“When we take a moment to sit and breath before we eat, we can get in touch with the real hunger in our body. We can discover if we’re eating because we are hungry or if we’re eating because it’s time to eat and the food is there. If we’re paying attention and taking our time, we also know how much to eat. Mindfulness is recognizing what is there in the present moment. What is there is the fact that you are still alive and your health is still there. The food in front of you is available to help nourish your body and keep you healthy.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
Why Mindful Eating?
What we eat and how we eat are two categories laden with emotion and often intensely connected to our identity whether we would like to admit it or not. I’m gluten free, I’m vegan, I’m paleo, I’m vegetarian, etc. are common self-descriptors in today’s food and health conscious culture. People often describe themselves regarding diet – at times to just make ordering out simple, or at times because what we eat is intricately connected to how we experience ourselves and for some, how we express our values.
When most of us think about food, I would argue we tend to think of the particular characteristics like nutritional content, taste, manufacturing, cost, environmental impacts, and convenience rather than the process of eating.
The media is full of loaded battles about what to eat. Amidst the inundation of nutrition claims and directives, the subject of how we eat is often neglected, perhaps because mindful eating doesn’t involve selling expensive supplements, food plans, or fancy ingredients. Anyone can begin to eat with increased awareness without the need for extensive instructions or products.
For many people eating mindfully will result in an increased ability to eat intuitively and make food choices that derive from a connection to what matters and nourishes the individual versus bending to the latest nutrition trend, marketing campaign, or fad diet. You will become connected to your true hunger as well as what nourishes, satiates, and energizes-sometimes that may be a cupcake, sometimes it may be a salad.
Developing a mindful eating practice may be particularly helpful for you if you find yourself:
- Eating rapidly without awareness
- Bingeing or numbing out with food
- Becoming overly hungry before eating
- Being unaware of hunger and satiety cues
- Eating when you are full or satisfied
- Eating when you experiencing uncomfortable emotions (stress, boredom, sadness, anxiety)
- Struggling to sit and eat a meal
- Eating when distracted
- Eating when you are multi-tasking
- Following rigid food rules
Increasing mindfulness while eating has many benefits including:
- Being connected to the present moment
- Increasing your awareness of hunger and satiety
- Moving toward eating intuitively
- Improving awareness of taste, texture, and flavor
- Reducing poor eating habits
- Making peace with food
- Being empowered to make food choices from connection to values
- Increased enjoyment of the atmosphere and people you are eating with
Mindful eating is not rocket science (yay!) and you can get started right now. You don’t need to take a course, buy any specific foods, or read a lengthy how-to manual. Developing mindfulness skills while eating will take time and commitment, but you can start today with as much time and energy you feel you have whether that is 30 seconds or an entire meal.
Mindful eating begins with bringing your awareness into the present moment while connecting to both your physical and emotional state. When you start this process, you may find yourself feeling awkward or uncomfortable as being silent, free from distraction, sitting down, and aware of yourself while eating is a novel experience. Perhaps you frequently read the paper, catch up on emails, drive to work, manage kiddos, or watch Netflix during meal times. Simply sitting at a table distraction free if the previous eating style has been your modus operandi might feel quite unusual and challenging.
Mindful eating takes practice so give yourself time to adjust and experiment with what works for you. Don’t feel like you need to practice mindfulness at every meal, just start with eating mindfully as much as you can or as time and space allows. As your awareness improves you will find yourself able to eat mindfully in all sorts of situations, despite the level of chaos surrounding you.
A word of caution, when you begin to practice mindful eating, you may find yourself experiencing strong emotions including uncomfortable feelings of sadness, anger, or frustration. If this resonates with you that’s ok, your relationship with food may have been masking painful experiences or emotions. When you slow down and increase awareness, these emotions finally have space to show up. The best thing you can do is give yourself permission to have the emotions and try not to turn them off, which will likely be the instinctual response.
On the other hand, you may also experience a sense of relaxation, peace, and satisfaction with food that has been absent for some time. No matter what emotions end up showing up when you begin to practice this way of eating, the key is just to allow them to be there without judgment.
Mindful eating is not about right or wrong but about the connection to the present moment, even if what shows up is uncomfortable. The goal of mindful eating is not to create another control strategy to avoid painful emotions and always feel good when eating, but to be willing to be present with yourself even if you don’t like what shows up.
“Eating is a practice. The practice must be nourishing for us, for our bodies, and also for our minds. If you eat but are bound by a hundred strings of worry, anger, irritation, stress, and projects, then these one hundred strings are pulling you in one hundred directions. Your food and experience of food will be empty and worthless. So you have to plan properly and have the intention that whenever you eat, you eat in freedom.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
7 Steps of Mindful Eating
Although you can practice mindful eating anywhere, when you are getting started it works best to find a distraction-free area where you can sit down and enjoy your meal. Put away your cell phone, turn off the computer, TV, and radio, hide the books and magazines, put away those files you were going to work on over lunch. It’s best to sit down at a table with your feet flat on the floor. If you can, make the environment comfortable by setting the table or perhaps lighting a candle. But don’t get too carried away with your surroundings as too much “ambiance” can be distracting.
Remember the intention is simple, to be present with yourself, which in reality you can do anywhere. The following steps walk you through a simple mindfulness exercise. If you find yourself struggling, be sure to read through the post on troubleshooting mindful eating.
1. Sit down and breath. As you sit down to a meal or snack, take at least three deep breaths to bring awareness to your physical body. Try not to rush through these breaths as this might be a temptation to get started. You don’t have to close your eyes, but some people find it easier to connect to their physical body with their eyes closed. Notice any sensations that may arise. You don’t need to try to change them, just notice. You may say something to yourself like “I notice I feel exhausted right now” or “I notice my neck is tight” or “I notice I feel hunger.” There is no right or wrong sensation to bring your awareness to, just make sure you acknowledge whatever sensation comes up.
