Food is our primary life source. It’s delicious, powerful, has the ability to prevent and cause disease, and can make us simultaneously feel in and out of control. Unfortunately, over time, we have cultivated dysfunctional relationships with food. These relationships, however, do not have to be permanent. Incorporating mindful practices into your eating provides you with opportunities to learn, grow, and love the way that you eat on a daily basis! Eating mindfully can help you find what works for you as an individual and encourage you to embrace a sustainable lifestyle.
Mindfulness, in the context of eating, simply means: exposure and awareness. You expose yourself to new foods or eating situations and then reflect on how they make you feel. Your experiences with eating occur while you eat and after you eat, both short-term and long-term in regards to your energy, cravings, overall health, and medical conditions. Eating mindfully means asking yourself the following, from both physical and emotional perspectives:
- How do I feel WHILE I’m eating? (Each food item, each meal)
- How do I feel IMMEDIATELY after I’m done eating?
- How do I feel for the rest of the day after eating?
- How do I feel LONG-TERM after eating specific foods?
- Is the way I’m eating SUSTAINABLE long-term?
By asking these questions consistently, you allow yourself to obtain direct feedback through introspection, a process that is much more helpful in evaluating eating behaviors than approaches that employ deprivation or guilt.
Here are six key ways to stay connected to your daily food consumption and eat more mindfully:
- Pay attention to your hunger, energy and craving levels throughout the day
- Ask: Am I actually hungry right now? Or, am I bored, irritated, annoyed, or doing something tedious? Do I want to distract myself with food?
- If your answer is that you are not hungry, then why eat? If you’re feeling distracted, bored, or lethargic, take a walk or drink some water to avoid mindlessly eating to fill an emotional void.
- Observe and reflect upon the relationship between your eating and the patterns in your energy levels throughout the day. Create awareness through reflection!
- Reflect on your eating process
- Ask: Am I enjoying the PROCESS of eating? Do I only have 10 minutes to eat lunch? How does this make me feel? How does this affect my opportunity to be mindful? Can I put off eating until I may have more time to enjoy my meal?
- It can help to write down how you feel after eating various foods. If the practice is new to you, this can help you identify patterns over time. Create awareness in the present moment!
- Eat when you are hungry; Stop eating when you feel full
- Don’t allow the clock to dictate when you eat. This may go against everything you have been taught: “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!” and “Lunchtime is at 12PM!” Perhaps these rules work with your lifestyle, but that’s up to you to decide.
- Allowing eating behaviors to be dictated by a clock does not create self-awareness; it’s the opposite of being mindful and doesn’t allow you to check in with what your body is telling you.
- Outside of medical reasons that require you to time your meals, it’s important to teach yourself how to differentiate between actual hunger and the desire to eat. Observe the effects of eating or not eating on your body and let yourself feel hunger!
- Identify your “ideal” foods
- Identify key foods that taste good, make you feel great, and keep your energy and hunger levels in a good space throughout the day, then try to incorporate them daily. Keep them on hand for situations where you are out of your comfort zone or feel that you may go off routine.
- Use these foods to build sustainable habits. If you hate eating spinach for lunch, you’ll never be able to sustain that behavior, so find something else that works. This takes experimentation and will organically happen as you build self-awareness around your eating.
- Expose yourself to your “triggers”
- It’s common to think that avoiding “trouble” foods gives us control over our reaction to them. If you have a problem controlling your consumption of a particular food, you may be inclined to not keep it in the house, because if you’re not exposing yourself to it, you won’t be inclined to overindulge. By doing this, however, you create a false sense of perceived control. You feel great because you think you have control over a “trigger” food, until you see it at a friend’s house or at work. Now what? You are now exposed to something you’ve been depriving yourself of and your perceived sense of control is gone. Deprivation can inevitably lead to binging somewhere down the road, which creates guilt and more deprivation.
- What if, instead, you kept a “trigger” food in your kitchen and gave yourself permission to eat it whenever you want? Now you are allowing yourself to be exposed to and build coping mechanisms around the trigger, which makes you less likely to binge or feel helpless when it suddenly appears in your life later. Exposure is initially uncomfortable, but it allows you to reflect on the reasons behind your triggers and ways to build healthy relationships with them.
- Work to Remove Guilt from Your Eating Process
- This takes a lot of patience and the right mindset, but as you incorporate mindfulness practices into your daily eating habits, you will find that you will start thinking about food-based guilt more deeply. This is an entire topic on its own, though, which we will address in another post.
If you are new to eating mindfully, it may seem overwhelming, but like any new strategy, it takes time and patience to effortlessly change your mindset. The key is to start building awareness around what works for your mind and body. Initially, you may want to refer to these steps daily, but as you practice them consistently, eating mindfully will become more natural. The best part about building awareness is that you will gradually begin to feel more confident with your eating habits and will start to build a wonderful relationship with food!