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What is mindful/intuitive eating?
In order to understand what mindful eating is, we need first to understand what mindfulness is. Mindfulness simply involves deliberately paying attention, and being fully aware of what is happening both internally (mind, body and heart) and outside yourself (your environment). It is awareness without criticism or judgement.
Mindful eating simply involves paying full attention to the experience of eating, by connecting more deeply with, and enjoying your food, before, during and after your meal.
Mindful eating is a life skill we can all learn, which leads to a more satisfying, healthy and enjoyable relationship with food. Unlike food rules or diets, with mindful eating there is no right or wrong ways to eat, but instead varying degrees of consciousness about what we are eating and why. The goal of mindful eating then, is to base our meals on physical cues, such as our bodies’ hunger signals, instead of emotional ones (comfort eating).
Why is it so important to eat mindfully?
Mindful eating enables us to hear what our body is telling us about hunger and satisfaction. It helps us become aware of ‘who’ out of the mind, body and heart is really hungry, and how and what is best to nourish it.
This is important because the busyness of life today often keeps us in our head, instead of the present which equates to mindless eating. Mindless eating eventually becomes habitual, and can lead to food addiction which is the most prevalent type of addiction today. Addiction is simply the opposite of awareness.
How can we eat more mindfully?
There are lots of way to eat more mindfully. Here are a few of my favourite tips…
Remove all distractions – Life is full of distractions and it is not uncommon for families to eat whilst fiddling with their phones, having the TV blaring in the background, reading or anything else. Such distractions make it very difficult to eat mindfully, so make it a common practice to stay distraction free when you eat.
It is important to begin each meal with a thanksgiving or prayer. It doesn’t matter whether you verbalise this out aloud or if you pause and reflect to yourself before eating. What is important is that you give thanks for your food, because through doing so, you become more mindful and appreciative of the food you are eating. For example, I don’t eat a lot of meat but if and when I do, I always pay respect to/honour and give thanks to the animal for giving up their life for me. It’s best to give thanks before your meal rather than after it.
Our eating habits are becoming increasingly fast paced just like our lives, with many of us often eating on the go. The problem with doing so is that it can be hard to notice what you are even eating, let alone truly savouring all the different sensations of eating it. Remember, it’s not a race – take the time to savour and enjoy your food. By doing so you are more likely to receive ‘stop-eating signals’ and notice when you are full. You’ll chew your food more, digest it more easily and find yourself noticing flavours you might otherwise have missed. If you have young children, make a game of who can chew their food the longest. Otherwise eating with chopsticks is another great way to slow things down (especially if you use them like me).
Eat in silence
Silence helps you to connect more deeply with what you are eating by anchoring you more in the present. Aim to eat at least some of your meals/snacks in silence, whether it’s at home, at work, outdoors or anywhere else. If you are too busy for a complete mindful meal, then even savour a few sips of tea in complete silence when possible.
Pay attention to your experience around eating
By paying attention to what you are experiencing around eating, you can make better choices. There are three things you should pay attention to, in order to eat more mindfully:
Pay attention to your food – Take a few breaths and a few seconds to look at your food before you commence eating. Smell its aroma, feel its texture, notice its colour and the temperature of the food. Then take a bite and really notice how each individual flavour tastes, the sounds it makes and the way it feels in your mouth. The idea is to enjoy every meal with all of your senses.
Pay attention to your body – As well as connecting to the food itself, it’s also equally important to pay attention to the experience of food in your body and how it makes you feel. When you feel hunger, observe how it feels and where you feel it. Do the same when you feel full. Is your body really hungry or is it simply your mind that is hungry/craving food? So often we mistake thirst for hunger because we are dehydrated. If you do feel physical hunger, observe what your body craves. Which food do you need? It takes practice to distinguish between what your body actually needs versus what your mental cravings are wanting. If you pay attention, your body will let you know what food/nutrients it needs, and what you should be eating less of. If your body is not consistently craving whole, natural and healthy foods, then you are not paying enough attention to it.
