In the world of food, what we eat is a huge topic of conversation. This is healthy, that is unhealthy, don’t eat that, eat this – there is a lot of information out there and among that information, there is also a lot of contradictory information. However, when it comes to mindful eating, there are many more components than just what we are eating, the who, where, when, how, and why are just as important, if not more. So here are some important things to consider in how to practice mindful eating.
What is Mindful Eating?
To some, mindful eating might imply the need to meditate before every meal, but that is certainly not the case. Mindful eating is about listening to our body’s hunger cues and it is a technique that can help you regain control over your eating habits. Eating with mindfulness is about building dietary habits that help you create a healthy relationship with food, feel satisfied with your food choices, appreciate the food you consume, and understand how your body feels when you eat. In the modern world, food is available anywhere at any time, so saying we have become a culture of mindless eaters is an understatement.
If you have ever eaten lunch at your desk, inhaled a bowl of popcorn while watching a movie, gone to take a sip of your coffee and realized the cup was empty, or eaten food not knowing how it was grown or where it came from, you have experienced mindless eating. Practicing mindful eating is about more than just taking a few deep breaths before digging into your dinner, it’s about paying attention to the 5 Ws of the experience.
The 5 Ws of Mindful Eating
What: What we are eating is the most popular piece of the puzzle, and this particular W gets a lot of press. Not only does what we eat determine how healthy are choices are but what we chose to eat will impact how much care or attention we pay to the food we are eating. Consider eating a muffin you bought in your local grocery store, or your favorite childhood muffin your mother bakes fresh for you from scratch. The attention and joy you get out of eating your mom’s homemade baked goods will most certainly be greater than any convenience snack you can pick up in a store.
When: Paying attention to when we eat is about a lot more than just looking at the clock. Too often, people eat just because it is “meal time” and not because they are actually hungry or experiencing a hunger cue. If you are eating every 2 hours because that’s what you read in the latest fitness magazine, ask yourself, is that really necessary for me? When we eat is often triggered by our external environment. If you walk into the office and there is a bag of candy in the communal area, are you eating the candy because it just happens to be in front of you, or because you actually wanted it? Being mindful of how your external environment impacts your food choices will help you learn how to practice mindful eating.
Why: For many, food is attached to specific activities, events, and celebrations, and so often we are simply eating based on rituals or habits. Do you eat every afternoon at work because you are actually hungry or because you are bored of sitting at your desk? Do you eat because you are tired? Sad? Nervous? Celebrating? Or because you are actually hungry? Eating popcorn at the movies is an incredibly common ritual, but are you eating popcorn because you are actually hungry or because it is just there and that is what you are “supposed” to do when you go to the movies. Considering the why behind eating takes a little bit of digging in, but if you are able to identify the cause, you can influence the outcome.
Where: Life is hectic, and unfortunately eating often takes the backseat on our list of priorities. We have become accustomed to eating on the go or even eating while we are doing other activities. Whether it is grabbing a bite to eat as we run out the door, eating at our desks, or eating while watching TV, these are all forms of distraction that stop us from practicing mindful eating. What many don’t realize is that our digestive system is triggered by our brains, so if we are not mindful the moment we are eating, digestion, absorption, and assimilation of nutrients will not occur optimally even if we are eating incredibly nutritious food.
Who: The who does not refer to the person who is eating, but rather to who they are eating with. Eating alone or eating with a group of people can completely alter our eating habits. Eating with others can be a joyful experience filled with fun, love, and laughter, and can make a good meal great. The people you eat with can impact your eating habits in both a positive and negative way, so it is important to be mindful of what occurs when you eat with others. Eating with fast eaters can cause you to eat faster, while slow eaters might lead you to put your fork down more often. Eating with people who make healthy choices might cause you to make a better meal choice, while people less prone to eating well might lead you to indulge a little more. Being mindful of how those around you impact your eating patterns will help you make better food choices.
