When was the last time you sat down at a table and had a meal without being in a rush or glancing at a screen? We are notoriously busy and short on time. Many of us eat on the go, in the car or have lunch at our desk. Relaxing in the evening often means dinner in front of the TV. We might not even realise how disconnected we are from our bodies or how distracted and therefore eat to cope with boredom, stress or other difficult emotions. Are we really hungry and if yes, how much so? Do we need a substantial meal or a light snack? What food is our body actually craving? Something hot or rather something cold? Fresh vegetables and fruit or carbs or something fatty? And if we go for that slice of chocolate cake or the bag of crisps, are we truly tasting and enjoying or just mindlessly stuffing ourselves with them?
Mindful eating invites us to snap out of the autopilot mode and come into our bodies to savour the experience of eating – without guilt or restrictions. This blog post explains what mindful eating is, what benefits it has and introduces a few mindful eating techniques that will hopefully help you get started if you’re interested in giving it a try.
What is Mindful Eating?
Mindful eating is not another diet or fad. It can be described as a holistic approach to transform how and why we eat. It means being intentional and present when we choose our food, prepare the meal and while we eat. You bring awareness to your body and your plate and engage all your senses to experience the taste, smell, texture, sound and feel of whatever food you consume. Mindful eating can help us gain a deeper appreciation for what we eat and how it nourishes our body. It is not at all about restricting yourself in what or how much you eat and it most certainly is not a quick fix. However, practicing mindful eating has the potential to fundamentally transform your relationship with food and lead to long-lasting changes.
Benefits of Mindful Eating
Food and eating are loaded topics theses days. We are constantly bombarded with ads that want us to try a new cereal or another fast food burger as well as overt and covert messages about how our bodies are supposed to look like and offered quick fixes on how to achieve that. What was considered healthy yesterday might not be healthy anymore today. There are tens of thousands of studies out there and over the decades scientists have contradicted themselves and one another and confused us with their research results. We can add to that the family and wider community environment we grew up in and the relationship with food we got modelled in that context. It’s ironic how much many of us think and maybe even stress or worry about food and eating and how little time we actually set aside for the experience of it and how absent we often are when we feed ourselves.
Mindful eating doesn’t want to achieve anything apart from us being present when we choose, prepare and eat our food. It’s about bringing awareness and intention to the act of eating. It doesn’t ask us to eat less or more, up our number of meals per day or introduce fasting into our schedule or avoid certain foods in favour of others. When we practice mindful eating we might become aware of certain stories we tell ourselves about food and eating. It’s not even about that either. Let’s drop the stories. Immerse yourself in the experience instead. Bring curiosity to your body and your plate. From that place you can respond to food based on what your senses tell you rather than what you’ve been programmed to believe and feel. And eating might become an act of conscious pleasure.
Mindful eating has a number of benefits. It can
- Reduce anxiety
- Help with unhealthy habits around eating
- Lead to sustainable weight loss
- Help you make healthier choices
- Improve digestion
Yet these benefits are merely byproducts. When you practice mindful eating you slowly learn to trust the natural intelligence of your body again.
Mindful Eating Techniques
Mindful eating starts long before you’re hungry – shopping and meal prep
When you make your shopping list, ask yourself why you are buying certain products but not others. Not to judge yourself or feel guilty. Just to bring awareness to how you select your food. Maybe your grandma always had that brand in her cupboard? Maybe you grew up eating Braeburn and Pink Lady apples and simply never tried any others? Maybe a colleague told you about that special cheese he tried? Maybe you like the colour or texture or flavour or how it makes you feel? You can also become curious about where things are grown or produced. Is what you are buying currently in season? How far has it travelled? Maybe you are lucky enough to have a farmer’s market nearby that you can go to and where you can ask questions.
When you prepare your meal you can for example be mindful of how your potato changes when you boil it, or slice it and fry it in a pan or cut it into chunks and bake it in the oven. How does heat affect consistency and flavour of whatever you’re cooking. You might want to experiment with adding new spices or adding your usual spices at a different point during the cooking process. You could also become curious about why you cook the way you cook. Who taught you? Again, this is not to start second guessing yourself about every choice you make around food but to help you become and stay aware and present with what and how you are nourishing yourself.
