It’s not what you eat, but how you eat that matters.
Do you think you eat mindfully already? Are you wondering why I’m dedicating a post to this topic? It’s because it strikes me that most of us have work to do in this area. The benefit of mindful eating is dramatic. You may go off a diet, but if you are focusing on mindful eating there is no “blowing it”.
You will at times be more or less mindful, but addressing mindful eating is not all or nothing. So you can’t fail at it. And even small changes in your mindfulness can have a major impact on how you eat, and how you feel. And ultimately, on weight regulation.
In my last post I promised to address practical strategies for legalizing forbidden foods. I didn’t forget. To set the stage, we first need to spend some time learning to eat mindfully. (I will cover eating chocolate and other forbidden foods in an upcoming post. Really.)
Mindful eating involves taking in food with all of your senses—smelling its aroma, feeling its texture, seeing its beauty and truly tasting it. Ok, you won’t always hear your food unless you are eating something with a lot of crunch or inappropriately slurping down your soup. But you know what I mean.
Mindful eating means moving yourself from auto-pilot, and not simply eating just because there’s food around. It means shifting from selecting foods simply for their nutritional benefit, or because it’s what you always allow yourself, or because they are safe foods, and instead choosing foods you really enjoy. Because if you only have what’s save or allowed, then you will continue to seek what you’d really prefer to be eating.
Mindful eating is also about paying attention to how you feel when you’re about to eat, and to the setting you’re eating in. That includes your internal stress level, and the comfort of your environment, both physical and emotional.
It involves recognizing when you are hungry, and distinguishing hunger from all the other reasons you reach for food—stress, boredom, self-punishment, anger, celebration, comfort, to name a few.
Rugelach recipe available upon request! Simply the best!
It requires giving yourself permission to eat, when you’re hungry, without waiting until you are so hungry that it is too late to eat in a controlled and mindful manner. And it requires letting go of your judgment of what you are choosing to eat now, and what you ate earlier in the day or week.
Think about your usual setting, the way you typically eat your meals and snacks. Do any of these apply? Are you:
Reading or doing homework?
At the computer?
On the phone?
Eating in bed?
Being interrupted to meet everyone else’s needs?
Emptying the dishwasher?
Walking around the kitchen?
Are you even aware of when and what you are putting in your mouth? And how much do you really allow yourself to taste your food, to thoroughly enjoy it?
I realize that you are mighty good at multitasking. Really, I know you’re capable of eating while doing lots of other things. I just don’t recommend it. When you’re distracted, you fail to acknowledge what you’ve eaten, and that you may have had enough. Have you ever eaten a meal in front of the TV? It just doesn’t register that you’ve eaten. So then you’re up looking around for more soon after. You miss the satisfying aspects of eating, and ultimately overeat.
Distracted eating also creates unhealthy connections between activities and eating. You go to the movies and you think about eating popcorn, whether hungry or not. And you only know you’ve had enough when the salt and oil is scraped up by your nails! At the ballgame? It’s hot dogs and peanuts. If you start to link an action with eating—for instance, reading blogs—then whenever you sit at your computer you’ll be seeking food. They become linked activities, so that even if you weren’t hungry you’re triggered to eat.
If you’re going to eat, when you’re going to eat, I want you to appreciate every morsel that you take in.
Too late! I’m already stuck in these patterns!
Not so! There’s still time to change your habits and learn to be mindful. Here are some practical tips, each of which can have significant impact:
Limit eating to the kitchen or dining room. And ask family members to help support this plan for everyone at home. Mindful eating is appropriate for everyone, kids and adults, regardless of size or weight!
Move to the table. And make it an inviting place to dine. Do you need to clear off the mail? The laundry? The dirty dishes? Then do so! You don’t need fine china to set a nice table, but a place mat might help. Maybe even candles? Or flowers?
Set your internal table, so to speak and prepare yourself to eat. If you’ve just been racing around, or are feeling stressed or anxious your internal table isn’t set. So sit down and take a few breaths, deep belly breaths, and release some tension. You’d be surprised that something so simple and quick as breathing works so well.
Say an affirmation, quietly to yourself, with eyes closed or open if you choose. An affirmation is a “declaration that something is true”. For instance, stating “ I can taste and enjoy my food” or I will nourish my body and give it what it needs. For some, blessings before meals meet this need. Appreciating the food that will be eaten lays the groundwork for savoring your food.
Use your senses to take in your food. Do you like the smell of the food? The temperature? How does it appear? How does it feel in your mouth? What do you think of the texture? And how does it taste? Does it seem like you are tasting it for the very first time?
Now how is your belly feeling? Are you noticing that you are starting to feel full? If you are unsure, you can stop eating—just for now—and move away from the table. Give yourself permission to come back after 45 minutes or so, enough time to recognize that you are starting to feel comfortably full or satisfied.
To ready you for mindful eating, try the raisin exercise, a mindfulness activity that has been used for decades to make people more present, more aware of their eating.
Take out a raisin from its package, then go and sit in a quiet place. Look at the raisin in your hand. Observe it, its color, smell, texture. Then close your eyes, placing the raisin in your mouth—but don’t chew it! Explore how it feels in your mouth as you move it around. How does it change? After some time (which will feel like an eternity) slowly begin to chew it and again observe it. Note the flavor and the feel. Finally, finish chewing it and swallow. Repeat this again and note any changes in your experience.
Now I don’t expect you to start eating your food, raisins or other items, this way. But this exaggerated experience with the raisin makes a point. It is so far from the way we normally shovel in raisins, practically eating them whole, that we barely appreciate their incredible sweetness. Now imagine doing this with a piece of fine chocolate. See where I’m going with this?
Start with one small goal this week, or when you’re ready to address eating mindfully. Choose one something relevant to you from the strategies above. And let me know how it goes. What did you think of the raisin experiment? Were you able to refer to the experience when eating other foods? Have you been able to catch yourself when not eating mindfully and shift gears? Even that would be awesome progress!