We often hear the words mindful and mindfulness being thrown around – often in relation to eating. Mindfulness essentially is a state of awareness – being present in the moment, acknowledging what you’re feeling and thinking, and being conscious of your body and your environment.
The concept of mindful eating is important because we’re often distracted from the act of eating – we’re watching TV, eating at our desk (guilty as I type this!), in the car, etc. Also, food is not just made up of nutrients (as much as I like to focus on them) – food also has meaning, making up a huge part of culture, social events, hobbies, celebrations, times of grief, and other aspects of life. Food is fuel for our bodies but also emotional fuel at times – certain foods and certain smells may evoke specific memories, good and bad. As a result, many people have a complicated relationship with food.
Note that hunger is not the same thing as appetite, even though you may feel both simultaneously. For example, we smell freshly baked cookies or see a grilled cheese sandwich being pulled apart with all that gooey cheese and we begin to salivate. That is appetite, as opposed to that growling, empty sensation of hunger in the pit of your stomach if you wait too long to eat. All too often we eat not when we’re hungry but because we’re feeling an emotion (e.g. boredom or stress), food is simply there, or everyone around us is eating. Other times, we feel full at a restaurant but keep eating because we haven’t finished food left on the plate – portion sizes are huge and perhaps the dish is delicious and/or expensive, and we don’t want to waste it.
Eating mindfully can be challenging, but here are some tactics you can try:
1) Learn your hunger and satiety cues – and don’t let yourself reach the extremes of hunger and fullness. Many of us have been so hungry after work that we make poor food choices for dinner and at the other extreme, felt so full after Thanksgiving that we can barely move. Sometimes it’s hard to stop once you start – so that’s the first thing to practice. Take a sandwich or whatever meal you are enjoying and divide it into four. Sit at a table without distractions and before you start, be mindful of how you are feeling – meaning, how hungry are you? What emotions are you feeling? Rate your hunger on a scale of 1-10. Eat the first quarter slowly, then wait 10-15 minutes. Again rate your hunger and notice how your body feels. Eat the second quarter, wait 10-15 min. Repeat this until finished. How do you feel at the end? Note the progression of your hunger ratings. Again, the goal is not to feel stuffed – but satisfied.
2) Delay cravings / desire to eat: We sometimes get cravings for certain foods or simply feel like eating something. If you already ate enough, you have to ask yourself what else is going on? Maybe the meal you ate wasn’t satisfying and needs some tweaking – are you trying to force yourself to eat things you don’t enjoy? Maybe you’re bored, anxious, tired, or influenced by other people. Before you take action – take a moment to think about the WHY. Why do you want to eat? How will eating make you feel better? How will eating help you with your goals? Remember that if you are still hungry and you didn’t eat enough – this is different. We are not trying to starve ourselves here! We are trying to sift apart emotional or mindless eating and eating to fuel our bodies.
Keep a journal – when cravings strike, write down how you’re feeling. Think about what you ate already – are you really hungry?
Have a cup of herbal tea – this is good for hydration and digestion, and may delay long enough to realize you don’t need to eat afterall
Call family or a friend – maybe it’s comfort you are seeking. Talk about what’s bothering you.
Go for a walk – gentle exercise is great for digestion and also gets you away from the kitchen. Listen to music, call someone, or just enjoy your surroundings.
Take up a hobby that will keep your hands busy – drawing, coloring, knitting, etc
3) Out of sight, out of mind: Know your trigger foods – and don’t keep them in the house. If you have young children or a partner who loves junk food, keep these things in a cabinet that is out of reach.
4) Doggy bag it: If you’re going out to eat, don’t be afraid to wrap up whatever you have left on your plate to avoid waste. Decide beforehand how much you’d like to eat and portion control on the plate. Another idea – share with someone! That way you eat less and try more things, which is always more fun in my book.
5) Use a smaller plate: No one likes looking at a small amount of food on a huge plate. Studies have shown that using smaller plates and bowls help to reduce food intake. So fill up a smaller plate – give yourself time to digest – and then you can think about if you’re really still hungry for seconds.
6) Put your fork down: Often we shovel food into our mouths while we watch TV, listen to someone talk at the table, or try to eat quickly before a meeting. Instead, slow it down to give your brain a chance to catch up to what’s gone into your stomach – it takes time to register that you’re full! If you’re out to dinner with someone, put your fork down in between bites and engage in the conversation. Sip your beverage. Take your time!
7) Taste and savor: You can’t enjoy what you’re eating if you’re not actually tasting it. And if you’re inhaling food your taste buds won’t have a chance to really taste! So again, slow down. Chew properly. Don’t be distracted – try to have at least one meal or snack per day not in front of a screen.
8) Consciously indulge: Again food is not just to feed our bodies – it’s also eaten to pleasure our senses. We’ve been gifted with an incredibly complicated system of taste and smell – so make use of it! If you are craving something in particular and it’s not going away, then have it – just make it worth it and portion control it. Have a couple of squares of fine chocolate, enjoy a kids scoop of gelato, or one of your favorite bakery cookies. Not every day if you’re trying to lose weight – but if you’re going to indulge, drop the fake foods. Get the REAL stuff – you’re more likely to be satisfied and less likely to binge later on.
Good luck and don’t be shy, let me know how it’s going! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or would like to schedule an individualized nutrition consultation.