Yes, I know you're going to say: "yeah, yeah, yet another thing, I need to do", but there's something to be said about mindful eating. Ask yourself these questions: "How do you feel when you're eating while stressed? Do you taste your food? Do you enjoy what you're eating? Are you paying attention to what's actually in front of you"? Probably not. One could also make the most superbly elaborate meal but not pay any mind to how the meal is prepared and eaten.
Being alive in the 21st century is extraordinary. We have luxuries never before imagined. Food (in most of the world) is aplenty and we don't suffer from famine or disease the way some of our forefathers did. However, this luxury and freedom does come with an added burden. The burden of speed. Today everything moves fast. Technology, medicine, life and food. We've found ways to optimize everything, including eating.
But before technology, busy 9-5s or 9-whenevers came along, we ate differently. Not just what but how. Mindfulness is something that has been practiced in Eastern cultures for thousands of years and even in other parts of the world, people gathered around food and honored it for its nourishment and the significance it had. Our culture, however has lost touch with sitting down and enjoying a meal in peace and focusing on the food. Most of the time we eat in a haste, are distracted by TV, phones or computers.
What is mindless/stress eating?
We've all been there. Work problems, relationship problems, traffic, finances; the situations are endless. But the fact is, when constant stress is present in our life, we have a surplus of the hormone, cortisol which is responsible for increased appetite. Unfortunately, when this happens, we're not craving a head of cauliflower but rather, fatty, salty or sugary foods. "Stress is an important factor in the development of addiction and in addiction relapse, and may contribute to an increased risk for obesity and other metabolic diseases."
What causes mindless eating?
- Boredom - you know the feeling all too well. You're at work or at home and wish you were somewhere else, doing something else, so you reach for food, as that's the next best thing to give your brain a boost of dopamine (the feel good hormone)
- Automated eating - you walk in the door from work and first thing you do is grab something out of the fridge. You automatically gravitate to it, eat it standing at the counter, absent minded and before you know it, you see the bottom of the bag/container and this is all before dinner.
- Burying feelings - whether it's overwhelm, sadness or anxiety, sometimes instead of dealing with feelings appropriately, we turn to food in order to cope certain emotions.
- Body image issues - this is a big one for both men and women but more often than not, it tends to affect women. When feelings of hate, shame or discomfort revolving around body image creep up, it's easy to turn to food as a means of self punishment.
I think when it comes to eating and food in general, there is a lot more than just having a healthy a "relationship to food" - a term which I've heard thrown around but don't necessary agree with. I don't think the relationship is not necessarily with food but with feelings we are not acknowledging. Food happens to be one source of pleasure/punishment which we turn to.
When there are deep rooted issues that may be serious, this could potentially be a conversation with a mental health specialist. But if you're just an average person dealing with the difficulties of the modern world, perhaps slowing down and learning to pay attention may be a good first step.
What is mindful eating?
The simplest way to describe mindful eating is just to simply notice what happens while you eat and what you eat without judgement, the way you would in a mindfulness meditation. Most of us don't have time for a regular meditation practice but ALL of us have to eat. You can easily incorporate mindfulness into your day simply by practicing mindful eating.
When you eat mindfully, you'll start to notice a shift in:
- whether you are eating out of hunger or boredom, sadness, anxiety, etc
- your feelings as they arise while you are eating
- thoughts about how the food got to your plate (was it grown locally?, how much work did a farmer put into growing and cultivating the food, etc)
- whether the food is beneficial to your body or not
- the actual taste and smell, flavor and texture of your food
- whether you are full or not once you've finished eating
This does not happen overnight. I've been trying this for years and still struggle with it. It does take work and dedication but once you start to make the shift and pay attention, you develop a very different outlook about the act of eating and the food itself.
How to practice mindful eating
- The right environment - This might be difficult for some but try eating when not highly stressed out.
- Shut off distractions - Electronics are the number one distraction when eating. We're very much used to them. TV, phone, laptop - it's so common that it's become normal. Try and make a shift for even one meal.
- Watch your portions - Since you're trying to be mindful about eating, be mindful about how much food you're putting on your plate, even if you're very hungry
- Use your senses - This seems obvious but pay attention to how the food looks, to the smells and taste, texture and flavor of the food.
- Chew your food, put your fork down - Make an effort to chew your food well and take mini breaks and put your fork down between bites.
- Eat slowly - One of the nice things about slowing down when eating, is that your brain has time to catch up to your stomach. When you eat mindfully, you naturally eat slower and your brain will actually have time to let you know when you're full so you don't eat beyond your comfort.
These are some step you can incorporate if you want to dabble in the art of mindful eating. I will be the first one to say it, it's not easy. I think for a lot of people, distractions while eating, help to sort of tune out certain amounts of anxiety and feelings that may otherwise arise. The point of mindful eating is not so much to ruminate and get caught up in thoughts but to pay attention to exactly what's in front of you and just let your mind and thinking relax and be.
Benefits of mindful eating
- Improved digestion - when you eat slower and chew your food properly, your body can properly digest food and you'll have less discomfort.
- Feeling satisfied - Since you're actually paying attention to your meal, the nuances of it, you will appreciate and enjoy eating your meal.
- Reduce overeating - This is a big one for many. When we eat mindlessly and in a haste, we tend to eat way more than we want or need to feel satisfied.
- Benefits disordered eating - Some preliminary studies show that mindful eating can benefit those who suffer from eating disorders.
- Weight loss - This ties in with overeating. When one eats in a mindful manner, they will realize they are full and stop eating. It takes the brain about 20 minutes to realize it is full so being mindful and slowing down will greatly benefit with weight loss.
- Improved feelings towards food - This is a big one. Many of us have such negative associations with food. Looking at a piece of cake will bring up feelings of aversion as we think that piece of cake will be responsible for our weight gain.
- Improves Type 2 Diabetes symptoms - "Training in mindful eating and diabetes self-management facilitate improvement in dietary intake, modest weight loss, and glycemic control. The availability of effective treatments allows diabetes patients choices in meeting their self-care needs."
I have by no means mastered the art of mindful eating as it's a continuous process, coming back, trying again and practicing. Even if you just start out with a few bites of mindful eating, I would call that a success. I think you'll find it's extremely difficult to stay focused the entire time but even a little may open up a new connection to what's in front of you. Let me know how it goes!