How to Practice Mindful Eating

What is mindfulness? You’ve probably heard that word before. And what does it have to do with eating? Let’s get into what it is, why you might want to consider it, as well as simple mindful eating techniques you can try. 

Let’s start with a simple definition. Mindfulness is simply a different way of paying attention. You do it: on purpose, without judgment, and in the present moment. It’s not something you do per se, but a different way of being. Not practicing mindfulness because you don’t have time makes little sense. It isn’t a valid excuse when you think about what mindfulness is. While it may be hard to do it without judgment, it is something to strive for. Mindfulness is a work in progress and not about reaching a particular outcome(s). You will likely never perfect it, but that’s not the point anyway. Despite this, there is still much value in practicing mindfulness. 

Chewing the Fat
You may think that digestion begins in the stomach and intestines. But, the digestive process actually begins in the mouth with chewing. Most experts say we need to chew food 32 times before swallowing. Keep in mind that this is an average. Tougher foods will require more chewing, while lighter foods will require less. Make sure you’re taking small bites too. Chewing is important for a number of reasons. For one, chewing and saliva help breakdown and mix food in your mouth. They make it smaller so that it can more easily pass down your throat and into your stomach. If you’re like most people, you take less bites of your food, swallow it too early, all while getting ready for the next bite. 

Most of us scarf down our food. It’s as if we’re in a race to finish eating. We may feel a pressure to eat quickly because of obligations like work or school. It may also be a habit we’ve developed and don’t realize we even have. It takes the brain about 20 minutes to send out signals that you’re full. Here’s what happens. Your stomach releases a hormone called ghrelin which increases your appetite by making you feel hunger. So you eat. About 20 minutes after you start eating, it starts to release leptin, a satiety hormone from your body’s fat cells. If you’ve eaten enough, this is what makes you feel full. Both of these hormones send signals back and forth to the brain and regulate eating.

If you eat too quickly, you may eat too much before your brain realizes you’re full. It’s like making a wrong turn before your GPS realizes you’ve gone off track. That’s a recipe for overeating, making unhealthy choices, and consequences like bloating, weight gain and even acid reflux (which can cause chest pain and heartburn).

Benefits of Eating Slowly
Research shows that eating more slowly makes you feel fuller faster. You consume less calories that way. Fast eaters are up to 115% more likely to be obese compared to slower eaters. Eating slowly means you eat less so it helps you lose weight. Interestingly, weight loss isn’t the only benefit of eating slowly. It can help increase your enjoyment of food as you savor each bite more. It can also help to improve your digestion since you break down food more than you would if you ate quickly. This helps you to better absorb nutrients from food. Otherwise, blood flow to the digestive tract is reduced if you’re eating quickly or while stressed as the fight-or-flight reaction is triggered. Eating slowly also makes you feel calmer and more in control. Additionally, eating more slowly can reduce your levels of stress. Chronic stress may lead you to overeat and turn to comfort foods.

Eating Consciously
The world today is so full of distractions. Eating mindfully means that you simplify your eating. You don’t mindlessly scroll on your phone. You don’t watch YouTube videos. You don’t listen to music. You don’t read an email or a book. Ideally you don’t even talk. I know, these “restrictions” might seem impractical. But they aren’t punishments. Think of them more as experiments you can try. There’s a saying in Zen Buddhism that says: when you eat, just eat. In essence, mindful eating means that when you’re eating, you’re only focused on eating. Since this is something we rarely do, it might feel uncomfortable at first. You could start small and experiment with having one meal per day or week this way.

What to do
As you can see, eating slowly is important for many reasons. If it’s not absolutely necessary, leave your cell phone out of arm’s reach. Even better, place it in another room and in silent mode so you don’t get notifications. Eating a meal without external stimulation might seem boring. But it’s anything but that once you get into it. You’ll start to notice the subtleties in eating. For instance, you have the bandwidth now to notice things about your food that you haven’t before.

Eating Slowly and mindfully
So what’s the big secret to eating mindfully? Here are a few mindful eating techniques that are easy to apply:

  1. Remembering to practice mindfulness while eating is the first step. If you need a reminder, then a strategically placed sticky note might help. You could also set a reminder in your phone.  
  2. Listen to your hunger cues. How does your body tell you when you’re hungry? How do you know you’re not really thirsty? Come to the table with an appetite, but not like you’re dying from hunger. Notice what triggers you to eat when you’re not hungry. This helps you to create a space between a trigger and your response. This buys you the time and freedom to choose your reaction.
  3. Appreciate your food. Before eating, pause to think about everything it took to get your meal to your table. Find a way to silently express gratitude towards it.
  4. Remember to breathe. You can take a few deep breaths before eating to center yourself. This can help to alleviate stress. Consider taking breaths between taking bites too.
  5. When you start eating, you can set a timer for 20 minutes. Try not to finish your meal before the timer goes off. Pace yourself if you have to. And stop eating once you feel full.
  6. Eat intentionally rather than automatically. This means that you’re really paying attention and are more present.
  7. Really notice your food. Focus all of your senses on it rather than focusing externally. Take note of its colors, flavors, scents and textures. Even if you eat the same foods over and over, they will be slightly different each time. See if you can tune into these small differences.
  8. Realize that your mind will drift while you’re practicing mindful eating. Try to make peace with the fact that this will happen. That’s just the mind’s nature. Whenever this happens, gently bring your focus back to eating. Do this as many times as this happens without judgment.
  9. Try to put your fork or spoon down in between bites while chewing. Getting ready for the next bite when you’re actively chewing something means you’re not in the moment. It’s no different than taking out your car keys well before you get to your car.
  10. After you’re done eating, notice how you feel. How does it compare to when you’ve eaten quickly? 

How can you practice mindful eating? Be sure to tell us in the comments…