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What is "mindful eating"?

Updated: Feb 8, 2022



At its core, mindful eating is a way of approaching food and the act of eating that allows you to slow down and take the time to be present in the moment.


Mindful eating allows you to fully appreciate the aspects of the food you are eating, as well as the way your body feels both physically and emotionally before, during and after you eat.


But really, what does that all mean?


It can mean different things to different people, but in general, eating mindfully means that you are taking the time to notice and appreciate the way the food interacts with your senses – how does it look, smell, taste, sound and feel? With each bite, you are fully engaged and present with the food.




 

When you eat mindfully, you are savoring the qualities of the food with every bite. You might contemplate the colors and textures of the different foods that make up your meal. You may pause just a second before each bite to revel in the rich aromas of your food as you note that smelling it helps you experience the taste more fully. Then with every bite that you place in your mouth, you take the time to fully chew the food while you enjoy the robust flavors and contrasting textures that make the meal so fulfilling and nourishing.

In addition, mindful eating involves exploring your relationship with food from various physical and emotional aspects as well. How do you shop for and prepare foods? Are there certain foods or ingredients that you gravitate towards or away from – and why? Do you understand your body’s cues for hunger and satiety, and maybe more importantly - do you listen to them?


In today’s fast paced society, many of us barely have enough time to complete all the tasks on our list every day – let alone take the time to be mindful or take care of ourselves in the way we should for optimal health. If we’re already this strapped for time, is it really that important to practice mindful eating, or is it just another responsibility to add to an already overloaded schedule?


With all of the fad diets and nutrition misinformation that is continuously buzzing around from supposed health experts, it is difficult to know what is worth focusing your time and energy on and what is not. Take a few minutes though and read below about all the ways that mindful eating can improve your health and well-being.



What can mindful eating do for you?


First, mindful eating can be a great way to help you lose some weight. By intentionally focusing your attention on your meal and eating more slowly, you are giving your stomach more time to communicate to your brain that it is full.


There are several things happening inside our bodies when we eat that signal satiety – one of which is hormonal and can take up to 20 minutes to alert your brain that you’ve had enough to eat. That is far too long to rely on though, so it’s really important that we tune into the signals that the nerve cells in our stomachs are sending so we know when we’re full.


The slower we eat, the more sensitive and aware we’ll become of how we feel with each bite. Then, with some practice we can become much more responsive to stopping when we’ve had just enough.



Eating just the right amount of nutrient dense foods is so important in making sure that your body has everything it needs for optimal health and performance, but it’s also imperative to make sure that you’re not taking in more energy (calories) than you need. It’s that excess energy that your body can’t use that it stores as fat that causes us to gain unwanted weight.



This is why portion control is also so important. Even if you aren’t able to determine what the correct portion sizes are for you right now, listening to the cues that your body is giving you to tell you that it is full or has had enough food will help you to learn what the correct amounts of food for you are.




Next, taking the time to slow down and pay attention to your body’s cues that tell you when you are hungry or full - or how you feel in general - helps you get more in tune with your body. Slow down and take the time to really figure out what is motivating you to eat. Are you hungry? Are you bored or feeling emotional (sad, mad etc)?


Listening to your body and noting how you feel (physically) after eating certain foods can also help you identify which foods make you feel best, and which foods make you feel the worst. You’ll even eventually be able to identify specific foods that your body reacts to in very specific ways – like which foods give you the most energy or help you feel full the longest. And which foods leave you feeling hungry or cause your energy levels to crash an hour or two after you eat. You might even find over time that you can recognize some foods that you are sensitive to or that don’t really agree with you.


Following your body’s cues and learning to eat intuitively, based on the feedback your body gives you, ultimately will help you feel better physically and hopefully strengthen or improve your relationship with food. You’ll be able to recognize and give your body what it needs when it needs it. (Stay tuned for a future blog post on eating intuitively.)


 

One common thread linking your eating habits and how you interpret your body’s cues to food, hunger and satiety is the relationship you have with food.



We’ve mentioned it several times already, but what does it actually mean when people talk about “your relationship with food”? Your ‘relationship’ with food refers to the way you think and feel about food, and the way you think and feel about yourself when you eat food. Your personal connection between these two aspects of health and nutrition can have a profound effect on both your physical and mental health & wellbeing.