An Example of Mindful Eating
Considering the 5 Ws of eating is a simple way to be more mindful of the food you are consuming, but how often do you actually do this? As an example, consider the last time you ate a handful of almonds, and ask yourself these simple questions:
- What did those almonds smell like?
- What did those almonds feel like in your hand?
- Where were those almonds from?
- How are almonds grown?
- Who harvested those almonds?
- How did they get to store shelves?
- How many people worked to get those almonds to you?
- When did you eat them?
- Where did you eat them?
- Who did you eat them with?
- Why did you eat them?
- How did you eat them?
Every food you eat has a story behind it, and the more pieces of the story you know, the more mindful it will help you be. Eating is a full sensory experience beyond taste; seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching all play into our experience and how we practice mindful eating.
How to Practice Mindful Eating
So how do we reconnect with our food and learn how to practice mindful eating? Here are some tips to help get you started.
1. Prepare your own food.
Mindful eating begins way before food enters your mouth. Eating is a sensory experience that involves all our senses and our brain. Our brain helps to initiate our digestive process and heightens our senses so we can experience the food we eat. The act of cooking helps us to engage our brain and stimulate our digestive process so our body is ready to accept our, and this is a process that is not stimulated by microwaving something we buy. Taking the time to cook and prepare your own food forces you to be more mindful of the time and effort that goes into making a meal. There is no need to be the next top chef, just a few simple kitchen skills can go a very long way in learning to practice mindful eating.
2. Chew your food and eat slowly.
Preparing your food is one thing, but if you inhale your meal in less than 5 minutes you are missing the mark. Eating quickly does not allow us to thoroughly experience mindful eating, and it also does not stimulate our body’s natural digestive process. By mechanically chewing your food you are preparing your gut for the digestive process and will ensure that your food is better absorbed and assimilated. Plus, taking our time allows our body to register once we are full so it helps to eliminate overeating.
3. Sit Down
Whether you are walking down the street, driving in your car, or standing in the kitchen, eating while you are on the go does not allow for your mind or body to register the food you have consumed. When eating, your body must transfer energy to your digestive tract in order for the process to occur, however, when eating on the go you are not allowing for this transfer of energy to happen optimally. Eating on the go keeps your body in ‘fight or flight’ mode when it should really be focusing on ‘rest and digest’ mode. Sitting down to eat a meal will bring more mindfulness to the entire process and help to ensure you are eating slower and chewing more as well.
4. Remove digital distractions.
Digital devices are a major distraction to mindful eating. Although eating at your desk, in front of your TV, or while looking at your phone might seem like an efficient use of time, they are a huge hindrance to mindful eating and your digestion. Simply taking the 10-15 minutes needed to sit down and eat your meal without a screen will help make the experience more mindful. Eating with others and sharing food with others is also a great way to bring more mindfulness to the process.
5. Shop locally.
Eat the kind of food you know the story behind. It is easy to eat mindlessly when you pick a product from the grocery store shelf because you simply know nothing about it. Buying something as simple as a banana might seem so innocent, however, when you recognize the hard work, labor, and the entire network and community that worked to get it to you, it forces you to change your outlook. Getting to know a local farmer, butcher, fishmonger, or cheesemonger and learning how your food got from the farm to your fork will force you to eat more mindfully. It is easy to throw away food if there is no understanding or appreciation of the hard work it takes to get from farm to table. Understanding even a little of the story behind the food that you eat will bring a whole new level of mindfulness to your eating habits.
6. Distinguish hunger from cravings.
Understanding your reason for eating will help you to be more mindful of the food you eat. Are you actually hungry, or are you bored, tired, or angry? Are you hungry or are you simply having a craving? If you are able to take a moment and ask yourself this simple question you will be able to determine if you actually need to eat or not. The more in tune you are with your body the more easily you will be able to identify your hunger cues and improve your practice of mindful eating.
The Bottom Line
Remember that mindful eating is a practice that you will forever be working on, however working to implement some of these simple strategies will help you learn how to practice mindful eating.