Mindful Eating 101- The Complete Beginner’s Guide
I want to change your relationship with food forever.
When was the last time you ate something?
Do you remember what you ate? If yes, you’re definitely different from most people.
And now the more pressing issue, do you remember the sensation of eating it?
Frankly, I don’t.
Throughout my life, I’ve had difficulty even remembering what my last meal was. Every night I talk to my grandmother and she asks me, “What did you have for dinner?”
Not long ago, I had to take at least 5 seconds to think about it. And if she asked me about lunch or breakfast, man, was I stuck!
Just to give you an idea of my absent-mindedness, I could solve a math problem quicker than remembering what I had for dinner the previous day.
Anyway, things are much better now. Yet, there’s room for improvement.
But why am I talking about such an insignificant thing as remembering what you ate? Most people will scoff at this — “So what I don’t remember? I have better things to worry about in my life!”
That may be true. But alas, most of us don’t realize just how much damage we’re doing to ourselves with our mindless eating habits.
According to a 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American spends two-and-a-half hours a day eating. But more than half of that time, we’re doing something else — checking the news, working, talking, watching TV, and so on.
This leads to unawareness of the food you’re eating and which makes it difficult to remember your meals.
There are other problems too. This seemingly harmless habit may be contributing to the national obesity epidemic and other health issues, says Dr. Lilian Cheung, a nutritionist, and lecturer at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
There was a time when eating used to be a formal occasion to get together. People would perhaps, dress up for a simple meal. It sounds hilarious but it’s true. Every meal was thought of as a ritual.
The significance given to food led to minimal wastage and a sense of gratitude and harmony among people.
Today, however, it has just become an insignificant detour from our hectic lives. Thinking that one is too busy to eat is a common sentiment.
How Did We Get Here?
The foremost thought that comes to mind is we’re just not grateful for food anymore.
Gone are the days where you had to spend hours in the wilderness to hunt for food. Gone are also the days where you had to learn how to cook to eat.
We live in a century of convenience. You can get delicious food on your doorstep by only lifting a finger. Soon, with the help of voice recognition, even that won’t be required.
Okay fine. Lack of gratefulness can be fixed by working on our own attitude. But there are external factors that have made us more mindless — the primary one being processed foods.
David Kessler, MD, author of “[The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite](https://www.amazon.com/End-Overeating-Insatiable-American-Appetite-ebook/dp/B0025VKJNA)” strongly asserts that the food industry produces processed foods highly rich in sugar, fat, and salt for the purpose of bombarding and coaxing our brains to eat beyond the point of satisfaction or necessity.
He believes we need to develop new skills to overcome the temptation of these “highly palatable” processed foods. So, you and I are faced with only one solution — mindful eating
Humans spent years chasing food and using different sources to fulfill their needs. It’s been hard to find one food rich in a hundred different vitamins, minerals, and macro-nutrients.
Now, however, you can get a big chunk of fat, sugar, calories, and other (harmful) ingredients in just a can of juice.
Our bodies (and minds) are not ready for these food items. And since only a few have the self-control to resist, we end up being addicted. (Addiction here can also be a fairly low-level one).
This is only one factor that drives mindless eating. Others include:
Stress drains your energy — emotional, mental, physical, or spiritual. To regain that energy, you’re tempted to eat the most gratifying food that can give you your energy back. This is why desserts are good stress-busters. But of course, not the healthiest option.
In our 24-hour hustle culture, we always have something to think about and work on. We’re always juggling one thing or the other.
In an attempt to maximize my time, I’ve often watched tutorials or listened to podcasts while having meals. Ah! Workaholism really gets you.
Productivity pundits would find no fault in this. But there’s a problem.
When you divide your attention, you eat more food unknowingly, than if you were actually focused.
I’ve seen this multiple times. Often while serving food on the plate, I’m on a call — thus I don’t have the mental space to think about how hungry I really am.
When I’m halfway through my meal, I realize it’s too much for me. But since I’m watching TV or thinking about something else, I ignore that feeling and overeat.
You need to give your body time to tell you that it’s satiated. Plus, you need to be aware of the signals that your body gives you.
As if other difficulties weren’t enough, your brain also has a little problem.
You see, our minds and bodies are geared for survival. For most of human history, overeating was not a problem.
Only now, when food is available in plenty has it become an issue. And so your brain doesn’t mind you eating a little bit more.
The even pressing issue at hand is the reward-chemical dopamine. Every time you eat something delicious, sugary, fatty, etc, your brain triggers a release of dopamine.
This is not much different than being addicted to anything else like cocaine, drugs, etc. Your willpower is weaker for these kinds of foods.
The sad part is, companies take advantage of this weakness. Every quick bite you pick up at the store counter or the gas station is loaded with sugar to give you the instant dopamine hit.
Temptations are all around us. And this makes it all the more difficult to be mindful.
Satiety is a tricky concept. The brain takes about 20–30 mins to know that your stomach is full or that you’re no longer hungry. But most people like me finish their meals within 10 minutes. When it comes to snacks, people can gulp them in as much as 2 minutes.
So by the time your brain tells you to stop eating, you’re already done with it.
*The Journal of the American Dietetic Association *did a study to show that slower eating led to reduced consumption.
They studied 30 women to determine differences in eating at various rates. The results showed that women who ate their meals slowly consumed fewer calories, drank more water, and felt satiated quickly.
