At one point or another, nearly everyone I work with mentions the challenges of mindful eating. From busy schedules and on-the-go "meals" to technological distractions to the awkwardness of eating with others as we seemingly take five minutes for each bite, eating mindfully can be a difficult practice. And yet, it is one that most people who are interested in meditation, yoga—any form of holistic heath and body awareness—want to develop.
To make it more accessible (and in doing so, hopefully easier), what if shifted from thinking of it as a formal, regimented thing to a reminder of how to notice & satisfy hunger? What if we focused our attention on sensations in the body, before we get to sensations in the mouth?
6 practices to move from mindless to Mindful eating:
#1 Practicing letting your body catch up to your brain
Mindless behavior: Eating rapidly past full and ignoring your body’s signals.
Mindful practice: Slowing down to eat and stopping when your body says its full.
Slowing down is one of the best ways we can get our mind and body to communicate what we really need for nutrition. The body actually sends its satiation signal about 20 minutes after the brain, which is why we often unconsciously overeat. But, if we slow down, you can give your body a chance to catch up to your brain and hear the signals to eat the right amount. Simple ways to slow down might just include follow many of your grandmother’s manners, like sitting down to eat, chewing each bite x number of times, setting your fork down between bites and all those old-time manners that are not as pointless as they once seemed.
#2 Practicing getting to know your body’s personal hunger signals
Mindless behavior: Responding to an emotional want with food.
Mindful practice: Eating in response to your body’s needs.
Often we listen first to our minds, but like many mindfulness practices, we might discover more wisdom by tuning into our bodies first. Rather than eating when we get emotional signals, which may be different for each of us, we can learn to listen to our body cues. Is your stomach growling, our overall energy low, or are you feeling a little lightheaded? True mindful eating is actually listening deeply to our body’s signals for hunger. Ask yourself: What are your body’s hunger signals, and what are your emotional hunger triggers?
#3 Practice creating healthy eating environments
Mindless behavior: Eating and/or snacking randomly, throughout the day and week.
Mindful practice: Eating at regular times, seated at a table.
Another way that we eat mindlessly is by wandering around looking through cabinets, eating at random times and places, rather than thinking proactively about our meals and snacks. This slows us down for one thing, and also prevents us from developing healthy environmental cues about what and how much to eat, instead wiring our brains for new cues for eating ie. you're bored, procrastinating, tired, etc. Sure, we all snack from time to time, but it can boost your overall health, mood and sleep schedule to eat at consistent times and places. This means sitting down and putting food on a plate or bowl. When we put our food away in cabinets and the fridge, we also are more likely to eat healthy amounts of healthy food, so consider what’s around, where it is and whether it’s in sight. If we limit eating to kitchen and dining room, we are also less likely to eat mindlessly or eat while multitasking.
#4 Practicing eat food, not stories.
Mindless behavior: Eating foods because they are emotionally comforting.
Mindful practice: Choosing foods that support our emotional health.
The best scenario is that each of us can identify nourishing foods that are also satisfying and comforting. If you've ever done the raisin exercise, you may have noticed that when we slow down and eat healthy foods like raisins, we often enjoy them more than the story we tell ourselves about particular foods. As we practice eating with curiosity for taste and texture, we ultimately find many nutrition-rich foods both mentally and physically satisfying as opposed to just a few.
#5 Practice gratitude for the life cycle of your food
Mindless behavior: Thinking of food as an end product.
Mindful practice: Considering where food comes from.
Unless you are a hunter-gatherer or sustenance farmer, you, like so many of us, are removed from the origins of your food. There's a difference between being aware of that and not considering where something comes from beyond the supermarket shelf. Eating offers an incredible opportunity to connect us more deeply to the natural world, the elements and to each other. When we pause to consider all of the people involved in the meal that has arrived on your plate, from the people who prepared it, to those who made it available for you, to the individuals who planted and harvested the raw ingredients, gratitude and interconnected become a part of your eating experience. And with expanded awareness and gratitude for others, it becomes easier to make wiser choices about sustainability and food, not just for us but for the whole planet.
#6 Practicing putting your plate first
Mindless behavior: distracted eating.
Mindful practice: The meal as the main event.
Multitasking and eating is a recipe for not being able to listen deeply to our body’s needs and wants. We’ve all had the experience of going to the movies with our bag full of popcorn, and before the coming attractions are over, we are asking who ate all of our popcorn. When we are distracted, it becomes harder to listen to our body’s signals about food and other needs. At your next meal, try single-tasking— just eating—a time free of screens and distractions. Give your attention over to your body, and it's relationship to the meal before you.
The reality is that we do live and eat in a busy world, full of things demanding our attention. If we can take the tools used for a formal mindfulness practice—slowing down, listening to our bodies, doing one thing at a time, making even small rituals, and considering all that went into our meal on a more regular basis—we can bring more awareness to our daily meals.