Pay attention to your mind – It’s also equally important to pay attention to your mind too. Without judgement, simply observe when your mind gets distracted from away from what you are eating. Watch for the impulses that arise when you begin to eat some food; the impulse to look at your phone, to count the calories, to obsess about food groups, to turn on the TV and so forth. Simply observe these impulses and continue eating. Notice how eating is affecting your mood and your emotions as well as how your emotions like anxiety influence the way you eat. Simply stay witness to the many sensations and thoughts that come up as you eat and then just let them go. Always gently return to the present moment. The more you do this, the more you become aware of how your thoughts may be influencing your food choices, enabling you to identify triggers and replace not so good choices with healthier ones. Eventually, you will begin to regain the sense of ease and freedom with eating that you had in childhood, which is how you should be eating.
Let innate intelligence guide you
Every day we are bombarded with messages of what we should and shouldn’t be eating. It could be from the latest medical research, celebrity hype, or any one of the thousands of diets and meal plans available. The problem being that none of this advice is unique to what your body needs. This is why you have an innate intelligence which knows exactly what ‘your body’ needs to be nourished. So before you listen to anyone else, access your innate intelligence by intuitively listening to and TRUSTING both what your body wants and needs from moment to moment. This can be challenging in the beginning if trusting your body is not something you are used to doing, out of fear that you will consume a family block of chocolate and 2 bottles of wine in one sitting. The more you do this, the healthier and more regulated you’re eating habits will become. Intuitive eaters eat when their body requires nutrition and stop eating when they are satisfied, even if that means leaving food on the plate.
Remember the process, not the event
On the occasions that you do have a doughnut, chocolate or wine, never let this turn into an excuse for blowing/ruining your entire food plan. This will happen, and when it does it is important that you don’t give these setbacks the power to dictate the rest of your evening or week. Instead, use it as a catalyst to reaffirm your commitment towards doing better tomorrow. Remember that every new meal is an opportunity to practice mindful eating once again and becoming more present. This is easy when you treat each moment as its own moment. This is a new moment, and what you ate an hour ago has nothing to do with whether or not you make a choice that feels good and healthy for you now.
Practice mindfulness and self-compassion
‘Mindful people eat mindfully, Mindless people eat mindlessly.’
Put simply, if you are not a mindful person, then you will always struggle to have a healthy relationship with food. This is true regardless of how well you ‘try’ to do all of these other tips. I say this because mindful eating is often portrayed as a simple trick to reduce food intake, when in actual fact it is something much deeper. It is a spiritual practice which requires you to anchor yourself in the present moment regardless of what you think your body wants, what you’re feeling, what type of food is available to you, what your emotional reflexes around food are, what you learned about food as a kid or anything else.
This can be difficult, which is why it’s often said that it’s easier to kick a heroin habit than a food habit. There will be many occasions when you will make unhealthy choices, and so when this happens it is important not to be self-critical, but rather realise that real change takes time and is built on many smaller changes. Beating yourself up won’t do you any favours, so be kind and give yourself some credit for wanting to make positive changes in your life. If you are like most people, then it may take you months or even years to master mindful eating. You need to invest a large amount of time, energy and resolve to fundamentally change your entire relationship with food, and even more notably, with yourself. You can do this by practising mindfulness which you can learn more about in my next post.
Whilst old habits of eating and not paying attention are not easy to change, once you get the hang of eating mindfully, you won’t even have to think about it; instead it will just occur naturally. Until then, you will need to be mindful of being mindful. Mindful eating really does have the power to change your life and your mental and physical health in every way so ensure to stick with it. Remember to listen, trust, be kind to and give your body whatever it needs. The more you can do this, the more successful you will be.
If you have an eating disorder or addiction, whilst mindful eating is an essential part of any therapy, it is important to always seek professional advice. The best place to start is with your GP.
Q.Are you a mindful eater, and if so what helps you eat more mindfully?
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