2. Bring your awareness to your sensation of hunger or fullness. What do you notice? Are you hungry? Full? A little hungry? Satisfied? Moderately hungry? Acknowledge your hunger and satiety cues. Try naming your hunger on a scale of 1-10 with one being very full, five being not hungry or full, and ten being very hungry. If you are disconnected to these cues, you may find identifying this sensation tough. You may notice you aren’t sure if you are hungry or full, that’s ok, keep up with the mindfulness practice and eventually these cues will become more noticeable. Begin to notice if you are emotionally “full” and if this impacts your physical hunger.
3. Visually look at your food. What colors do you see? What textures do you see? What shapes do you see? Do you notice steam rising off your plate? Take time to “see” everything on your plate, visually taking in your food gives your brain a chance to register food and to send signals to your digestive system to prepare for the meal, which in turn can enhance digestion. If you’d like, go ahead and pick up the food to get a closer look. What do you see as your bring the food closer? How does the food feel in your hand? Take your time looking, pause for a moment on each item and name at least a couple of attributes.
4. Smell the aroma. Either bringing a bite of food close to your nose or smelling it from where you are, notice the smell of the food. What is the aroma? Can you distinguish between the different aromas on your plate? Take a few moments to deeply smell the flavors.
5. Reconnect to the present moment. If you’ve lost connection with the present moment or have trouble giving yourself space to notice and observe, take a couple of breaths to reconnect to what you are doing. Now it is time to start eating. Slowly bring a bite of food into your mouth. As you begin to chew notice the flavor of the food. What does it taste like? Can you distinguish between flavors? As you chew what texture do you notice? What is the temperature of the food? Pay attention to the tastes and textures as you continue to chew and eventually swallow. As you continue to eat pay attention to the bite sizes you are taking. Are you taking small bites or large spoonfuls? Try to aim for around a quarter size bite of food, not too small, not too big. Notice your hand bringing the food from the plate into your mouth. How quickly is your hand moving? What does the silverware feel like in your hand? Notice your pace, do you feel rushed or settled?
6. Continue to notice. Pay attention to the sensations that arise as you are eating. What are you aware of as you continue to eat? You can shift your awareness from chewing back to the smell or visual appearance of the food as you continue to eat. To start try to aim for 2 minutes of mindful eating and build up after that. As you eat, notice your pace? Are you speeding up or slowing down? Do you notice the sensation of hunger or satiety shifting as you eat? Do you find yourself getting distracted or feeling the urge to check your phone? If you do, bring yourself back to your breath or bring your attention to the sensation of your feet on the floor to reestablish the connection to your physical self. Shift your awareness back to mindful eating after reconnecting to yourself.
7. Check in with yourself when finished, reflect on the experience even if brief. What was that experience like for me? Did I notice any shifts in how I ate, what I tasted, or what I was aware of? Perhaps you had some moments of really tasting the food, or became aware of how quickly you usually eat or realized you haven’t been eating intuitively. Don’t make judgments about what came into your consciousness, just acknowledge it as information and be curious about it. Why do I eat so quickly? Why don’t I stop and taste my food? etc. You may be surprised by what you discover about yourself.
As you can see, mindful eating is heavy on noticing and being present. Mindful eating slows things down and allows you to engage your senses at a heightened level of awareness. As you begin to eat mindfully, you will notice your hunger and fullness cues become more pronounced. As a result, you can make more informed choices about when and what you eat because you become in tune with not only how hungry you are, but what is satiating and nourishing to you rather than what is right in front of you or getting caught up in what you “should” eat.
When you eat mindfully, you turn up the volume on your senses. This increased sensory awareness leads to increased smells, tastes, and textures. Mindful eating also exposes eating habits that you may not be aware of like eating very fast (which may lead to indigestion as you swallow air), eating while distracted, so you aren’t in touch with your satiety cues, or eating to fulfill an emotional need (e.g. because you are bored, tired, sad). Overall increased attunement to satiety, sensations, and emotional states connected to food may lead to a long sought after peace with food. Food no longer is a nemesis or something to conquer, but can be experienced as nourishment and fuel.
Lastly, developing mindfulness skills while eating can also improve your connection to the present moment in other areas of your life. As you work your mindfulness muscle while eating, you will likely notice yourself being more connected to the present moment as you spend time at your job, with your family, or with your friends.
No matter your nutritional preferences you can practice mindful eating. Give it a try, be curious, and enjoy.
If you are interested in learning more about mindful eating check out Thich Naht Hanh very simple and short book called “How to Eat” or Susan Albers “Eating Mindfully: How to End Mindless Eating and Enjoy a Balanced Relationship with Food.” Both authors have a variety of books on mindful eating that you may enjoy.
A Note On Mindful Eating and Eating Disorders
If you’ve struggled with or are struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating, practicing eating mindfully may present additional challenges due to feeling disconnected from hunger/fullness cues, engaging in eating behaviors and rituals, having ruminative thoughts about food, and experiencing urges to restrict, binge, or purge.
Mindful eating can be very helpful as part of your recovery journey, but in some cases, may be used in service of the eating disorder.
If you are in the midst of an eating disorder, I highly recommend working with a team of specialists (nutritionist, counselor, doctor) that can help identify and break through disordered behaviors to ensure the eating disorder does not use the concepts of mindful eating to further the disorder or maladaptive eating behaviors.
Remember that eating disorder recovery is possible and help is available!