If you’ve been considering upgrading your eating habits or health, I invite you to pause here and take in some good news: I’ve got a simple solution for you. That’s right – I used the word “simple.” I hope that stood out to you! As a registered dietitian, I rarely use a word like “simple.” Nutrition is a really personal subject. When I work with clients, I ask a lot of questions about their medical and personal history to help understand what our next steps towards their health and wellness goals will be. The process usually requires a lot of digging and layer peeling before answers or best practices can be found for one individual. And, what works really well for one person may not work at all for another since we all have different genetics, lifestyle, and preferences. So I usually hesitate to say an answer to better health can be simple. However, I feel pretty confident that this topic can be useful for everyone to try get to a healthier state. So, what is this magical solution? It’s called mindful eating. Mindfulness is the process of being in the present moment with purpose, and without judgment. It’s a self-calming practice based on Zen Buddhism that is meant to emphasize a more conscious way of living. Being mindful can be included in many daily tasks, including the experience of eating. Eating mindfully is the opposite of eating mindlessly, which many of us do, especially in times of stress or overwhelm – maybe like during a global pandemic, anyone? Science shows that most diets or diet programs fail to produce lasting results because, eventually, people tend to go back to their old habits and ways of eating. Mindful eating is an approach that centers on making small behavioral changes each day to produce more positive, sustainable results. It focuses less on the types of foods we eat, but rather how we view and enjoy our foods, and how this can affect our health. Research suggests this can lead to a number of positive health outcomes, including:
- Having a more positive relationship with food, leading to less instances of emotional or binge eating
- Experiencing less stress or anxiety around food choices or experiences
- A better understanding of hunger and fullness cues during mealtimes
- Decreased inflammatory markers and blood pressure
- Weight loss and better long-term weight management
- Improved feelings of body positivity
- Reduction in cortisol (the stress hormone)
- Improved digestion
- A deeper appreciation for food, where it comes from and how it is prepared
Did any of the above points stand out to you as something you’d like to improve? If so, I recommend you give mindful eating a try. It may help you understand your own food choices and behaviors better. One of the best things about mindful eating is that it won’t require a lot of extra time, money, or any special tools. If you’re new to the process, you can get started today by simply paying more attention to your habits.
Here are some tips to begin eating mindfully:
1. Avoid distractions during mealtimes. First, show your mealtime some respect and show up for it. Turn off the television, take a break from the computer. Sit down at a table or counter and prepare to be present while you enjoy the meal and experience in front of you.
2. Breathe. Take 5 deep, long breaths to relax your body and your belly. This can release tension, which interferes with the digestive process. You can do this any time of day, but it is especially helpful before and during meals to help you stay grounded in the present.
3. Use all your senses. Start by noticing the different colors and textures on your plate. Then notice the different aromas of your bite of food as you lift it to your mouth. Savor the taste of that bite, identifying all the different flavors it offers. When you’ve fully chewed and swallowed your food, pay attention to how much fuller you feel after a very small amount of your meal has been consumed.
4. Eat slowly. A good trick is to take 1 or 2 bites, chew thoroughly, and then place your fork or spoon down. Then sit back and enjoy the moment. Are you feeling satisfied, or is your body telling you it is still hungry? When you’re ready and if it is appropriate, take another bite and repeat the process until you feel satisfied, not overstuffed.
5. Check in with your hunger. Imagine a hunger scale from 1-10, with 10 being uncomfortably full and 1 being incredibly hungry. Where are you at? Check in with your hunger throughout your meal. This can be helpful to identify if you are actually hungry, or if there are signals that mimic hunger, like anxiety, stress, thirst, etc. Consider if the hunger is physical or emotional.
6. Avoid judgment of yourself or the experience. If you notice something about the way a food makes you feel, whether it is positive or negative, explore that with curiosity and open mindedness. Know that this is part of the process of being mindful.
7. Complete your meal experience. Once you are satisfied and finished eating, create a process to help signal to yourself that you are adequately nourished and mealtime is finished. This could be something simple like clearing the table and cleaning the dishes, brushing your teeth, drinking hot herbal tea, or going for a short walk. This process is meant to honor the food you just ate and how it nourished your body. It can help you transition to the next activity in your day, without allowing thoughts of food or eating to rule your mind.
The bottom line:The above steps don’t need to be taken in any particular order, especially if you’re just getting started. But I recommend that you experiment and see if any of these suggestions help you step more closely towards your own health goals. Keep in mind that eating mindfully is a behavior change, therefore having extra support can be helpful if you think you need it. You could recruit friends or family to start trying this process with you. And I always think that working with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist during any health journey is a great idea! The more you practice eating mindfully, the more comfortable you’ll become with the process, and the more benefits you’ll likely experience. I hope you embrace it as a form of self-care and get ready to reap the rewards. Be sure to tell me what you think!
References:www.thecenterformindfuleating.orgDalen, et. al, 2010. Pilot study: Mindful Eating and Living (MEAL): Weight, eating behavior, and psychological outcomes associated with a mindfulness-based intervention for people with obesity. Complement Ther. Med. Dec;18(6):260-4.J. Nelson, 2017. Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat. Diabetes Spectrum. Aug, 30(3): 171–174.