Many of us lead busy, fast-paced lives. As our endless to-do lists pile up, it can be hard to set aside time for a meal, let alone nurture a healthy relationship with food. Mindful eating — or the practice of being fully attentive to food and the eating experience as a whole — can be a powerful tool to break through the mental clutter and promote healthier eating habits, efficient digestion, improved portion control, and even stress reduction.
Keep reading to see how you can elevate your meals and transform your food mindset.
What Is Mindful Eating?
Mindfulness, as a general term, relates to the ability to be present in the current moment, allowing yourself to tune in to your feelings, thoughts, and sensations. When applied to the realm of nutrition, mindfulness encourages a holistic mind-body connection that fosters our personal autonomy and honors our innate hunger and satiety cues.
The Science Behind Mindful Eating
The enhanced awareness of environmental food triggers has been shown to decrease portion sizes and calorie intake while increasing the enjoyment of a meal. Mindfulness-based approaches also appear to be helpful in addressing common concerns like fat loss as well as binge and emotional eating.
Moreover, mindful eating can be a welcome solution to yo-yo dieting. Research has demonstrated that traditional dieting (in the form of restriction and deprivation techniques) is ultimately unsustainable. Instead of long-term success, low-calorie diets often contribute to negative emotions around food, leading to an inevitable overcompensation that gives rise to overeating.
Mindful eating breaks the mold of dieting by allowing any food to be consumed as long as you’re present and listening to your body. It’s a simple and, eventually, spontaneous way to practice moderation.
Common Challenges to Mindful Eating
Once you get accustomed to mindful eating, it becomes an effortless, intuitive part of your daily life. But working up to a consistent routine is not without its challenges, so it’s important to consider potential obstacles and plan ahead for smoother sailing.
The Food Environment
The food environment influences our desire to eat. It’s largely shaped by the access to and variety of food available. Even serving containers, something we would normally not give much thought, can dictate our portion sizes and overall calorie consumption.
The Eating Environment
The eating environment influences our ability to eat. Think of it as the atmosphere surrounding you when you eat, as well as the effort involved in making or procuring meals.
It’s human nature to mimic others, and eating is no exception. In social settings, we might adopt similar habits to our friends and family by sharing meals and, sometimes, being more indulgent than usual. Naturally, we are more likely to focus on the conversations we’re having than how we’re feeling with each bite, which makes mindful eating harder.
On the other hand, the social connections we build around food are vital to our mental wellbeing, so by no means are we saying that you should always eat alone — rather, it is helpful to be aware of the distractions inherent to a group and, if possible, modify our behaviors accordingly.
Time Constraints & Multitasking
Between juggling work, family, friends, and hobbies, multitasking seems to be the only way to get through our hectic days. While some amount of multitasking is good (and occasionally impressive!), it doesn’t mesh well with mindful eating.
Essentially, the less distractions and the more time we have to dedicate towards a meal, the better — both mentally and physically. And, in case you were wondering, multitasking includes technology use, so put down that smartphone before taking your next bite!
We all experience cravings from time to time, but it can be difficult to tell cravings apart from actual hunger cues. An easy trick is to consider the intensity and specificity of the craving. Hunger cues tend to come on slowly and increase gradually, while cravings are quick and strong. Additionally, when you’re truly hungry, most foods seem appetizing, whereas cravings are usually particular to one type or category of food.
Giving into cravings isn’t always a bad thing, but by learning how to identify them, we at least give ourselves the opportunity to make informed decisions. Ideally, for the purpose of health and longevity, we should opt to listen to hunger cues over cravings more often than not.
If you can’t seem to shake constant cravings, or if you feel like indulging in those cravings but with a more health-conscious twist, try making these simple, healthy swaps.
Starting a Mindful Eating Practice
Now that you know the what and why behind mindful eating, let’s talk about some actionable tips that will put you on the right path.
Before a Meal
If you’re the chef, mindful eating starts with the cooking process. Breathe the ingredients in. Think about how they look and feel. Taste your food before serving it. When it’s time to eat, set aside all distractions and create a quiet space that feels safe and comfortable to you.
During a Meal
Eat slowly, savoring each bite. Appreciate the nourishment you’re receiving from the food you worked hard to make. Take pauses to reflect on how you’re feeling and assess hunger levels. Don’t rush.
After a Meal
Contemplate your meal and its purpose. Are you feeling satisfied? Is your body thanking you for the nutrients it received? Did you listen to your hunger cues? Why or why not? Use this information to guide future decisions around what, when, and how you eat.
Mindful eating is an indispensable tool with the capacity to support a myriad of health goals. We hope this introduction to the practice of mindful eating has added to your knowledge base and inspired you to take steps towards nutrition that is more joyous and conscientious.
Questions? Feedback? Let us know in the comments!
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