Think back to your most memorable meal. Imagine how the table was set, the color of the plate and tablecloth if there was one. Look at the plate and envision the meal. The colors, the aroma. Drink it in. Take a bite of that meal. Can you taste it? What does it taste like? What was the texture of the food- crunchy, smooth? Now picture the atmosphere of the meal. Were you eating it with anyone or by yourself? Was the meal at home, a restaurant, a friend or family member's home?
Now think back to your most recent meal. Can you recall the details as clearly? Many times, we can't. We go through the motions at each meal on auto-pilot, not connecting, seeing it as a gateway to something else rather than a stopping point. Mindful eating practices help us connect with food again.
Mindful eating combines the practice of mindfulness with eating habits. Mindful eating asks us to be present during all aspects of eating: deciding what to eat, preparing a meal, eating, and even after the meal is finished. When eating mindfully, we listen to our body's cues, noticing why we are drawn to certain foods, how we feel while eating, and how foods impact our bodies after a meal. There are no "yes" foods or "no" foods, no rules, no points, no calorie-counting. Mindful eating is not something that can be perfected. Just like a home mindfulness practice, mindful eating is a continuous, flexible process that we refine with over time.
There are four pillars of mindful eating:
- Awareness - Becoming aware of opportunities for mindfulness through food preparation and consumption
- Recognition - Learning to recognize physical cues of hunger and satiation
- Acknowledgment - Acknowledging responses to food without judgement
- Action - Choosing foods that both please and nourish you by using all senses to explore, savor and taste
First we must become aware of opportunities for mindfulness in our eating habits. When you go grocery shopping, notice if you are drawn to a certain store. Are there foods that catch your eye? Appreciate the colors and textures.
While preparing food, take in the smells and sounds. Note the different colors and textures of your food.
Before you next meal, take a note of the environment that you are eating in. Is it peaceful or distracting? Do you need to change anything to make the experience more mindful.
- Practical tip: Ask yourself, "can this activity be done mindfully?"
Next we must learn to recognize physical cues of hunger and satiation. Our body gives us physical and mental cues for hunger and satiation. Have you ever waited too long between meals and had an intense panicky feeling that you need to eat NOW? That was both a mental and emotional hunger cue from your body.
Often it is easier to recognize hunger than satiation, so start there. Note the physical cues - your stomach may grumble or feel empty. Next note the mental cues - energy dips or concentration becomes difficult. Cues will be specific to you, your hunger will not feel like anyone else's hunger.
Satiation is often where emotions begin to creep in. Food is enjoyable; it makes sense that we become emotional! When we eat to satisfy our emotions rather than our physical and mental hunger, we often cannot stop. Have you ever not been able to stop eating potato chips or ice cream? Suddenly, you've eaten the whole bag or carton. Often when we feel bored, stressed, nostalgic, or lonely, our emotions tell us to eat to get a quick joyful feeling. Because food doesn't solve the underlying issue, we do not feel satiated. Beginning to recognize physical and mental cues for hunger and satiation can help us recognize when we are eating because of emotional cues. Rather than resisting cravings, become curious about why.
- Practical tip: Rate your hunger before, during, and after a meal
Third, we need to acknowledge our physical, emotional, and mental responses to food without judgement. What foods make you feel energized and full of life? What foods make you feel sluggish, bloated, or achy? Start to notice how each meal and each food makes you feel, inside and out.
Are there some foods you aren't eating because you've been told they aren't healthy? Are there foods that you've been eating because you've been avoiding because they are "bad?" There is no one way to eat healthy, there's just the way that works best for you. If adding goat cheese to a salad makes you eat salad more often and you don't have negative reactions to dairy, cheese could be a beneficial food for you. If eating a few squares of dark chocolate satisfies your sweet craving, that could be a healthy part of your routine.
Mindful eating also encompasses respecting our bodies. Especially with friends and family, conversation can often shift to negative self-talk. How many times have you heard someone say "I gained so much weight" after a holiday? These kinds of thoughts and conversation can impact our eating habits, causing us to under- and over-eat. If a negative thought creeps into your mind, acknowledge it without judgement. Remember, a thought is just a thought, not a fact.
- Practical tip: Note foods that energize you and drag you down
Finally, we put it all together and act what we have learned from the other three pillars at a meal. Before a meal, take a few deep breaths. Sit down to eat. Avoid multitasking during meals, even if you're meal is only a 10 minute lunch break. Chew thoughtfully, noting how the food smells, tastes, looks, and sounds. Gauge your hunger level throughout, stopping when you are satiated.
It may take a while to eat each meal mindfully, and that is perfectly ok! Start slowly, taking a mindful bite at one meal each day. As you feel more comfortable, increase the number of mindful bites. Start to notice how eating mindfully impacts other aspects of your life. Do you feel more in touch, more energized, more alert?
Mindful eating does not mean depriving yourself of indulgences. If you crave something, investigate that craving. Will eating satisfy the craving? If so, indulge! Savor each bite mindfully, recognizing when the you have satisfied the craving.
- Practical tip: Note five things about each of the five senses during each mindful bite
Ultimately, mindful eating is about rekindling our relationship with our food and our bodies. It is a commitment to appreciating and enjoying our meals. It can be done anywhere, anytime, even with the first sip of your morning coffee. So I encourage you to slow down, eat mindfully, and enjoy your food!