I would try to stay away as much as possible from the media outlets pumping out their fad diets for the year. These fad diets, are not sustainable for the most part. Often times people are talking about starting fresh and starting all at once with one of these diets. And we know from working with patients, from hearing from others, that if you try to change too many things at once in your diet and lifestyle, you might get overwhelmed. It might not be practical for you, and overall that leads to just feeling a little bit more frustration than you might need to be feeling.

Faith: It’s the downside of being really ambitious, right? You can, you can be embarrassed if you announce to everybody, ‘I’m only going to eat grapefruit for, for the next month’ and you last two days.

Gabrielle: Exactly, so this all-or-nothing  approach is definitely something to try to avoid. The other thing I do tell people is just to try one thing at a time. So on the other hand, maybe you want to, you know, include more fruits and vegetables. So try two days a week where you have an additional serving of maybe a fruit or a vegetable during one of your meals. See how you do with that and build upon it.

Faith: We hear a lot about mindful eating. What does it actually mean?

Gabrielle: With mindful eating, where you’re taking in all of your senses to better satisfy your palate in more ways than just your stomach and your mouth. I think in our culture today, it’s even more beneficial for us, just to become a little bit more aware and at ease.

Faith: It sounds like mindful eating involves bringing an awareness to what you’re doing beyond putting food in your mouth.

Gabrielle: Yeah, so there’s actually eight types of hunger within…

Faith: Oh! Eight!

Gabrielle: Yep. Yeah.

Faith: OK. Well, I got eight fingers. Let’s do this!

Gabrielle: Yes. So, the first thing, when you go to a grocery store, say after you have a dinner already, you’ve already been stuffed to the gills, and you go to the grocery store to buy your foods for the week, um, and you see a rotisserie chicken or you see cookies on the shelves, and they’re beautiful, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I must have them.’

So you go, you check out, you go home, you have to have a bite of cookie even if you’re not hungry, that’s eye hunger and a lot of times we don’t even notice it when we’re doing it, but with all of these different types of hungers, is just bringing awareness to them, and then you can make a change.

The second hunger is ear hunger. So, say that you’re in the office and your coworker is chewing on chips, um, crunching away and you’re not hungry, but that starts to sound really good.  This happens to me like all the time, um, so I, so you go over to them and you grab some chips. That’s ear hunger.

The next one is nose hunger. So this is kind of obvious, but when you smell something that’s really great. Um, I know when you go to bakeries, the first thing they bake in the morning is something very aromatic. If you smell it, you’re going to want to buy it.

Stomach hunger is looking at the volume of food that you’re used to serving yourself. I think some of us, you know, around here, we’re used to finishing our plates when we’re younger, and when we go to restaurants, we want to finish everything that we buy. Um, so we are serving ourselves a lot more than we might need.

Faith: And we know it feels better to push your plate away before you go, Ughhhhhh, but we still sometimes eat until we go, Ughhhh, and they bring the dessert menu and you’re like, Ughhhh, and then you still look at it.

Gabrielle: Exactly. Exactly. So something just to be aware of. Touch hunger is something that’s a little bit different. In touch hunger, um, they look at cultures that use their hands to feed themselves instead of silverware. Um, toddlers use their hands to eat and they find that the texture and feeling the food, um, is actually very satisfying to us.

Side note, they say that toddlers and children under the age of 5 are actually very well in tune with their bodies and are actually practicing mindful eating. So it’s kind of interesting that we should look towards our toddlers and children to see what they’re doing and how they’re eating and kind of mimic them. I would say preparing your foods at home by the time you’re sitting there at the meal, you are satisfied just for the fact that you made and you touched this food and you created something. If you’re making your meal with your family and friends, just helping out in the kitchen and becoming part of that meal a little bit more can really bring more satisfaction to the experience.

Faith: All right, so we’ve got, we’ve got eye, ear, nose, stomach, touch.

Gabrielle: The next one is cellular hunger. Cellular hunger is actually thinking about your cells in the, in your body, the minor little parts of your body that is actually receiving the nutrients that you’re giving them. And this is kind of where the act of just being respectful to your body comes in. Looking at the cells, nurturing them, and thanking them for what they do for you every single day.

My friends at work know that I only eat salad at lunch. I love my salad. We have our own routines every day. Um, but yesterday I was like, well, I’m going to think about this for a second, delay my reaction in the cafeteria, and see what my body is really asking for.

And because I’m getting over a cold, um, I decided maybe I wanted, soup and a whole grain slice of bread and I had an orange with that as well. And I was just actually Noticing like after the meal, I felt a little bit more satisfied than I would have if I just had my regular salad. So, I love this idea of how we use our mind and our body just to kind of feel more before we make decisions.

And then we have two other hungers. So we have the mind hunger. Basically all the little thoughts that you have in your head when you’re going to make a decision on what to eat. Often times these thoughts contradicts each other. So it could be something like, Oh, I didn’t have breakfast today. I can have a bigger lunch. And then another thought in your head at the same time is telling you, Oh, but aren’t you trying to lose weight? We are the most anxious eaters, because we use numerical algorithms to guide us in our food and to judge our food versus what’s actually there. So we’re constantly computing calories and protein, and it takes away from actually feeling what we’re putting into our bodies. And mindfulness is trying to teach us to take a step back, use either meditation or just try to calm the mind a little bit more. To see where these thoughts are trying to guide us, how they’re trying to help us, and overall make a decision that’s based on how your body’s feeling and not looking at all the negatives of what your mind is trying to say.

