Specific strategies to encourage mindful eating
1. Acknowledge that all forms of non-hungry eating are normal and have a biologic basis. You are normal. You are not weak. You are human and you are not alone.
2. Understand the limitations of willpower. We all have a limited amount. Knowing your limits is the key so that you can plan accordingly. What things tend to drain you? When is your willpower reserve likely to be low? What specific actions can you adopt so that making healthy food choices is easy not just during the best of times, but also at the worst of times? For example, if you have to buy a trigger food, keep it out of sight or make it harder to reach. Research has shown that simply making a food physically less accessible is a viable deterrent. Meal plan or have quick healthy food options available always. When you are tired or drained, it is unlikely you are going to have the energy or motivation to cook something. You're more likely to reach for the crappy, quick option.
3. Stop and think before you put it in your mouth. Whether we are talking about habitual/boredom eating or emotional eating, the ability to stop in the moment and think about what you are doing and why you are doing it is critical. Initially, this is hard. It takes energy and effort. Our brains (which are basically lazy) will resist. It has evolved to conserve energy and resources for more important stuff. But don't worry. Eventually, it will get easier as you adopt new habits and learn new, better strategies for dealing with stress and emotions.
4. Whenever possible, create distance between you and the impulse or emotion. Angry and reaching for the Ben and Jerry's? Set a timer. Go for a walk. Take a bath. Drink a cup of tea. Write down your emotions/motivation in a journal. If you can create space between you and the impulse or emotion, it will likely pass. And, you can even give yourself permission to eat whatever it is you were going to eat after that "cooling down" period. Whatever decision you ultimately make will be the result of a conscious choice that takes into account the cost and benefit of the behavior rather than a knee-jerk reaction.
5. Learn positive ways to deal with stress. Coping strategies are important. Learning to deal with stress in a healthy way is the goal. Meditation, yoga, exercise, reading, relaxation, a hot bath, a cup of tea, aroma therapy, journaling, traditional therapy, a massage, getting adequate good quality sleep. There are many positive ways to deal with stress. The key is to find a more positive way to deal with negative emotions. Again, this takes awareness, mindfulness, and practice. Lots and lots of practice. Yet over time, you will literally rewire your brain, and instead of turning to food, you will begin to turn to these other strategies.
6. Be kind to yourself. Always. Kenny Rodgers was onto something with his lyrics from the Gambler. "You've got to know when to hold'em. Know when to fold'em. Know when to walk away. Know when to run." Sometimes giving into a craving is the best thing you can do. Why? Because, sometimes that craving serves a purpose. We've all tried to resist a craving for something we really wanted not because we were hungry but because we wanted it, damn it. Instead, we ended up eating 10 other things we didn't want, only to end up eating what we really wanted in the first place. Food isn't just about eating calories. Food has a cultural and emotional context. And sometimes the benefits of eating that cookie outweigh the costs. So eat the cookie and then move on. Not everything you put in your mouth has to qualify as a health food or satisfy hunger. I personally like the 80/20 rule. The idea is that 80% of your choices should reflect an effort to nourish, while the other 20% can be just because you enjoy it or you want it because it makes you feel good. By allowing yourself these indulgences, you minimize the unproductive and often toxic effects of guilt. Along the same lines, don't strive for perfection. Sometimes good enough is good enough.
7. Focus on nourishing your body, not punishing it. Food is beautiful. It tastes good. We need it to survive. It has a cultural and emotional context. Eating it is an enjoyable experience. There is no doubt that our food choices often reflect our complicated relationship with food. We've been thrust into an unnatural environment where food is not only available 24/7. Furthermore, much of the food out there is unhealthy food that has been engineered to make it irresistible and then aggressively marketed by companies who are all to happy to exploit our weakness if it increases their profits. But that is the world we live in. And in order to honor your health, you need to make mindful choices. This has never been more difficult. Fortunately, it does get easier, especially if you can harness the power of habit to work for you rather than against you. I won't lie. It takes effort. It takes time. There are many forces conspiring against you. In the end, your ability to love yourself and make decisions that honor your health because you do love yourself is critical. Choose foods that nourish. Stop seeing healthy eating as punishment or penance. It's about caring for this awesome body you live in. Stop using your body as a trashcan and making excuses. I just can't help myself, I can't afford to eat healthy. I don't have time to food prep/cook. You can help yourself. Eating healthy doesn't have to be any more expensive than eating unhealthy. You absolutely do have time to take care of yourself. After all, self care is about giving the world the best of you, instead of what's left of you. And this brings us back to mindset. The only way to control what you put in your mouth is to start with your mind. It all starts between the ears.