In today’s busy world, mindless eating is all too easy and can be all too common around the holidays. Breakfast is quickly put together so we’re not late for work. Lunch is consumed in front of a computer, or out of a bag while driving. Snacks come from a vending machine. And dinner is a free-for-all depending on the family’s busy schedule. We eat quickly. We eat when we’re stressed. We consume without stopping to think how these foods ended up in front of us. In other words, we eat mindlessly. And in doing so, we tend to overeat, we don’t get as much pleasure from food as we should, we are less likely to choose healthy foods and our health often suffers as a result.
Recognizing this, many people are pushing back against mindless eating and promoting the concept of mindful eating. Mindful eating is the exact opposite of mindless eating. It’s slow. It’s deliberate. It’s paying attention to when we’re hungry and when we’re full. It’s having an understanding of where our food came from and how it was produced. It’s taking time to savor food and enjoy it.
Mindful eating allows people to get more pleasure from eating, can help people maintain a healthy bodyweight and can improve our overall relationship with food. If you have a bad relationship with food, think of mindful eating as couples therapy.
Although there are many ways to eat mindfully, here are five core principles to help us get started:
1 | Slow down
Slowing down allows us time to enjoy the food we’re eating. It also allows our stomach enough time to signal to our brain that it’s filling up and that we should stop eating, which prevents us from overconsuming. There are many suggested techniques to help people slow down while eating, such as chewing our food well, setting down our fork/spoon in between bites, having a conversation with people during meals and/or using chopsticks (unless you’re really good at using them). Or we can simply make a concentrated effort to eat slowly and savor each bite.
2 | Differentiate between physical and emotional hunger
Physical hunger comes from our gut. It is a signal that we need to eat something for sustenance and energy. Physical hunger should dictate when and how much we eat. Emotional hunger, on the other hand, arises from emotions such as stress, anger, depression, boredom or anxiety. These emotions often lead people to consume “comfort foods,” which tend to be rich in fat, sugar, and/or salt. We do this because rich foods like ice cream, chocolate and cheese cause a brief spike in the “feel-good” neurotransmitter—dopamine—in our brain. This may provide some short-term relief but doesn’t address the underlying stressor. If experiencing emotional hunger, address the underlying cause instead of using food as a crutch. Practice stress management techniques like meditation or yoga, get a massage, take a hot bath or go for a walk. If emotional eating is stemming from issues bigger than just day-to-day stress, consider seeking support or counseling.
3 | Listen to your body’s hunger/satiety signals
As mentioned above, tune into your body’s physical hunger signals and let this dictate when you eat. But avoid getting overly hungry, as we tend to make less healthy choices when we are ravenous. We should also be mindful of our satiety signals while we’re eating. Toward the end of a meal, are we eating because we’re still hungry or just because it tastes good? In Okinawa, Japan—a place that boasts some of the world’s healthiest and longest living people—there’s a cultural practice of not overeating. Elders often say the phrase “hara hachi bu” before eating, which translates to “eat until you’re 80% full.” I doubt any of them are sitting there adding up percentage points with each bite, but it serves as a reminder to eat until satisfied, then stop.
4 | Avoid distractions
We’ve all seen the couple sitting across from each other at a restaurant mindlessly scrolling on their phones rather than engaging in conversation or enjoying their food. Don’t be these people! Whether at a restaurant or at home, avoid distractions while eating. This means having sit-down meals at the dinner table and not in front of TVs, computers or phones. You’ll be amazed at how much more you’ll enjoy and appreciate your meal.
5 | Practice gratitude and self-love
Before we sit down to enjoy a meal, think about where our food came from and what it took to get on our dinner plate. Be grateful for all those involved in getting that food from the farm to our dinner table. Moreover, we should be grateful that we have enough food to eat, as many do not. And lastly, view healthy eating as an act of self-care. Choose healthy, nourishing foods because we love our self and want to take care of our body, not as punishment for overindulging the day before or as a “detox.” Food should be enjoyed, savored and appreciated.
As with any new behavior change, mindful eating will take practice. Try any or all of the suggestions above. Don’t let perfection get in the way of progress—any improvement is exactly that, an improvement.
About the Author
Cole Adam is a registered dietitian who earned his degree in Nutrition Science from the University of Wisconsin and completed his dietetic internship through the Indian Health Services. He has served as the nutrition expert on various hospital units, including critical care and oncology, and currently works in cardiac rehab. He is passionate about plant-based eating for health, the environment, and animal welfare.