Many people are searching for the "right way" to eat.
They look outside of themselves in every place imaginable for their answers and there are plenty of places to look. Diet books and diet gurus abound and wait around every corner to tell you how and what you should eat, while the very best guide is often overlooked.
The answers you seek can be found by looking inward. Your own body, and particularly your belly, can give you much of the information you need to eat for health, wellbeing, and pleasure.
The skill you'll need for looking inward is mindfulness. Mindfulness is defined as:
Paying attention to the present moment with curiosity and kindness
And, when you take that skill of mindfulness and apply it to eating, the body will tell you multitudes. It will tell you when it's hungry and full, it gives you information about what it would like to eat, it tells you when it's thirsty, and what food energizes or depletes it.
The only necessary requirement is that you learn to pay attention to the language of the body.
This might sound simple, but it does take some practice. The default mode of the brain, according to neuroscientists, is to be lost in thought - thinking about the past or the future - and this is where live about half of the time. That means that, without utilizing mindfulness, you miss out on a lot of what's happening in the present and in your body. In fact, I bet you've found yourself holding an empty bag of chips without even realizing you ate it. Or you've eaten a meal and not even really tasted it. Such a shame!
We have at least 3 times a day when we can sit down and enjoy one of the greatest pleasures in life - eating. So, follow along with these 6 steps and never miss the opportunity to delight in the food you eat again.
I call these 6 steps the BASICS of Mindful Eating.
They are guidelines - not rules - to help you become conscious about how, what, when and why you eat. Follow them as best you can and as often as you can, knowing that there will be times when it will be next to impossible to eat this way. Don't worry. There will be lots of opportunities for you to practice (you eat every day!).
Let these BASICS guide you to a way of eating that both pleases your taste buds and supports your body's health.
1. Breathe and Belly Check
The practice of breathing and checking in with your belly, before you unconsciously pop food into your mouth, is one of the most important practices you can learn with regard to eating. My general rule is:
Eat when you're physically hungry and don't eat when you're not.
While that might sound pretty simplistic, take a moment to consider how that would change how you eat. Remember it's a "general rule" as there will be times when you eat because it looks, smells, and tastes amazing. However, if you take the time to give yourself savory experiences with food when you are physically hungry, you will notice you need food less often (even though it's tempting) just because it's available or you're feeling down.
When you are stressed or experiencing a difficult emotion, you are particularly vulnerable to eating when you aren't hungry. According to research, the food you most often reach at these times is "comfort food," defined as food high in sugar or fat, or both. Stopping to check in with your belly helps you understand whether you are experiencing signs of stress or hunger. Signs of stress are often experienced in the belly and can be similar to the signs of hunger. However, stress registers as an upset stomach or like someone punched you in the gut while hunger is experienced more as emptiness, gurgling, rumbling, or growling.
The other major time that we eat when we're not hungry is when food is in the environment. And, food is ubiquitous. On one hand, it is quite fortunate that most of us have an abundance of food and, on the other hand, it is so available that we can find ourselves eating many times when the body has no need for nourishment.
So, the next time you find yourself reaching for food, take a few deep breaths. Breathing deeply activates the parasympathetic nervous system (the "rest and digest" response) and relaxes the body. When the body is relaxed you're more likely to correctly interpret your body's messages correctly and less likely to confuse stress with physical hunger. In addition, your body will be ready to receive and process the food you're about to eat.
Second, check in with your belly. Are there sensations of physical hunger? You might experience this as an empty feeling. Or there might be some growling or gnawing sensations. How hungry are you? What are you hungry for? Is there a particular type of food you'd like to have? You might want food or you might be thirsty. If there aren't signs of physical hunger you might be wanting something completely different than food. Your body might be telling you it needs to stretch, breathe a little more deeply, or take a walk. Listen to what your body is telling you.
If you're physically hungry, now is the time to decide what kind of food you want to eat. Do you want something salty, spicy, sweet, bitter, smoky, tart or savory? Which texture would you prefer: creamy, crumbly, frothy, gooey, moist, or mushy? Which temperature would you prefer: warm, hot, cool, or cold? What richness would you prefer: rich, light, thick, or thin?
2. Assess Your Food
Before you eat, take a few moments to look at the food you're about to consume. What does it look like? Notice the colors of the food. Does it look appealing? What does it smell like? Where does it come from? Is it a food you can recognize or is it so highly processed you don't know what it is? After you've considered all of these things, is this the food you really want?
You don't have to take a lot of time with this. A brief pause to assess your food can give you lots of information about it. As you take your first bite and continue to eat, reassess to see whether your first impressions were correct. If they were, then savor and enjoy! If the food isn't living up to your expectations, tuck that information away and next time pick something different.
