In my five months of blogging, I'm ashamed to admit that although I talk a lot about what to eat, 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, except in the case of Poison Ivy from Batman, who looks like a total badass in her leaf outfit.
Food is supposed to taste good. We have these fancy little things called taste buds specifically designed for us to separate food from not food. The pleasure center in our brain lights up when we eat, an important motivator that kept humans alive in times of feast and famine. The act of eating is supposed to be an enjoyable activity, and dare I say, even a highlight of your day?
Sadly, the normality and pleasure of eating is often lost. Confusing nutrition information overrides 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 technique that can be used to relearn how to eat by teaching you to tune into all the senses while eating. It's not a diet, and although it's sometimes sold for weight loss or healthy eating, that's not that goal. That said, most people find they choose healthier foods in more appropriate portions after developing a mindful eating practice.
I like to think of mindful eating as a practice, a skill that you hone with time. Here's some of 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. If you identify as an emotional eater, it can be difficult to distinguish emotions from real physical 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. If you can occupy your mind with another activity, preferably one that 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, go eat something.
Many people only recognize 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 eating in a sensible way. If you're like me, you're shoveling food in as quickly as possible to fill that empty pit in your stomach.
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 where your hunger/fullness ranks on a scale of 1-10. Before you eat and while you're eating, ask yourself the same question. You'll start to get in touch with the subtle cues of hunger and fullness, and notice your body tells you when it needs nourishment and when you've had enough. Once you feel comfortable detecting these signals, aim to keep yourself within a range of 3-8. When you hit a 3 or 4, which indicates mild to moderate hunger, go eat something. Eat slowly and consciously enough to notice when you hit a 7 or 8 on the hunger scale, meaning you are comfortably full and satisfied, not popping buttons off on your pants.
We've all done it before. You're sitting in front of the tv with a pint of ice cream, and minutes later, you look down to see the bottom of the container. Did someone steal bites when I wasn't looking?
It’s impossible to be conscious of what (or how much) you’re eating while driving, watching tv, in front of your computer at work or any other place where you're distracted. 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 even tasted your food!
When you eat, aim to be sitting on a chair, at a table with your 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 satisfied with your first plate. More than likely, you'll find yourself craving less processed foods, since the flavor tends to be a bit more one-dimensional.
Start with a Blessing/Grace/Giving Thanks/Whatever You Want To Call It
No matter your religious background (of lack thereof), saying a blessing, or giving thanks, is a nice way to start each meal on a note of mindfulness and gratitude. It's 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'll feel grateful for the love and hard work so many others put into each dish.
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 prayer 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 90-lb 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. Mindful eating isn't an all or nothing thing - the more frequently you practice mindful eating skills, the more it becomes a natural part of your eating.
If you try any of these exercises, please let me know how it goes in the comments below!