Turn off autopilot

It's near impossible to go a day and not hear about what you should or shouldn't eat.  On the morning news you hear drinking coffee is bad for you...right after polishing off your second cup.  At lunch, your coworker tells about her new gluten free diet, as you pick over your lunch of whole grain pasta and vegetables, which you thought was healthy until about 5 minutes ago.  After work, you relax in front of the tv to a recorded episode of Dr. Oz.  Today, he's discussing the health benefits of a strange Indian berry you've never heard of before.  You google it and find you can have it delivered straight to your door for the low low price of $79 plus shipping and handling. Sometimes the debate of what and what not to eat can become information overload.  Between 6 years as a dietitian and 5 months of blogging, goodness knows I've contributed my fair share to the conversation.  Although I talk about it on a daily basis, I'm ashamed to admit I haven't written nearly enough about how to eat.

Eating is a biologically natural activity.  Food, all food, provides energy.  Every cell in our body absolutely requires food to function properly.  If we weren't meant to eat, then we'd be covered with little green leaves so we could photosynthesize.  Clearly, this is not the case.  Food is supposed to taste good.  We have these fancy little things called taste buds specifically designed for us to separate food from...well, not food.  Our bodies are designed to signal our brain when we're hungry and when we've had enough to eat.  The act of eating should be a pleasant and enjoyable activity, dare I say, even a highlight of your day?
Sadly, the normality and pleasure of eating is often lost.   Confusing nutrition information and food labeling override our natural ability to distinguish what foods are nourishing.  Our fast-paced lifestyle has turned mealtime into a chore to be completed as quickly as possible, so we can move on to something seemingly more important.  The advent of processed convenience foods has dumbed down our taste buds to the point where we only recognize salt, sugar and fat.  Supersize portions have taught us to ignore the signals that tell us we're full.
Most of us could use a good lesson in how to eat.  I know, didn't you learn that when you were, like, an infant?  Let's call it a refresher course!  Mindful eating is a helpful technique that can be used to relearn how to eat and find pleasure in eating.  It was adapted from Buddhist teachings by a group of psychologists and dietitians.  It's not a diet, rather principles of eating that teach to deliberately pay attention while eating.  Although it's not specifically designed for weight loss or healthy eating, most people find they choose healthier foods in smaller portions after practicing mindful eating.
So as with any lesson, there's homework.  Gah!  You thought you were done with homework, didn't 'cha?  Read on for my favorite exercises in mindful eating.

The Fifteen Minute Rule "Don't put anything else into your mouth, like your projects, your worries, just put the carrot in." ~ Thich Nhat Hahn

Before eating, decide if you are actually hungry or not.  Maybe you're simply bored/anxious/depressed/etc, in which case you shouldn't eat. Or maybe you're bored/anxious/depressed/etc AND hungry, in which case you should.  If you're an emotional eater, it can be difficult to distinguish emotions from real hunger.  To better differentiate the two, try practicing the 15 minute rule.  If you feel hungry, but you're not sure if it's true hunger, try doing something else for about 15 minutes (watching the food network doesn't count).  Food cravings typically last about 15 minutes.  If you can distract yourself with another activity, preferably one that occupies your mind and addresses the emotion you're feeling, you may find the craving goes away.  For example, if you're feeling anxious, go for a 15 minute walk with your dog.  Of if you're feeling depressed, call a friend.  After 15 minutes, if you still feel hungry, eat something.

Hunger Scale Many people recognize only extreme hunger or extreme fullness.  They wait so long between meals that by the time they sit down to eat, they're ravenous.  And when  you're ravenous, there's no way you're practicing portion control.  If you're like me, you're shoveling food in as quickly as possible to fill that empty pit in your stomach.  Before you know it, you're looking like this in your skinny jeans.

The hunger scale can be a helpful tool for learning to recognize your body's signals to eat.  Throughout the day, even when  you aren't feeling hungry, ask yourself how hungry you feel on a scale of 1-10.  Before you eat and while you're eating, ask yourself the same question.  You'll start to notice your body actually tells you when it needs nourishment and when you've had enough.  Once you feel comfortable detecting these signals, aim to keep yourself withing a range of 3-7.  When you hit a 3 or 4, which indicates mild to moderate hunger, eat something.  Eat slowly and consciously enough to notice when you hit a 6 or 7 on the hunger scale, meaning you are comfortably full and satisfied, not popping buttons off on your pants.