3. Slow Down
About 25% of us are slow eaters.
The rest of us eat way too fast. Slowing down while you eat helps you to be aware of when you're getting full. It takes 20 minutes for the brain to register fullness in the belly. Most of us have eaten, gone on to the next thing, and forgotten what we even had to eat by the time the brain and body process the important signs of fullness.
Slowing down can help you enjoy your food more fully. Learn to slow down so you can tune in to the flavors and pleasures of your meal. You also might discover something quite extraordinary - that you don't like what you're eating, even if it's something you thought you liked your entire life. This happens quite frequently when people first start practicing mindful eating as the flavors of the food become so much more apparent when you slow down and pay attention.
Simple methods to help you slow down include putting down your fork or spoon between bites, pausing and taking a breath between bites, and chewing your food completely. If you are eating with others, try talking and listening without having your eating utensil constantly in hand and notice how it changes the pace of the meal.
Slowing down while you eat can help remind you that life isn't a race to the end. Enjoy the journey by taking a little more time for your dining pleasure.
4. Investigate Your Hunger Throughout the Meal (Particularly Halfway Through)
There are a lot of reasons why people overeat.
A big reason is that many of us tend to do a lot of other things while we're eating. You eat while you're on the computer, while you're reading a book, while you're watching TV, and while you're socializing with others, to name a few.
To be a mindful eater, it is important to be aware of your distractions and to keep bringing your attention back to eating, tasting, and assessing your hunger throughout the meal. Particularly halfway through your meal, stop and tune into the sensations in your stomach.
You may discover you are no longer hungry or that you no longer find the food appealing. Give yourself permission to stop or to continue based on how hungry you are, not on old rules like "you need to clean your plate."
If you stop before the food is gone, you can put the food away for later or throw it away. Your body is not a waste can. It is decidedly healthier for you not to eat food that your body doesn't need. In the process, you will learn how much the body wants and serve it accordingly.
Remember, cultures with the longest-lived people have traditions of only eating until the stomach is 80% full.
So, leave a little space in your belly and you'll be glad you did!
If the food is really tasty, you might have the urge to keep eating even when you're full. Be aware that the mind always wants more tasty food, but letting the belly have the final say on when to stop will help you feel better and not overeat.
Remember, you can always have tasty food the next time you sit down to eat. You don't have to have it all now.
5. Chew Your Food Thoroughly
Because we live in a fast-paced, hurry-up world we often swallow our food after a chew or two, but there are so many reasons why this is not a good idea.
Chewing plays many important functions for your body:
- Chewing promotes better dental health.
- Chewing sends messages to your brain that you are eating and will be getting full soon.
- Chewing thoroughly helps your stomach process your food, so you will be less likely to have problems with digestion.
- And, most importantly, while you're chewing, your food mixes with enzymes in the saliva which allow the body to extract the greatest possible amount of nutrients from the food you eat. The nutritional value of conventional food, particularly highly processed food, is already pretty low. So chewing helps your body feel nutritionally fed and you will feel satisfied more easily.
You don't have to make chewing into a miserable experience. Simply chew until the food is broken down. Remember all the good things you're doing for your body and let this practice be a new healthy habit that you incorporate into each meal.
6. Savor Your Food
What better reason to eat than to enjoy ourselves? Eating is a pleasurable experience that we can have at least 3 times a day. When your body says it's time to eat, give it something that you can enjoy.
Savoring your food means taking time to choose food that you really like and that would satisfy you right now - food that honors your body and your taste buds.
Savoring your food happens when you are fully present for the experience of eating and the pleasure that it can bring. Be aware of the variety of sensations available in each bite. If you really like it, savor it. If you can't savor it, why eat it?
When you give yourself food that you enjoy on a regular basis, you also learn that you don't have to eat everything in one sitting. Savoring doesn't mean overeating.
Enjoy your food and eat the right amount for your body - this way of eating will provide you with a well-rounded, pleasurable experience.
As you can see, mindful eating isn't about eating a particular kind of food and doesn't set any foods up as "good" or "bad." Mindful eating is about using all of your senses to choose and eat food that is both satisfying to you and nourishing to your body, becoming aware of physical hunger fullness cues to guide your decisions to begin and end eating, and learning your own unique way of eating that is guided from within.
Savor every bite and enjoy this wonderful activity we do each day - eat!
Take it further...
Listen to episode 9 from season 1 of the Forever Break podcast for more in-depth advice from Dr. Lynn Rossy.