As we head into the New Year, healthy eating resolutions are at the top of mind, and it can be easy to go overboard on restricting ourselves from the foods we love.
This can lead the pendulum the other way, letting us fall back into mindless eating, grabbing one bite after another without paying attention to hunger or fullness. When we eat without paying attention to our physical hungers, we end up missing out on the whole point: To enjoy and taste our food.
It’s immensely more enjoyable to eat in a more mindful way; that is, staying connected and paying attention to what and how we eat as a key part of balanced living. Mindful eating is based on the concept of mindfulness, which is paying attention without judgment to your present moment experience. This awareness-building practice cultivates your ability to stay connected to your overall eating experience. Here are six mindful eating tips to put into practice.
1. Get in touch with hunger
Before you put anything in your mouth, ask yourself this simple question: How hungry am I? Your body will tell you the truth. So often, we eat food because it’s ‘time to eat,’ or the food is directly in front of us, without regard to actual physical hungers. Make it a habit to check in with your physical hungers; this is a key principle that will help decrease mindless eating. Also, a lot of us may eat to feed other hungers, such as stress, loneliness or to just fill a void of some kind. Get to know these other hungers that food cannot satisfy. When you eat to feed emotional hungers, you’re masking an important underlying message that needs your attention. Be gentle on yourself if you don’t know what these other hungers might be trying to tell you. Just start with a gentle inquiry around what might need deeper nourishing.
2. Eat food you love without judgment
Give yourself permission to eat your favorite foods. Avoidance always leads to more cravings, not less, and when that food is in front of you, you’re more likely to overindulge. The key with mindful eating is to pay attention more, to really savor the food, to notice all the tastes, textures, flavors, and aromas. Engaging all of your senses brings you more pleasure and satisfaction with eating. Paying full attention while eating also allows your body signals to surface so that you can hear the subtle whisper of ‘enough,’ the stop eating signal.
3. Slow down when you eat
Mindful eating encourages one to press the ‘pause’ button on our autopilot eating habits. When we deliberately slow down and pay attention, the eating experience is immensely more relaxed, enjoyable and satisfying. We’ve all heard that it takes about 20 minutes for the brain to recognize fullness. Mindlessly eating too fast causes us to lose connection to our bodies’ self-regulatory system, which is a set-up to overeat. Slowing down while eating allows these signals to surface so we can easily gauge the right portions our bodies need to feel comfortably full (not stuffed!). Slowing down takes commitment and focused intention. Try lighting a candle and playing relaxing background music. Remember to put your fork down in between bites, turn off your television, sit down, eat without distractions (phone and computer off!), and really savor each and every bite, slowly.
4. Learn to distinguish between physical and emotional hungers
Overeating and mindless eating can also be driven by underlying emotions. Oftentimes, we may not even know what we are feeling in the moment as we grab another cookie to mask and numb underlying feelings. Eating to take care of our emotional lives is an attempt at self-care, but unfortunately food does not effectively get to the root of the issue. We sometimes overeat when we don’t feel emotionally nourished by our food. Not all emotional eating is problematic; sometimes we crave something salty and crunchy in response to frustration or agitated feelings. As long as we are aware of this and we are physically hungry, we can use food in a mindful way to express and release various feelings. The key is self-awareness. Ask yourself: What am I feeling? And, what do I need? When we use food to numb certain feelings, we may end up overeating and filling up on unsatisfying foods. This is compounded if we choose foods we don’t like or that aren’t nutritious. We may end up eating more to make up for lack of quality from nutrient dense foods. Find time everyday to identify your emotional hungers and feed them appropriately. What are some things that bring you joy that do not involve food? Make time to connect to what these might be and feed them. Finding other ways to fill us up beyond food will ultimately liberate us from any struggle around mindless eating.
It may come as no surprise that eating home cooked meals is far healthier compared to takeout and restaurant foods. It’s also another opportunity to practice mindfulness. Cooking forces us (gently) to slow down and pay attention to the present moment. It takes time to peel an onion, to mince garlic and to chop fresh herbs. The process of cooking provides us the space to pause and reflect upon our day, to slow down enough to listen to the internal dialogue of our body. This space can give us information as to what specific foods our body is craving to meet our nutritional needs. Many Americans are losing basic cooking skills, as we are more reliant on convenience, processed, take-out, fast and frozen foods. As we lose connection to where our food comes from, and how to transform it into something edible, so too are we losing our connection with the innate wisdom of our bodies. Our bodies are inherently wise and know which nutrients to seek out when given the chance to do so. The body’s wisdom tells us exactly what and how much to eat when it is in balance. Cooking helps to restore this balance, and to heal this disconnect when it is done with intention, awareness and love. Plus, cooking is fun!
6. Eat 80/20
Give yourself permission to eat fun foods everyday. This general eating guideline suggests that the majority of our calories (80 percent) can come from high nutrient dense “healthy” foods. Think kale and quinoa. The other 20 percent of calories can come from fun foods, or extras. Think dark chocolate and your favorite stinky cheese. Eating mostly nutrient dense foods will satisfy our bodies much better than eating highly processed fast and convenience foods. Nutrient dense foods contain essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and flavor that nourish and leave you feeling satisfied. Highly processed foods, fast foods, and frozen foods often confuse our body’s ability to feel satisfied, and can even create an increased desire to eat more of certain foods, creating a cycle of overeating.
Remember to be patient with yourself as you put these tips into practice. Mindful eating is a lifelong journey, so start with one small step, go slow, be gentle and have fun throughout the year.