Faith: And we get a lot of should messages when it comes to food. I should finish this. I should eat that. I should eat this to, to, to be polite.

Gabrielle: Exactly. So there’s a lot of things going on in our society that actually really impacts our mind hunger and something we just have every day, you know, to accept, but we can learn to kind of manage it a little bit better.

And the last hunger is heart hunger. It’s what’s going on underneath those cravings. What’s driving you to eat right now? Is it because you’re actually hungry or is it because you’re sad or you’re lonely or you just want something soothing or comforting after a long day? Um, none of these are bad things and I think eating for comfort when taken in the right context is actually totally fine, um, but it’s just about bringing awareness to all these different hungers, identifying them and, without judgment, trying to find and navigate your way through eating in a better mindset.

Faith: Are there ideal circumstances under which we should be eating? No screens at the table, for example?

Gabrielle: Ideally, yes, that’s the best way to practice mindfulness, um, but it is so hard. Society is now focused on being multitasked. And we actually take pride in multitasking. And I think this takes us away from being in tune with ourselves. So, limit the distractions before you start to eat. And, you know, eat with people as well. I think that brings much more satisfaction to what you’re eating. So, definitely the social component is pretty important as well.

Faith: So, if someone wants to start putting mindful eating into practice this year, where should they start? And what are some of the ways that people could make this sustainable beyond January? You know, this is mindfulness, we want to be a long haul kind of eating strategy, right?

Gabrielle: Right exactly. I think the first place to start is by identifying one or two aspects of the mindful eating plan that you want to work on the most. and trying those, maybe it’s, you know, taking a deep breath before your meal, and maybe putting down your fork every two bites or so, and only doing that for maybe one meal a week, and see how you feel with that. Um, see if you’re feeling any different, um, and going from there.

I think another thing is just looking at how your lifestyle is right now, and trying to find ways to, either do a little bit more meditation, if you’ve ever tried meditation before, or starting meditation, just to kind of help yourself get more in tune with what your mind is doing, because I think a lot of this does come down to controlling your thoughts and kind of getting more in tune with what’s inside. I would just kind of focus on one or two of these and try to work on them and see how you do for the week and go from there.

Faith: What I love about the idea of mindful eating is it’s not a prescriptive diet. Everybody can choose their way in to how they want to start being more mindful about their eating.

Gabrielle: Yeah. It’s wonderful. And I think that’s what this is. It’s not a diet. Our society is so used to diets. I think we need to just get away from them because obviously they’re not working. We’re creating diet products in the market that are not helping us. Low sugar, low fat, none of this is helping. So we have to look at something else that’s going on. And kind of taking a new approach to our lifestyle

Faith: Even as we recognize that very stringent diets, um, aren’t sustainable, often doctors suggest that we follow a Mediterranean diet. If you ever use the word diet, is that the direction you point your patients in?

Gabrielle: I love the Mediterranean diet. I think it has all the components that you would be looking for in a healthful diet. Um, I do want to say that we should kind of steer away from just looking at the Mediterranean as the healthiest diet on the planet, because every, you know, area of the world has that type of diet in it. In certain ways. You know, in Asia, in Japan, they have whole grains. They have, you know, vegetables galore. Fruits. They have all these unprocessed Foods and oils, but um, they don’t get as much credit. So I think looking at what’s in the Mediterranean diet and each component and doing what works for whatever type of diet you’re on, but adding those components in is kind of the best approach to doing any type of diet.

Faith: You compassionately mentioned that it’s OK to eat for comfort and, and satisfy our heart hunger. What should we do when we feel ashamed of how we eat? When, when we’re telling ourself you shouldn’t be doing this?

Gabrielle: Right. Remember, you’re human. Remember, you’re not a machine. Um, and we all have needs that are not necessarily black and white. Um, I think a lot of times people starve themselves of something they’re craving through emotional reactional experience. And later on down the road, they’ll have three or four servings of that food the next day as just a compensation so, I would tell people just to be a little bit more kind to yourself. Stop judging yourself so much. Um, because it doesn’t get you anywhere.

Faith: When you put it that way, it sounds like you might even encourage people not to talk about like, Oh, this is my cheat day or my guilty pleasure. It’s, it’s your pleasure. And if you’re mindful about it. Then say this is my pleasure. I’m gonna have some now.

Gabrielle: Yeah. It’s actually empowering. You know, it’s like, I’m actually listening to my body. I’m listening to my mind. I’m giving myself just some, you know, relaxation and just allowing myself to be happy.

Faith: Oh Gabrielle, my body and my mind tell me so often that I need chocolate. But you’re giving me permission to continue to listen.

Gabrielle: You’re welcome.

Faith: Thank you so much for taking the time to explain all these things to us.

Gabrielle: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.

Our many thanks to Gabrielle Gambino. I’m Faith Salie.

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