From mindless to mindful eating

Do you rush to get your lunch? Eating it quickly at your desk, to be able to get on with work? Or eating whilst still working on your computer or looking at your phone? Do you reach for quick solutions for your lunch, or have takeaways instead of cooking for dinner? Do you struggle with your weight, feel yourself drawn towards foods high in refined sugar, or eating a lot of processed food?
Maybe understanding a bit more about mindful eating would be helpful for you. But first some background as to what has sparked my interest in nutrition and mindful eating.

When I was little, I used to love going to the local library after school. I was a bookworm with a sweet tooth. So I would sit there for hours reading, having my head buried in a book and my hand buried in a sweetie bag. This created an early association for me, between eating and reading. It felt like a treat. But I was eating the sweets mindlessly, and would often eat beyond the point of enjoying the taste, leaving me with sugar crashes and aching teeth. It may not come as a surprise to you that I struggled with my weight as a child.

When I was little I was also told to stay at the table until I had finished my food. I remember hating meat and would feel the meat grow in my mouth as I was chewing it. This early learning experience of food also taught me to eat mindlessly, by ignoring satiation signals. By overriding when we feel we have had enough food and want to leave the rest, we teach ourselves to overeat by finishing when the plate is empty rather than when we are full. Research has highlighted that people tend to eat more whilst viewing TV, compared to when eating at a dinner table.

Babies innately have an ability to sense when they are full and can tell how much they need to eat of what things. Adults surrounding the babies override this by saying “one more spoon for mummy” or “here comes the choo choo train”, etc. We actively help babies, toddlers and children to learn to overeat, by ignoring these signals and instead replacing them with rules around how we should eat. “You should finish your food, because the children in Africa are starving” is a commonly heard statement. However, adults serving up large portions and making their children eat them out of guilt is hardly going to end world hunger, is it?

So if this is what it means to eat mindlessly, by being distracted by a book when you are eating, or ignoring your body signals and following rules around eating, what does it mean to eat mindfully?

Eating mindfully

Let’s start with a simple definition of mindfulness. The founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Jon Kabat-Zinn, says that mindfulness is “paying attention in the present moment, on purpose, non-judgementally”. If we can purposefully pay attention to our food and our bodies, in the here and now, without judgement, we would be eating mindfully.

Here is a list of tips for practising mindful eating:

1. Focus on your food without distraction – rather than working or watching TV at the same time
2. Use your senses to enjoy food – rather than just throwing it in without noticing
3. Listen to your hunger signals – rather than eating out of boredom or upset feelings
4. Stop eating when you are full – rather than emptying your plate
5. Eat real food which is nutritious – rather than food which is comfort foods or fad diets
6. Breathe as a way to aid digestion – rather than running around stressed and holding your breath
7. Drink enough water – rather than reaching for sweets or food because you are thirsty
8. Make conscious choices – rather than closing your eyes to where the food comes from

1. Focus on your food without distraction​
If we can focus solely on eating when eating, not allowing multi-tasking or distraction, we may find that we not only eat more to our hunger signals, but also that we will enjoy the experience of the food more. Sit down to eat at a table, rather than in front of the computer or scrolling on your smartphone. You will actually be more energetic and productive overall in the day if you are able to take breaks which are fully removed from the work.

2. Use your senses
Fully using our senses to experience food can have a powerful impact on how much we eat and how we feel about what we are eating. Using your five senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste) can heighten the experience of eating, by making the food taste richer and be more fulfilling. If you have ever tried to eat chocolate mindfully, you would see how you would be satisfied with a smaller amount than you would normally ‘need’ to eat to feel satisfied. Look at the colours and shapes of the food you eat, draw the scent of the food in with a deep breath and try to notice what flavours there are in the bite you take. Really let that piece of food wander around your mouth and become aware of any tendencies to rush and therefore miss out on the whole journey of the food. How does it feel on your lips and in your mouth? How does it feel to chew? How far down your throat can you feel the food before the flavour is lost?

If you are eating with your hands, really notice what it feels like to touch it. Is it smooth or rough? Warm or cold? What is the texture or consistency like? And lastly, how odd as it may sound, what sounds can you hear from the food? If you are about to eat an apple, becoming aware of the crisp sound produced as you bite into the apple. If you are using cutlery, pay attention to the sound of your cutlery moving about on the plate. Realistically, this is easier to do when eating alone, but can also be incorporated whilst eating with others.

