Mindfulness is the practice of becoming intensely present in the current moment. It sounds more challenging than it actually is. All mindful eating is, is to be conscious or aware of the what, how, and why of our eating behaviors.
What are we consuming? How are we consuming it? Why do we eat in the way we do? Be present in the present, my friends!
It is no secret that there is a major health epidemic in Westernized cultures that stems from various forms of disordered eating. I’m not speaking solely about conventional eating disorders here, although those certainly do apply. What I am referring to includes any food related dysfunction that has led to the rapid rise of major health concerns which include nutritional starvation, obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.
These are largely due to eating the wrong kinds of food and consuming food in an unconscious manner. We will not be talking about what kind of food to eat, for those who are interested, I covered this previously in 7 Tips For How To Start Eating Healthy. Today, we will be focusing on how eating mindfully can help to create a better relationship with food and subsequently lead you down a road to wellness.
The first thing to understand is that it is not just what we eat that affects us, but also how we are consuming our fuel. When we are eating in a conscious way, we are aware of not only what we are consuming, but the speed at which we are consuming our meals, the quantity and quality of what we are consuming, and how it makes us feel.
Without any further ado, let’s jump right into it folks!
1. Get Rid Of The Screens
When we watch TV or play on our phones while we eat, we participate in distracted eating. When we do this, we are not paying attention to what we are eating, how we are eating it, and how much we are consuming. Distracted eating is one of the biggest culprits for overeating.
When our attention is elsewhere during meals and snacks, it is easy to eat more quickly and to eat a much larger quantity than we would if we were present. I know I for one have opened a bag of pita chips during a riveting episode of Game Of Thrones and before I know it, the entire bag is demolished. If I had tried to eat the same bag of chips while doing nothing else but focusing on the snack in front of me, I would not even be able to eat a fifth of the quantity I consumed unconsciously. Khaleesi would be appalled.
I have found that millennials in particular tend to struggle with wanting external stimulation almost constantly. (This is an issue in and of itself, however we won’t be addressing this today.) I have gone through this as well along my wellness journey.
For those who struggle with eating without any distraction, rather than reaching for your phone or the remote, try putting on some music while you eat. Treat meal times as a self or group date!
2. Take Your Time
Have you ever watched a very hungry person (also known as, your average American) eat? I know there’s been plenty of times where I’ve been so hungry I wolfed down a giant meal in under 10 minutes! This usually leads to stomach discomfort and bloating for me. Not a very pleasant feeling and one most of us would like to avoid if possible.
When we eat very quickly we tend to overeat because our bodies don’t have the time to send the message to our brains that we are full. Let’s look at the way the satiation message is communicated within our bodies.
Food travels to the stomach where it takes up space. The stomach then stretches and expands as it becomes filled. Nerves and receptors in the stomach lining communicate to the brain that the stomach is stretching. The parts of the brain responsible for controlling food intake (vagus nerve, brainstem, and hypothalamus) receive the message from the stomach and hormones produced by the digestive system when the gut receives certain nutrients.
The brain gradually receives more messages from the nutrients as they are absorbed into the bloodstream. When gastrointestinal hormones reach the hypothalamus, they reduce the “reward” feeling we get when we eat food. This then slows down our eating. (For those who want to learn more about how your body knows it is full, check out this TED-Ed video.)
As we can see, it takes time for our bodies to respond to the fuels we are putting in. When we gorge ourselves quickly, we aren’t giving our bodies enough time to realize it is full and end up consuming far more calories than we actually need. Slowing down the speed at which we eat can actually help us to feel more full.
But how exactly can we learn to eat slower? One tip that I have found helpful is to put down your fork, spoon, or chopsticks between every bite. We can also try to chew more times before swallowing and tune into our senses as we experience the food.
3. Tune In To Your Senses
What are we touching, tasting, hearing, smelling, and seeing while we are eating? One of the most powerful ways to use mindfulness is to become present in the body. When we tune into our senses in this way, we become focused solely on the experience in the moment.
The next time you eat a meal or snack really try to observe the sensations your body is experiencing during this time.
What colors and ingredients are you seeing? What textures are you feeling? What kinds of sounds does the food make as you handle it? How does it smell and taste? What are your favorite parts of the meal?
Not only does eating mindfully strengthen our relationship with food, but it also makes dining a much more pleasurable and even sensual experience!
4. Eat With Loved Ones
Eating socially not only helps us to be more present in the moment but it also strengthens bonds with our loved ones. Eating alone has become a more much prevalent thing in recent years, especially in American culture. When we are constantly strapped for time and energy, sometimes it is easier and more convenient to eat alone.
However when we examine the behavior of other social species in the animal kingdom, it becomes clear that eating is a community experience. In fact, individuals who eat alone in social species often were social outcasts and do not fare well within the community hierarchy. (If you don’t believe me just ask David Attenborough – Planet Earth is up on Netflix friends!)
Humans also evolved as a social species and we have the same need as other social creatures to feel a sense of belonging and connection in our community. It is isolation that is the cause of extreme pain that often leads to addiction and suicide.
We can take this a step further and examine how the French behave at meal times. In French culture, meals are a social event meant for dining with loved ones, laughing, sharing, and enjoying. However, the French are known for their rich cuisine and have an even higher consumption of dairy that Americans do. Yet, the French are less overweight and have fewer cases of heart disease than Americans.
Why is this? A lot of this has to do with the manner in which the French eat! As a whole, in contrast to American culture, French culture tends to eat more socially, have less food-related anxiety and confusion, and they eat more slowly and mindfully. We can all learn a bit from French cultures relationship with food and stop viewing food in a negative manner and actually enjoy the food we consume.
(Read more about how the french eat differently here.)
When we eat socially we engage in conversation and this also naturally slows the speed at which we are eating. Our loved ones can also help to hold us accountable for eating more health-fully as well!
5. Tune In To Your Body
45 minutes to an hour after eating, take a few moments and reflect on how your body is feeling. Try and make this a regular practice so over time, recognizing the signals from your body no longer becomes a concerted effort.
The body naturally sends us many messages but most of us have lost touch with this natural connection. If you are interested in further reading about the relationship you have with your body, I covered this topic more thoroughly in 7 Steps To A Healthy Body.
When we take the time to listen to our bodies, we begin to see a correlation between different foods and the way they make our bodies feel. We can then start to adjust our diets and lifestyles accordingly!
How do you incorporate mindfulness into eating? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!