For years, nutritionists advised dieters to slow down and savour their food. Biology tells us that it takes the body a certain amount of time to register that it feels full. But could mindful eating change not only your physical health, but also your underlying attitudes surrounding food?
In my experience, yes. While I can’t claim that I eat mindfully at every meal, incorporating mindfulness techniques has fundamentally changed my relationship with the food on my plate. Here’s a rundown of what I’ve learned from eating more mindfully and how you can also benefit.
What is mindful eating?
You might think mindful eating requires adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet and living on kale smoothies, but you’d be mistaken. Mindful eating doesn’t concern itself with what you eat, but rather, how you eat.
Think about the last food item you ate. Did you do so while sitting at your desk at work? While lying on the couch, watching television? Do you remember how your food tasted? The texture of your meal on your tongue? The way your body felt as you went from famished to full?
If you’re like many Americans, you last ate while you performed some other task. Many Americans eschew even the 30-minute lunch break, grabbing a meal or smoothie while they work instead. Considering how little attention most of us pay to what we put in our mouths, it’s hardly surprising that Americans struggle with their relationships with food.
Compare this to the eating habits of our friends in France. French people rarely snack in between meals, starting the day with a light breakfast and later enjoying a leisurely lunch and multi-course dinner. Despite their famous predilection for gourmet foods, far fewer Parisians have poor diets compared to Americans. Why? They turn eating meals into a mindful celebration.
How to practice mindful eating
Practicing mindful eating requires more than turning off the television. Returning to the family dinner hour can provide a good starting point for mindfulness. The most important key? Focusing on your food:
- Start with an intention. If you follow an organized religious practice, beginning your meal with a prayer of thanks will remind you to be grateful for the nourishment you’re about to enjoy. You can do this even if you don’t follow any particular spiritual path. Take a few moments to reflect on where your food originated. Give thanks (in your mind or out loud) to the farmers who raised the crop—and cared for the livestock, if you choose to eat meat products.
- Chew your food thoroughly. Avoid the temptation to scarf away, even if you’re famished. Instead, take a bite and slowly chew, enjoying the texture of your food. Is it hot or cold? Crunchy or soft?
- Savour each bite. Frequently, we pay little heed to how our food tastes. Is it savoury or mild? How do the ingredients complement each other? How does the food make your body feel? Do its spices make you sweat? Does it warm your stomach while going down?
- Contemplate what food does to your body. Your food does more than provide calories to keep you warm and fuel your muscles. Eating certain foods can increase or decrease your chances of developing various health conditions. For example, consuming foods high in sugar—of which there are many, in the typical North American diet—will increase your risk of heart problems. Similarly, excessive consumption of red and processed meats will increase your risk of developing certain cancers. When you think about what your meal does to your body, you’ll naturally gravitate toward healthier foods!
- Listen to your body. Many people gain weight because they continue eating long after they grow full. On the other hand, mindful eating will teach you to honour your body and stop eating when you reach satiety. For optimum results, pay attention to how you feel as you eat. If you have to take a breath or pause, do so. If your hunger doesn’t return, wait until it does to eat again.
Lastly, don’t forget to smile. People appreciate food for good reason, as eating does much more than enable our survival. It celebrates our spirit! Show your enjoyment of your meal by smiling and talking with loved ones whenever possible.
Eating mindfully while on-the-go
“Sure,” you might think. “Mindful eating sounds great when you have the time. But I’m rushing from Job One to Job Two and picking up the kids at soccer practice. How can I eat mindfully when I’m busy?”
Even if you can’t enjoy a completely mindful meal when lunchtime rolls around, you can still integrate mindfulness techniques to improve your habits. Most importantly, be sure to ask yourself questions before reaching for a snack. For instance, is what you’re about to eat going to fuel your short-term goals or your long-term health? Are you truly hungry, or are you eating to alleviate boredom? Remember: The goal is to observe your motivations, not to judge them.
While eating, always take a few seconds to savour your snack. Even if you’re only noshing on string cheese to carry you until dinner, notice the texture. Is the mozzarella fresh and soft?
Say a brief “thank you” for your food, even if only in your mind. Remember that another living thing gave its life, or at least its services, to provide you with nourishment. Express gratitude for this sacrifice.
A healthier relationship with food
When you learn to slow down and appreciate the foods that nourish you, you’ll be able to form a healthier relationship with eating. This will help you improve your diet and derive more enjoyment from your meals.
Try incorporating mindful eating into your daily routine more often, and observe how it impacts your satisfaction with life in general—you may be surprised by how much more grateful you feel for the life you live!