And so mindful eating solves this problem to a large extent. By thoroughly enjoying every bite, you take more time to eat and are also more aware when your brain tells you to stop.
What is Mindful Eating?
The concept of mindful eating comes from mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.
People confuse mindfulness with meditation. The former is a state of awareness. The latter is a practice. When you practice mindfulness, it’s called mindfulness meditation. One can be mindful and not be meditating.
Mindful eating similarly, is all about being fully aware of what you’re eating, your cravings, and other physical cues.
According to Healthline, some basic points to practice mindful eating include:
Eating slowly and without distraction
Listening to physical hunger cues and eating only until you’re full
Distinguishing between true hunger and non-hunger triggers for eating engaging your senses by noticing colors, smells, sounds, textures, and flavors
Learning to cope with guilt and anxiety about food
Eating to maintain overall health and well-being
Noticing the effects food has on your feelings and figure
Appreciating your food
Mindful eating is not the average cookie-cutter diet. It also isn’t about weight loss (though it’s a nice side-benefit),
The main purpose is to enjoy the experience of eating fully by paying attention to your emotions, taste, feelings, and much more.
I remember when I was a kid, it was a rule in my family to not talk while eating. It’s a common practice in India though alas, it’s a lost art.
In any case, its more popular counterpart, ‘mindful eating’ is here to save face.
Why You Should Try Mindful Eating
As we’ve talked about before, there are important benefits that come from mindful eating.
The biggest one is your relationship with food is forever changed. You no longer view food as a temptation but as the core ingredient that gives you energy and vitality.
By being mindful we can stop seeing meals as irritable and unavoidable. We can instead view it as an opportunity to enjoy the wonders of this world.
Further, most of us eat not to enjoy but to cure another (often psychological) problem. These include boredom, sadness, loneliness, grief, stress, exhaustion, etc.
By eating mindfully, you restore your attention and slow down. You eat consciously, not automatically.
Solving emotional eating also becomes easier when you can distinguish between emotional hunger and physical hunger. It is only by knowing your triggers that you can change your habits.
How to Practice Mindful Eating
In the book *Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, *Dr. Cheung, and her co-author Thich Nhat Hanh, suggest several practices.
Along with their suggestions, the list below includes some suggestions from my research and personal experience:
Attack the problem at its roots
Mindful eating begins with what you buy and bring into your home. Half of the problem can be solved if we just don’t buy things that aren’t good for us.
A good trick while shopping is to always eat beforehand. This way, you’ll not confuse your emotional desires with your actual needs.
Then make sure to stay away from the section containing processed foods, snacks, chips, candies, chocolates, etc. Many stores have such aisles in the center or the inner part. It’s safe to stay on the outskirts.
Finally, make sure to avoid any temptation to pick sweetmeats from the checkout counter. They’re deliberately placed there to induce a last-minute add-on to your cart. Know this and consciously choose to refuse.
Handle your appetite before eating
If you’re ravenously hungry, your first instinct would be to fill the void than to enjoy your food. This particularly happens with me when I break my weekly 24-hour fast.
To avoid this, I drink a lot of water and perhaps a few nuts before the actual meal. This makes it easier to rein in my emotions and my brain that are starving for food-gratification.
Pause for a minute or two look at everything that is in front of you. Think about what it took to bring this meal to your table. Mentally thank the person who made it.
Finally, express your gratitude to have a meal with others or just to eat the food itself.
I try to pray to God before every meal. (The only challenge is to remember).
God is the ultimate provider of everything. It’s impossible to not express gratitude to Him.
Here’s the exact prayer I use:
“Receive, Lord, in thy Light the food we eat for it is Thine; infuse it with Thy Love, Thy energy, thy life divine.”
Bring all your senses to the meal
When you’re eating, serving, or cooking, be attentive to color, texture, aroma, and even the sounds different foods make as you prepare them. As you eat, try to identify different ingredients and seasonings.
Take small bites
This is the one I’m most guilty of. It’s difficult to enjoy the meal when your mouth is full.
Many people have also advised me to keep the spoon down between bites. This way, you can focus on savoring the current bite instead of preparing a new one!
A good rule of thumb that I’ve been taught since I was a kid (although rarely followed, I’m afraid), is to chew each bite 32 times.
It can be a bit of a drag though. I’ve found that it depends on the kind of food and so anywhere between 20–40 bites is good.
Get a feel of your mood
Take a moment to notice why you’re ordering/cooking a certain meal. Is it because you’re stressed or do you really want to enjoy that meal.
Is your mood good or bad? Are you tired? Too hungry?
It helps to have a good idea of your emotional state to make better food choices.
Fix your environment
Sit away from the TV, keep your phone away and do anything else to make it difficult to be distracted.
Since the TV in my house in front of the dining table, I like to keep the remote as far away as possible and also switch off the TV from the main plug. I’ve found it almost certain that I’ll switch the TV on if the remote is kept in front of me.
Take at least 5 minutes to enjoy the meal before talking to others present.
The list of mindful eating tactics doesn’t end. Follow the small guidelines above but work gradually to build your own habits.
It’s not how you do it, it’s the general direction that matters. Any habit that makes you more aware of what you’re eating or makes you feel joy and gratitude is the right one.
Anything that distracts you from what you’re eating is the wrong one.
Start implementing some of these tricks today and you’ll see a huge change in your relationship with food.
It’s going to be difficult for most of us at the start. But hey, a smooth life is not a victorious one!
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