Mindful eating is the practice of paying attention to not only what we eat but also why we eat it. It's a practice that emphasizes bringing awareness to the table, and can ultimately help us to minimize non-hungry eating which accounts for many of the excess calories we ingest on any given day.
In fact, research has shown that external cues for eating can have a greater influence over our food consumption (both type and amount) than internal ones. For example, we often eat out of habit not hunger. We down an omelet because it's time for breakfast and a slice of pizza because it's time for lunch, irrespective of whether we are truly hungry or not. Likewise, more often than not, we continue to eat beyond feelings of fullness, the meal ending only once our plate is clean or the bag is empty. The external factors influencing how much we eat can even include the color and the size of the plate, whether we are eating alone or in a group, and even the lighting and ambiance in a restaurant.
By taking time to understand the triggers and motivation behind our eating behaviors, we can begin to eliminate some of the excessive calorie consumption that often leaves us feeling uncomfortable, sluggish, and maybe even guilty because we overdid it or made choices we regret because they are inconsistent with our health and wellness goals. It can also help us to achieve a healthier weight, since all those extra calories we don't need end up stored as fat around our bellies, hips or thighs.
Mindful eating begins with the decision to eat and involves asking ourselves if we are truly hungry, as opposed to bored, stressed, or tired. Whether or not you ultimately decide to eat isn't as important as an awareness of why you are eating. After all, food is more than sustenance. It has cultural and social contexts as well. But acknowledging the motivation for eating affords us more conscious control over when and how much we eat.
Mindfulness could also manifest itself in our food choices. For example, if you decide to eat, you still have to decide what to eat. The foods we choose tend to be influenced by a number of factors such as when we are eating, where we are eating, who we are eating with, the choices we have immediately available, and also what we feel like eating at that time. The key is to be conscious of the motivation behind our choices as well as the consequences of those choices, both short-term and long-term. Maybe you crave pizza, but maybe you are also trying to make healthier choices. Ultimately, you could decide on a compromise, to order a slice (sans the pepperoni) along with a side salad, instead of eating your normal two slices. Or you might decide that while eating pizza fulfills a momentary desire, honoring your decision to make better food choices is more important, so you order the baked salmon instead. Again, by choosing mindfully, you are more likely to make choices that are consistent with your values and goals.
Finally, mindful eating can be practiced during the meal itself. For example, before digging in, many experts suggest taking a moment to either express gratitude for the food you are about to consume or to contemplate the chain of events that brought this food to your table. Or you could try taking a few deep breaths, a practice known to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which aids in digestion. Another recommendation is to allow yourself to fully experience the meal with all your senses. Note how the food looks, how it smells, how it feels in your mouth, and how it tastes. While eating, keep conversation to a minimum. Allow yourself to be truly be engaged in the eating process. Chew slowly and/or put your fork down in between bites, taking regular inventory of your internal sensations so that you can stop when you are starting to get full but not yet stuffed.
In a nutshell, mindful eating is about building an awareness of why, when, how, and what we eat. In doing so, we are less likely to engage in non-hungry eating, and more likely to make food choices that reflect our goals, values, and desires for our bodies and our health.
Tips for Mindful Eating
1. Plan meals: This might involve developing a weekly menu, preparing a grocery list, and/or setting aside time for meal prep and will facilitate making more mindful food choices.
2. Take a quick inventory prior to eating: Non-hungry eating, while inevitable, can be a significant source of extra calories. Prior to eating, make sure you understand the motivation behind putting something in your mouth. Is it true hunger or are you responding to stress or boredom? If the motivation is not real hunger, ask yourself if eating and your food choices really are the solution that honors your health goals.
3. Take a deep breath: Deep breathing can not only slow you down, it also activates the parasympathetic nervous system which can aid in digestion. Additionally, it allows you to take a moment to show gratitude for your food and also to fully appreciate the act of eating.
4. Slow down: All too often we are eating on the run, literally shoving food in our mouths and stopping only when the food is gone. Chew slowly, try placing your fork down in between bites, avoid mealtime distractions like eating in front of the TV, and whenever possible try to focus on the food being consumed, its presentation, color, texture, smell, and taste.
5. Pay attention to how you feel: Does the food still taste as good as it did when you started the meal? Are there signs that you are getting full? The Okinawans are a Japanese community in which an unusually high number of residents live into their hundreds. They have a custom called hara hachi bu, which is a practice of eating until about 80% full and which is credited with their longevity. Many experts advocate a similar practice. The idea is to stop eating before you are stuffed. Eating more slowly and increasing your awareness of internal sensations will help you learn to identify when you should stop. And like anything, practice makes perfect