The perils of mindless eating can be many: too much food, eaten too rapidly, followed by a sense that you’ve gleaned no enjoyment from what you’ve eaten. Sound familiar? That’s why mindful eating is increasingly trumpeted as a means to achieving a healthier relationship with the food we eat. But what is mindful eating?
Mindful eating has roots in the ancient practice of mindfulness, or being present in the moment, says Megrette Hammond Fletcher, RD, president of The Center for Mindful Eating. She explains mindful eating as “tuning into your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations, non-judgmentally, during periods of feeding.” This will pave the way for truly appreciating and enjoying the food that nourishes your body and the feelings it evokes, in contrast to wolfing down a mid-day sandwich while punching the computer keys.
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What Is Mindful Eating? Thinking About the Basics
Skillful mindful eaters are adept at recognizing their body’s hunger cues at a certain moment in time and have learned what real hunger feels like, such as a growling stomach or inability to concentrate, as opposed to being spurred on by external factors, like emotions or boredom. In fact, studies show that interventions designed to boost mindful eating, including increasing awareness of bodily sensations and triggers for overeating, can alter food behaviors like emotional and stress eating associated with poor food choices and weight gain (and can lower levels of depression and anxiety). What’s more, researchers in Australia determined that mindful eating helped people better enjoy meals, as well as practice better portion control of energy dense foods.
But in a time when we’re increasingly multitasking and eating on the go, being cognizant of what you swallow is not always easy. Here are some steps to help you eat with more sanity, self-kindness, and enjoyment by being present at the moment.
Start slow. Like any skill, Fletcher says mindful eating takes practice to reach a point where you feel you’ve mastered it. “Start with small doses, like taking a pause before just one meal a week or day, and increase your frequency from there.”
Press pause. Take a second or two before considering a meal or snack to ponder how famished you actually are. You’ll be less likely to misinterpret sensations like tiredness or emotions such as anxiety as true hunger. If chicken and a kale salad sound amazing, chances are you are truly hungry and should eat. A sudden urge to raid the cookie jar likely signals external causes of hunger.
Unplug. It should be no surprise that watching TV or thumbing your smartphone while eating is the antithesis of mindful eating. “Distracted eating does not give your brain a chance to register pleasure from what is on your plate or that you’ve had enough to eat,” notes Fletcher. The result is that you can end up eating more calories than you need but still feel unsatisfied.
Chew a lot. Too many people eat their meals and snacks on autopilot. But eating at a slower pace is a key practice of mindful eating, and research shows that it helps keep calorie intake in check. Fletcher suggests savoring each bite for several seconds and really appreciating the flavor, aroma, and textural nuances of the food you’re eating. “This gives your body a better chance to recognize satiety signals, not to mention increases the pleasure you receive,” Fletcher adds.
Take a 7th-inning stretch: About halfway through a meal, put down the utensils and check in with yourself to see how satisfied you are with your meal. Your goal is to cease noshing when you’ve already taken great pleasure in the food you’ve eaten and your stomach is comfortably full. On a satiety scale of one to 10 (with 10 being stuffed like a turkey), aim for six or seven.
WHAT IS MINDFUL EATING?
These additional posts explain the concept and benefits while helping to answer the question, “What is mindful eating?”
Be picky. Seasoned mindful eaters are picky in a good way. If something doesn’t bring them pleasure, they see no real reason to add it to their diets. After all, why not save up for the good stuff.
Put food on display. Spooning granola or yogurt straight from the container does not let you be mindful of the portions you’re serving yourself. No matter what you’re eating, place it on a plate or bowl.
Be compassionate. Towards yourself, that is. Because the practice of mindful eating is about taking pleasure in food, no edibles are off limits. So don’t berate yourself if you’ve had a breakdown and finished off a pint of ice cream in one sitting. The more you chastise yourself for eating sinful foods, the more stress you’ll build up, which only drives bigger cravings. Take a moment to reflect on the environmental factors that brought on your poor eating experience.
Look on the bright side: A study in the International Journal of Obesity suggests that a good way to keep at arm’s length from the breakroom muffin platter is to take a moment and think about the benefits of avoiding an unhealthy food (such as trimming body fat). MRI scans revealed that when people used this technique they showed less activation in the brain regions involved in cravings, and more activation in the areas that govern self-control.
—Matthew Kadey, MS, RD