Americans put a lot of emphasis on what we should or should not be eating, or what diet plan is going to miraculously shed that unwanted weight forever. Yet, many of us never think about how we are eating.
A growing body of research suggests that, when it comes to weight management, the way in which we savor or scarf our meals may be as important as what we are eating. Mindful eating, or intuitive eating, refers to the principle of being present — fully in the moment — and using all of your senses while you eat. It is based on the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, or being fully aware of what is happening within and around you. The practice of mindful eating does not dictate what you should eat: you’re encouraged to include foods you enjoy. You can mindfully eat pizza or ice cream by enjoying every bite and moving on. Your body may even tell you that you need a salad for your next meal.
According to the Center for Mindful Eating, the principles of mindful eating include:
- Acknowledging that there is no right way or wrong way to eat.
- Using all of your senses when choosing food that is both satisfying and nourishing.
- Becoming aware of physical cues for hunger and fullness.
- Gaining awareness of how to make food choices that support health and well-being.
At the other end of the spectrum is mindless eating. As a culture, Americans tend to eat mindlessly – at our desks, in our cars, or in front of the TV. Eating while distracted has become the norm for many. Research suggests that our eating environment and habits, whom we’re eating with, our plate size, and how quickly we eat can dramatically affect what and how much we eat.
These factors can even edge out our ability to recognize hunger and fullness cues.
So, how can you learn to eat more mindfully?
- Remove all distractions: Step away from your computer, TV, or any other technology that will hold your attention while eating. Instead, focus all of your senses on what’s in your mouth.
- Before you eat, tune into your hunger level. Are you eating out of boredom or stress?
- Take lessons from the French: Linger over your meals like every meal is a celebration of the food on your plate.
- Pay close attention to how you feel throughout the meal. Stop when you start to feel full.
- Serve meals on smaller plates and leave the serving dish in the kitchen so you have to actively go back for seconds. This will help you tune into whether or not you really are hungry for another helping.
- Slow down. Put your fork down between bites, use chopsticks (unless you’re a native chopstick user!), or eat with your non-dominant hand.
- Reflect on your meal. Did you choose a combination of food that provided the flavors, textures, quantities, etc. that were satisfying? Did you stop eating when you felt comfortably full – not stuffed?
Commit to try it for a week, or at every lunchtime, and see if you notice anything different about your relationship to food.
Looking for more inspiration? Try this mindful eating exercise:
- Take a small square of chocolate and place it in your hand. Look at it, turn it over, and take notice of its texture, color, and weight.
- Now, bring the chocolate up to your nose and smell it. Slowly, place the chocolate on your tongue, but don’t chew it.
- Close your mouth and notice the flavor and texture as it begins to melt. Close your eyes and notice how it feels in your mouth.
- Move it around with your tongue and then as it becomes small enough, swallow it.
Do you want another, or are you satisfied by this piece of chocolate? OK, maybe you still want another, but are you more likely to be able to stop after one? Reflect on how you feel after this exercise and compare it to how you might normally pop a piece of chocolate in your mouth, chew it quickly and swallow it, then gobble more.