Mindful eating is one way to explore your connection with food and become aware of what prompts you to eat as well as the foods you are motivated to eat. Are you an emotional eater, or do you eat out of boredom? Are there patterns that you follow, or have you created an unhealthy cycle of using food as a reward (or of using exercise as a punishment to ‘make up’ for something you feel guilt for eating)?


Practicing mindful eating can help you identify behaviors that don’t actively promote optimal health and that ultimately might be negatively impacting your quality of life. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying knowledge is power - and in this case, awareness of unhealthy behaviors can be the turning point to creating and nurturing new, healthy habits that are vital to maintaining a healthy body and nourishing your soul.

 

Last but not least, mindful eating gives you an opportunity to slow down, pause and just be in the moment. Many of us don’t regularly make time in our busy lives to really take stock of what we have, be mindful, or appreciate the benefits that these practices can bring. When we set the intent to be more in the moment and purposely focus our attention (even if just for short periods of time - like when eating meals), we have the potential to help reduce our stress and ease anxiety. This calming practice can help promote better overall health by helping to reduce inflammation in the body that chronic stress can cause.


 

How can you practice mindful eating?


Here are 5 ways to help you get started:


  • Learn to recognize hunger cues

Knowing when you are hungry and need to eat is a challenge for a lot of people since we live in a world where food is so easily accessible at all times. When you think you might be hungry, take the time to evaluate the moment and ask yourself a few questions. Is your body sending you any signs or signals that you are hungry? Is your stomach growling? Do you feel a little cranky, are you having trouble concentrating, or is your energy low?


If the answer to these is not immediately clear, give yourself a little more time and then reevaluate. You could try sipping some water too to see that if changes anything. Often, we can misinterpret thirst for hunger.


  • Avoid distractions while eating

This is easier said than done in today’s technology driven society, but when you do eat, make sure that it is the only thing that you are doing. Put all your focus and attention on your food and how your body feels while you are eating. (This will also help you recognize the satiety cues your body will give you when it is full and has had enough to eat.)


  1. Turn off the television, phones, and iPads

  2. Put away the books and leave work at your desk

  3. Don’t eat while doing chores

  4. Be conscious of the food – the way it looks, smells, tastes, sounds and feels

  5. Be conscious of your serving sizes


  • Eat Slowly

Since eating slowly is such an important part of recognizing when you are full (because it gives your body time to send satiety signals), you’ll want to aim to spend approximately 20 – 30 minutes eating at each meal.


If you’re like me and already eat (unusually) slow, this isn’t a problem. But most people don’t eat like this – especially when you have somewhere to be or something to do.


Some tips to help you eat a slower pace are:

  1. Start eating before you get too hungry (this goes hand-in-hand with recognizing hunger cues)

  2. Take small bites

  3. Chew each bite thoroughly and swallow before taking another bite

  4. Try chewing each bite 20-30 times before swallowing

  5. Put your utensils down in between bites


  • Be conscious of when you eat

If you are up to it, keeping a journal of when you eat (even if just for a week) can be a really helpful tool in identifying some of your eating patterns.


Even if you don’t want to keep a journal, start making it a point to become conscious and aware of when you are eating. Are you eating at the same times every day (set meal times) and are you hungry when you are eating at these times? Are you motivated to eat by hunger, or something external – like friends and family, or something on television (commercials for food)? Are you an emotional eater who uses food as a way to “console” yourself?


Determining what your prompts are can help you learn healthier ways of managing behaviors that aren’t particularly helpful in maintaining optimal health.


  • Be conscious of where you eat

Sitting at a table when you eat (as opposed to sitting on the couch or in your bedroom) is a great way to help keep your focus on the food you are eating and avoid other distractions.


When you have a specified place that allows you to just focus on your food and how you feel while eating, it will also help the mindful eating practices that you are learning become more routine, so they will be easier for you to do.


How often do you find yourself in this position at the end of a very long day/week?

 

Mindful eating is just one way (that is accessible to everyone) to take an active role in your health - regardless of your economic status, dietary preferences, or hectic schedule.


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