What Is Mindful Eating…and Does It Work?

There was a period in my life (oh, say, about 9 years) when I stuffed my face junk food, fast foods and pizza on a daily basis. I was gaining weight quickly and rebounding from being anorexic for 5 years. I was now swinging to the other side of the pendulum, becoming overweight, addicted to sugar, fried and fattening foods and would mindlessly binge (or chew & spit…another nasty habit) every single evening.

Obviously, this was not something I was proud of nor something I shared for many years.

It wasn’t healthy by any means, but it was a private habit that I could turn to when I was alone. It was something I thought I could keep hidden, because I was too shameful to admit that I had issues with something as basic as feeding myself.

While what I was eating was a big part of the habitual cycle (addiction to sugar), another big part was how I was eating.

My habits had built up over several years. First, I was simply starting to eat again after starving myself as an anorexic. Then it became harder to stop eating…my animal brain was so triggered with being starved that it was easy to rationalize eating more than I needed. I would eat to socialize, to relieve stress, to make myself feel comforted and to satisfy my strong cravings.

I didn’t realize how mindless my behavior was until several years later, when I got serious about overcoming my binge eating habits.

Learning to eat mindfully was a big shift in my relationship with food, and it took practice. Like any new habit, it was most challenging when I started but got easier the more I practiced.

Mindful eating was the physical behavioral shift in breaking through binge eating. Studying psychology, neuroscience and meditation provided the mental, emotional and spiritual shifts for a complete turn-around.

What is mindful eating?

Mindful eating is a conscious approach to eating. It’s paying attention — to the sensations of the food as you eat it, your reasons for eating, and how you feel before/during/after eating. It’s slowing down to chew more than usual, to smell and to pause between bites.

According to an article in the NY Times, the concept has roots in Buddhist teachings. Just as there are forms of meditation that involve sitting, breathing, standing and walking, many Buddhist teachers encourage their students to meditate with food, expanding consciousness by paying close attention to the sensation and purpose of each morsel.

Lately, mindful eating has started to gain traction in the secular arena, from Harvard to Google’s California campus. Author Thich Nhat Hanh has a compelling book, “Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life” that explains it very well.

Mindful eating isn’t a diet or about restricting. It’s about experiencing the full abundance and pleasure that’s available to you in the moment.orange

Mindful eating is eating with intention:

  • Eating with the intention of taking care of yourself (physically, mentally, emotionally)
  • Eating with the attention necessary for noticing and savoring your food and its effects on your body

It’s not just “eating slowly and focusing.”

It’s taking note of your physical and emotional cues before, during and after the process.

It’s being aware of when you’re eating due to physical hunger, and when you’re eating for other reasons (social outings, stress, loneliness, excitement, boredom, etc.).

It’s practicing eating for optimal satiety, where you’re choosing foods that will provide the highest satisfaction in the moment as well as in the future.

Many people who struggle with food are in reaction mode.  They’re reacting automatically to unrecognized or unexamined triggers, feelings, thoughts or mindsets. They’re “reacting”…acting out the same behaviors over and over again, all the while building a stronger habit that gets harder to change.

Does mindful eating work?

I went through a few phases with practicing mindful eating before it finally felt intuitive and satisfying.

It’s quite easy to do once or twice, especially if you’re at a workshop where you’re discussing it and everyone around you is in support of the idea. You can do it together and see the benefits of it.

However, when you’re eating alone later—or rushed for an appointment—it can be difficult to practice smelling your food, chewing it more than you usually would, checking in to see how you feel and if you’re satisfied, etc. It can also be challenging to practice when you’re out with others, talking away and everyone’s eating as usual. It’s easy to forget or to get caught up in conversation and lose focus on eating.

For those reasons, it took effort for me to incorporate it as a new habit. But the payoff is well worth it.

Not only has it helped me to achieve a healthy weight again, but I still surprise myself when I feel satisfied after only a fraction of the portion of food I used to consume. I feel like I’m able to experience the pleasure and richness of food completely instead of absent-mindedly consuming everything in front of me in order to fill up.

For your eating pleasure

Old habits of eating quickly or without paying attention are usually not easy to break. If you feel like mindful eating really wouldn’t work for you, I encourage you to start simply. These few steps are actually pretty fun…all of them enhance your ability to experience pleasure as you eat.

Here’s a few steps to get you going:

  1. Try pouring yourself a favorite hot or cold drink. Take the first 3-4 sips with full attention. What’s the flavor? Bitter, sweet, sour, tangy…? Does the temperature feel good to you?
  2. Before you eat, sit down and look at your food. Is it rich in color or bland? Shiny or soft? Notice how the light hits it. Does it reflect or absorb?
  3. As you get ready for the first bite, lean in to sniff your food. Breathe in the smell. This squeezes out more pleasure, because you enhance your taste with smell. Does the smell seem good to you?
  4. Chew. And keep chewing. Chew more than usual, count if you need to. (I aim for 20 chews or so per bite, and now it’s become natural.) Notice the flavor and extending the pleasure as long as possible.
  5. Practice pausing. Put your utensil down, and pause a moment to listen to the sounds around you. Note what you are smelling. Check in with your emotions. Do you feel stressed? Rushed? Happy? Carefree? Considering your senses and emotional state grounds you before you move on to the next bite.
  6. Appreciate the origin. What did it take to get your food from where it was grown or created, to being washed, processed, packaged and shipped, to being displayed to be purchased or ordered to finally sitting on your plate? How many people, animals, plants and/or time is involved in feeding you right now?

Let me know how this works for you! I’d love to hear what you get out of it, whether it’s easy or difficult or something in between.

 

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