Chances are you’ve heard of mindful eating, but you may not really understand what it means or what it’s referring to.
The whole idea of “Mindfulness” is such a popular topic these days. Being mindful about something is bringing awareness to it. We tend to be distracted in our day-to-day lives because we’re doing too many things at once. We miss things, ignore things, and forget to appreciate things. Yes, this can even include our food.
When was the last time you ate at the dinner table with your family, without your phone and without the TV?
Or how about eating lunch somewhere other than at your desk in front of your computer?
Or having a snack without scrolling through Instagram or Facebook?
Yes – I’m guilty of it too, but eating in these scenarios is the opposite of mindful eating.
What is mindful eating?
The act of mindful eating is paying attention to what and how you’re eating, including the taste of the food on your plate and your general surroundings.
Mindful eating can also be used to tune into hunger cues, as well as better understand your cravings.
Why is it important to eat mindfully?
There are so many benefits to practicing mindful eating. This technique has been used for some of the simplest things, like bringing more gratitude to your mealtime, or enhancing your eating experience. Mindful eating has also been shown to improve digestion, reduce anxiety and has the potential to heal eating disorders.
But why does all this really matter?
Many of us don’t actually listen to our proper hunger cues.
Here are some examples of the imbalance we experience:
- We eat when we feel “hungry”, although sometimes this hunger isn’t for food at all. Perhaps it’s an emotional hunger, or a hunger for something else that is lacking in our life.
- We eat when we don’t feel hungry, sometimes to numb another emotion that we are experiencing – like stress. Did you know? Stress increases your cravings for sugary, fatty and salty foods because these foods release dopamine, reducing feelings of stress.
- We eat when we’re distracted, which results in overeating. When was the last time you brought a bag of chips in front of the TV and finished the whole thing in a single sitting?
- We eat when we’re bored, which also results in overeating.
Giving our body food when it’s not actually hungry pushes our digestive system into distress.
Here’s a quick summary of how hunger usually works:
- We eat a meal, and our stomach / small intestines break down carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
- The carbohydrates break down into glucose, which increases our blood sugar.
- Insulin is released in response to increased blood sugar, and its job is to push the sugar into our cells. This fuels our cells, and thus our body, with energy.
- Eventually our body realizes that blood sugar levels are low, and releases the hormone ghrelin. Ghrelin stimulates our brain, which turns on our appetite, telling us that we’re hungry again.
When we ignore this system, we ignore our body’s natural hormones and rhythms.
Here are some things that happen when we eat too much, or if we eat when we’re not hungry:
- Our stomach is forced to expand to larger than its natural size, pushing up against other organs and making us and our clothing feel tight and uncomfortable (we’ve all been there).
- The risk of heartburn is higher, especially if we’re eating high amounts of fatty foods.
- Our organs, including all of those that secrete hormones and enzymes like our stomach, intestines and pancreas, all work harder because of the added pressure.
- Food can take longer to digest and begin to ferment or putrefy, affecting our microbiome and cause gas or indigestion.
- Our blood sugar can become irregular, and our other hormones like leptin and ghrelin may stop working in their natural rhythm. This can trigger hunger at odd hours and stimulate cravings.
- Too much food means excess glucose is stored as fat, and can contribute to weight gain over time.
It takes 20 seconds for our brain to register that it feels full.
Think about that for a minute.
You might already be done that bag of chips by the time your brain tells you to stop. How much extra food did you eat that your body didn’t need?
This is a much more common story than you’d think. And if this is you, you’re definitely not alone.
8 Tips to Practice Mindful Eating
The good news is there are ways to reset and rebalance those natural cycles. Mindful eating is a big part of it, because when we draw awareness to our hunger – and truly experience our food – our bodies are more satisfied. We learn to tune into our cues and have a better grasp on when to eat.
1 | Avoid distractions when you eat.
This is the number one tip, because if you avoid distractions, you are in a much better position to tune into the food in front of you. Turn off your TV, put your phone on silent (better yet, put it in a different room), and put away your laptop.
2 | Eat slowly.
Chew each bite into a paste. Digestion actually begins in your mouth with salivary amylase, which helps to break down carbohydrates. Get chewing so you can reduce the burden on your stomach and intestines. Many of us have a tendency to take 5-10 chews and swallow, but the rule of thumb is to chew at least 20-30 times, or until your food is a paste.
3 | Pay attention to your food with your five senses.
When preparing and eating your food, you want to tune into the following elements:
When you’re cooking, allow your eyes to take in the bright beautiful colours and the delicious smells. As you eat your food, notice the texture and taste. Be one with your food – enjoy it to it’s fullest potential. I bet this is something you don’t do, but is a good practice!
4 | Take smaller bites.
Remember that ‘chew until it’s a paste’ concept? Smaller bites will help you better appreciate the flavours and textures, but also leave room for you to chew thoroughly. Be mindful that you’re not shoving food in your mouth. One way you can do this is with smaller utensils. I actually like to use dessert spoons and the “kids” forks for most of my meals.
5 | Question your cravings.
Are you hungry because you’re stressed? Anxious? Are you craving something because your body is telling you that it’s missing certain nutrients? Are you using food to numb or avoid feeling an emotion? Some of us may eat to escape feelings of loneliness. We may eat to experience feelings of happiness, joy or love. If your food cravings and consumption is closely tied to an emotion, or you feel anxious when you eat, I encourage you to speak with a professional who can help you understand why. If your eating patterns are ruled by something other than hunger, it’s important to be mindful of that.
6 | Practice gratitude when eating.
Before snacking or eating a meal, take a moment to practice gratitude. We don’t often think about all of the work that goes into growing the food on our plate. We buy it at the grocery store, and that’s often all we see. But consider the journey that your food has been on! All the people who have touched it – the seed seller, the farmer, the transportation, the wholesaler, the grocery store, and finally, your plate. The fact that this food made it to you is incredible, and there is much to be grateful for during each meal.
7 | Pay attention to your portion sizes.
I don’t love some of those portion diagrams, but there are general rules of thumb to follow if you don’t want to measure everything out. You don’t want to become fixated on this because portion sizes can be fluid depending on how hungry you are, but here are some ways to quickly eyeball portions:
- Clenched fist: 1 cup of vegetables, fruit or grains
- Palm of hand: 3 oz (approx.) of meat, fish or chicken
- Cupped hand: 1-2 oz of nuts or seeds
- Entire thumb or finger: 1 oz, serving of cheese
- Half thumb: 1 tbsp, nut butter like almond butter or peanut butter
- Thumb tip: 1 tsp butter, oil
Know that the serving size may be a bit different for men versus women, and people who are highly active versus sedentary.
8 | Make mealtime a sacred ritual.
This becomes a lifestyle choice, but if you have the means, focus on making your mealtime a sacred ritual. Every single time you eat, follow all of these tips to prepare your body for incoming food. Turn off distractions. Say a few words of gratitude. Taste and experience every flavour and texture of what you are eating in each bite. This ritual is so special for nourishing your body AND soul, while setting yourself up for satisfaction.
In time, practicing mindfulness will help your body return to its natural rhythms and rebalance itself. You’ll be able to tune into feelings of hunger and truly understand what your cravings are telling you. Mindful eating is a practice – and not something we can perfect right off the bat. We do need to work on it, and of course, the first step is simply being mindful.
Do you practice mindful eating? I’d love to know your tips and experiences.