3. Listen to your hunger signals
We often connect our food to our emotions, sometimes eating as a way to regulate or heighten emotions. You may have rummaged through your kitchen when bored, looking for something to eat. If you are feeling stressed, you may skip lunch to try to ‘get more done’, or have a steady stream of biscuits to ‘get through the afternoon’. We have all seen the stereotype of eating ice cream to get over a breakup. Because when focusing on a food, we do not have to focus on what we are feeling, so it can be quite an effective emotion regulation strategy. But it comes at a cost – eating more than we had intended, or eating things which are less than nutritious. And then we may encounter emotions about that too, on top of the emotions we had in the first place. Feeling regret, guilt or shame of what we have eaten. We also use food as a reward and a celebration, which again may override whether we are actually hungry and wish to eat, and we may then be eating out of habit.

Here is a great resource, The Hunger Scale, for helping you get the balance right, so you eat when you are hungry, but also not leaving it too long before you eat, and finish eating when you are full.

4. Stop eating when you are full
In addition to not knowing when we are hungry, and eating out of habit or comfort, we also do not listen to our bodies signalling when we have had enough. Even if we feel that we are experiencing the food more fully by not having distractions when eating, we can still throw our food in quickly and overeat by eating faster than our body can pick up on the satiation signals. So a key aspect of eating mindfully is reducing the speed. By slowing it right down, we can let the brain and the body have a chance to communicate about when you are full. One way to do that is to try to put down your cutlery in between bites. So lifting your loaded fork to your mouth, putting the food in and putting the cutlery down, not picking it up again until you have finished chewing that bite. And chewing your food properly, rather than swallowing whole chunks, will aid your digestion as well. You might think that this sounds easy when reading it, but you will be surprised at how alien that feels. See how you feel halfway through your meal – are you feeling stuffed? Then you have already gone beyond feeling full. Become aware of your own upbringing here, and your wish to comply with the rules you were taught to follow – are you clearing your plate because it feels rude not to, or because you used to get in trouble if you did not finish everything?

5. Eat real food
There is no diet which ‘works’. If people lose weight by following a strict diet, they eventually either put the weight back on again, or they may keep the weight off but it is ruling their life. They cannot accept food at a dinner party, as it does not fit with their diet. A lot of their attention is on counting calories or avoiding the ‘taboo foods’. Due to human nature, what tends to happen when we restrict ourselves too much, is that we then cave and overindulge. This is sometimes called a ‘binge’, as an overeating episode often follows periods of restriction. We then feel guilty and like we have failed, which can lead to more overeating as a way to manage those emotions. Or back to dieting, which is restriction, and the cycle starts over again. What does work, when it comes to managing a healthy weight, is to make sustainable long term changes you can keep up. Without major sacrifice. Eating real food, rather than following fad diets, to ensure you are having a varied diet full of nutrients. Eating just quinoa and grapefruit is not going to make you healthy. Sorry.

6. Breathe
You might be surprised at how little you might actually breathe when you eat. But breathing calmly and deeply activates our parasympathetic nervous system, the ‘rest and digest’ system. That helps us digest our food better. Breathing calmly can also help you slow down the pace, so you can see if you are actually hungry and need to eat, or if you are wanting to comfort emotions. Breathing calmly and deeply releases a hormone called oxytocin, which can down-regulate threat hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. If you have long term release of high levels of these stress hormones, it can have a negative impact on your weight, as cortisol can contribute to higher insulin levels, which means you may feel cravings for sugary or fatty foods to get energy fast. Simply put, breathing lowers your stress levels. You can also consider yoga, meditation, brisk walks (rather than high intensity workouts) and getting some more sleep as ways to manage your cortisol levels.

7. Drink enough water
It can be hard to tell the difference between feeling hungry and feeling thirsty. If we do not drink enough water, we may confuse that thirst feeling with hunger and thus reaching for something to eat. Drink glasses of water throughout the day, instead of ‘downing’ two pints all in one go. This will help keep your body hydrated and make it easier for you to be mindfully aware of your hunger signals.

8. Make conscious choices
In terms of mindful awareness of food, it does not end with the experience of eating the food. We can also become aware of the production line of the food – where does it come from, who made it, at what cost to the environment and how has it arrived at my mouth? Making sustainable choices and reducing toxic waste is also part of the mindful eating experience. For example, choosing to have a drink without a plastic straw, bringing your own reusable cup to your favourite coffee takeaway and buying organic fair trade food where possible.

In summary, slow down your pace to fully experience and enjoy your food, be able to listen to your body’s signals for hunger and saturation, and understand your own patterns or habits around eating.

Bon appetit.