Dial down the noise and pay attention to how you eat. Relearn how to savor the moment and enjoy the experience.
Eating is a biologically natural activity. Food – all food – provides energy. Every cell in our body absolutely requires food to function properly. If we weren’t meant to eat, then we’d be covered with little green leaves so we could photosynthesize.
Clearly, this is not the case.
Food is supposed to taste good. We have these fancy little things called taste buds specifically designed for us to separate food from non-food. The pleasure center in our brain lights up when we eat, an important motivator that kept humans alive in times of feast and famine. The act of eating is supposed to be an enjoyable activity, and dare I say, even a highlight of your day?
Sadly, the normality and pleasure of eating is often lost. Confusing nutrition information overrides our natural ability to distinguish what foods are nourishing. Our fast-paced lifestyle has turned mealtime into a chore to be completed as quickly as possible, so we can move on to something seemingly more important. The advent of processed convenience foods has dumbed down our taste buds to the point where we only recognize salt, sugar and fat. Supersize portions have taught us to ignore the signals that tell us we’re full.
Most of us could use a good lesson in how to eat. I know, didn’t you learn that when you were, like, an infant? Let’s call it a refresher course!
Mindful eating is a technique that can be used to relearn how to eat by teaching you to tune into all the senses while eating. It’s not a diet, and although it’s sometimes sold for weight loss or healthy eating, that’s not that goal. That said, most people find they choose healthier foods in more appropriate portions after developing a mindful eating practice.
I like to think of mindful eating as a practice, a skill that you hone with time. Here are 3 exercises to keep in mind:
1. THE FIFTEEN MINUTE RULE
“Don’t put anything else into your mouth, like your projects, your worries, just put the carrot in.” ~ Thich Nhat Hahn
Before eating, decide if you are actually hungry or not. If you identify as an emotional eater, it can be difficult to distinguish emotions from real physical hunger. To better differentiate the two, try practicing the 15 minute rule. If you feel hungry, but you’re not sure if it’s true hunger, try doing something else for about 15 minutes. Watching the food network doesn’t count. If you can occupy your mind with another activity, preferably one that addresses the emotion you’re feeling, you may find the craving goes away. For example, if you’re feeling anxious, go for a 15 minute walk with your dog. Of if you’re feeling depressed, call a friend. After 15 minutes, if you still feel hungry, go eat something.
2. HUNGER SCALE
Many people only recognize extreme hunger or extreme fullness. They wait so long between meals that by the time they sit down to eat, they’re ravenous. And when you’re ravenous, there’s no way you’re eating in a sensible way and are likely shoveling food in as quickly as possible to fill that empty pit in your stomach.
The hunger scale can be a helpful tool for learning to recognize your body’s signals to eat. Throughout the day, even when you aren’t feeling hungry, ask yourself where your hunger/fullness ranks on a scale of 1-10.
Before you eat and while you’re eating, ask yourself the same question. You’ll start to get in touch with the subtle cues of hunger and fullness, and notice your body tells you when it needs nourishment and when you’ve had enough. Once you feel comfortable detecting these signals, aim to keep yourself within a range of 3-8. When you hit a 3 or 4, which indicates mild to moderate hunger, go eat something. Eat slowly and consciously enough to notice when you hit a 7 or 8 on the hunger scale, meaning you are comfortably full and satisfied, not popping buttons off on your pants.
We’ve all done it before. You’re sitting in front of the tv with a pint of ice cream, and minutes later, you look down to see the bottom of the container. Did someone steal bites when I wasn’t looking?
It’s impossible to be conscious of what (or how much) you’re eating while driving, watching tv, in front of your computer at work or any other place where you’re distracted. You won’t notice it when your body signals it’s had enough, nor will you feel at all satisfied after eating if you haven’t even tasted your food!
When you eat, aim to be sitting on a chair, at a table with your food on a plate. Late night TV snackers, you’ll find this trick especially helpful. You’ll be much less likely to snack if it means missing a minute of your favorite show.
In the real world, you’ll likely find it’s impossible to be mindful 100% of the time. There are those days that you can’t pull yourself away from the desk to take a real lunch break, or you have class at night and only 15 minutes to throw dinner together. But the most important thing to remember is that mindful eating isn’t all or nothing –
The more frequently you practice mindful eating skills, the more it becomes a natural part of your eating.
For more mindful exercises to practice daily, check out the full article.
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Rachael Hartley, RD, LD, CDE is a private practice dietitian, food enthusiast, and nutrition expert based in Columbia, SC. By guiding others to rediscover the joy of nourishment rather than deprivation, Rachael helps men and women alike improve their health and well-being through delicious whole food recipes and practical advice through intuitive eating.