Plate-Table-Chair Rule
We've all done it before. You're sitting in front of the tv with a pint of ice cream.  Minutes later you look down to see the bottom of the container.  "Did someone steal bites when I wasn't looking?"  Or if you were me last weekend, while involved in an intense game of phase 10 (and winning for once!) you realize you've eaten 7 handfuls of barbeque chips, and haven't tasted a single one!

It’s impossible to be conscious of what (or how much) you’re eating if driving, watching tv, in front of your computer at work or any other place that's not your kitchen table.  You won't notice it when your body signals it's had enough nor will you feel at all satisfied after eating if you haven't savored your food!

I can't remember where I first heart this rule, but it immediately struck me as genius.  Only eat if you are sitting on a chair, at a table with food on a plate.  Late night TV snackers, you'll find this trick especially helpful.  You'll be much less likely to snack if it means missing a minute of your favorite show.

Engage the Senses Humor me for a moment and try this exercise.  Pretend you're cooking my baked oatmeal recipe.  As you mix the dry ingredients, notice the floury texture of the oats.  Observe the bright red berries, maybe notice  subtle differences in the intensity of it's color.  Smell them - try to pinpoint as many layers of scent as you can.  When you slice the banana, notice it's tender, yet firm consistency.  While the oatmeal bakes, note the scent slowly filling the room and intensifying.  As you bite into the oatmeal, feel the warmth on your tongue.  Notice the spicy cinnamon,the caramelized flavor of maple syrup and each burst of tart berries.  As you chew, detect the difference in texture between the crunchy walnuts and creamy banana.

Okay, so I felt completely ridiculous writing that paragraph, but doing it is another story.  When you  fully engage your senses, cooking becomes a meditative experience, the perfect post-workday stress release.  You'll find more pleasure and satisfaction in the foods you eat when you notice the subtleties of flavor and texture in each dish.  You're less likely to get seconds if you're truly fulfilled with your first plate.  More than likely, you'll find yourself craving less processed foods, since their flavor is typically one-dimensional.  Personally, I noticed a huge difference in my taste perception after practicing this.  Before, I could tell if something was really high quality or of very poor quality, but I had a difficult time distinguishing in between.  Now I can pinpoint many distinct layers of flavor.  I can even taste the off flavors of additives in food, which definitely makes processed junk foods unappealing!

Start with a Blessing No matter your religious background (of lack thereof), saying a blessing, or giving thanks, is an important way to start each meal.  When eating mindfully, saying a blessing is a sign that it's time to stop what you were doing and focus on food.  If you stop to think how truly blessed you are to simply have food on the table, anxieties about eating seem awfully silly.  You should feel grateful for the love and hard work so many others put into each dish.  Maybe your spouse prepared it for you after a long day at work.  Or maybe the vegetables were bought locally and you were able to speak with the kindly farmer.  Even if your meal was entirely conventionally grown, it still an amazing thing to think about how much energy was spent on your nourishment.

If you don't come from a religious background, this may feel intimidating.  There are no rights or wrongs.  Simply give thanks to those who had a hand in your meal.  Reflect on your many blessings.  Or wonder at the complex process in which your body will turn your meal into energy.

Maybe you already say a blessing?  Switch it up a bit.  I find many people repeat the same few sentences each time, which can start to lose it's meaning.  Switch off who says grace each night.  Maybe share an anecdote from the day.  Do something that makes it special and different each time.

Now, unless you're a Buddhist monk, you'll likely find it's impossible to be mindful 100% of the time.  In the real world, there's a screaming child across the table (or in our house, a Bernese Mountain Dog nudging your arm).  There's those days that you can't pull yourself away from the desk to take a real lunch break.  Or you have class at night and only 15 minutes to throw dinner together.  In that case, please pay more attention to not chopping off your finger than the color of your zucchini.

I encourage you to try all of these exercises at least once.  You'll likely find some are more helpful than others, and some are easier to stick with than others.  Try to pick specific meals or days to commit to using these tools fully.  Pretty soon, you'll find yourself eating more mindfully without being mindful of it!

If you try any of these exercises, please let me know how it goes in the comments below!