What are your body’s hunger signals?
You are about to buy or prepare some food. Check in with yourself if you are actually hungry and how you know that. Become mindful of the unique signals your body uses to let you know it’s time for the next meal. Maybe there’s rumbling in your stomach? Maybe you feel a bit lightheaded because your blood-sugar levels are low? Maybe you can feel yourself becoming more impatient and anxious or even a bit grumpy?
Take your time
Scientists agree that it takes roughly 20 minutes for the body and brain to realise that you are full. If something is incredibly delicious or we scarf our food down because we are in a hurry or ravenous, we might miss these signals and end up overeating. We have all done it and know how uncomfortable it is. But taking your time is not just about the amount of food we ingest.
Mindful eating is very much about engaging all our senses and savouring the experience. And that takes time. Start by looking at your food – take in the colours and shapes and texture visually, e.g. by running your fork through the mashed potatoes, examining the pattern on or fibres of your piece of meat or letting a bit of soup drip from your spoon back into the bowl. Put a single food item, e.g. a piece of carrot, on your fork and smell it. Hold it lightly against your lips without putting it in your mouth yet and become aware of how your body reacts. Put a bite in your mouth but don’t chew it yet. Just get accustomed to what that piece of food feels like on your tongue and against your gum. When you start chewing pay attention to the flavour as it unfolds in your mouth as well as the texture and how it feels to chew it. Take it all in before you swallow and when you do, notice how it slides down your throat and how you feel afterwards. Then experiment with flavour and texture combinations when you put two different food items on your fork or spoon, e.g. a bit of warm goats cheese and a piece of sun-dried tomato. Give different foods a try and see if you like or dislike or if you feel neutral about them when you pay such close attention. Be open for your experience to differ from what you liked and disliked in the past.
When you sit down for a meal try to make sure you have at least a 15 minute slot to enjoy your food. Ideally, you don’t want to be hassled to get to an appointment or a meeting. You also don’t want to read a book, magazine, the newspaper, catch up on emails or stare at any screen whatsoever. When you sit down with your plate it’s “me time” and you want to honour that by being as present as you can. If you are stressed or anxious about whatever happened or is yet to happen on that day, take a moment to feel your feet on the ground, the weight of the cutlery in your hands, take in the shape, size and colour of your plate and then focus your senses on the food in front of you.
Set and setting:
Become aware of your frame of mind and where you are at emotionally before a meal. You don’t need to analyse your mood, just notice it. You can decide to have one mindful meal a day or practice mindful eating three times per week – whatever works best for you.
When you sit down for one, though, also be intentional about where you eat as well as the plate and cutlery you choose. You might want to try using chop sticks, especially when you are not used to them as it will automatically slow you down. Or eat with a teaspoon rather than with a big one. Or use your left hand if you are a righty.
You could experiment further with having two plates, one for serving and one for eating. Put as much food as you want on the former but only transfer however much you will eat within the next five bites onto the latter. Check in with yourself if you are still hungry after you ate half, two-thirds and three-quarters of your serving plate. It’s totally ok if you eat everything you put on the serving plate and even if you’re going for seconds. It’s more about paying attention to the signals in your body as you are slowly becoming fuller.
It is lovely when we get to share a meal with others and engage in conversation while we do so. Just try and stay present enough – opposed to being engrossed in what’s happening around the table and absentmindedly eating what’s in front of you – to bring your attention back to your food whenever you put some in your mouth. Enjoy it with all your senses.
Mindful Meals at New Life Portugal
At New Life Portugal, we know about the power of mindfulness and practice many different techniques– among them yoga, meditation and mindful eating. We have a dining hall where we come together as a community to eat three meals per day. We practice what we call “noble silence” during breakfast to eliminate distraction through conversation. The silence sharpens our senses and allows us to be more present with our food. We serve minimally processed foods and grow some of the produce we use ourselves while trying to source anything else as locally as possible. Our aim is to serve healthy, nourishing meals that are rich in flavours and contain a wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetables. We invite our guests to help caring for our crop and harvest some of the things we grow. If you are curious about our holistic approach to sustainable wellbeing and our programs, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us to learn more about how we might be able to help you on your journey.