Have you ever found yourself soothing stress or boredom with a bag of chips or a pint of ice cream? Often, our eating habits are triggered by emotions rather than hunger. Mindful eating emerges as a powerful tool in this context, teaching us to distinguish between emotional needs and actual hunger. In this article, we'll explore what mindful eating is and provide practical tips on how to be a mindful eater, how to eat mindfully, and how to practice mindful eating daily.
What is Mindful Eating?
At its core, mindful eating is about using mindfulness to reach a state of full attention to your experiences, cravings, and physical cues when eating. It's about transforming eating from an automatic response to a deliberate, conscious action. This approach not only helps in addressing emotional eating but also enhances the overall experience of nourishment.
Mindful eating is a simple but powerful tool that can help to establish a healthier relationship with food, improve digestion, reduce overeating, and can also aid with feeling guilt or shame after food, is perceived as “bad” or “unhealthy”.
Why Mindful Eating Matters
"Mindful eating replaces self-criticism with self-nurturing. It replaces shame with respect for your own inner wisdom," says Jan Chozen Bays, author and expert in mindful eating. This approach not only improves our relationship with food but also teaches us to appreciate the nourishment it provides.
Hormones and Mindful Eating
Mindful eating can influence various hormones related to hunger, stress, and mood regulation, such as:
- Ghrelin: Often called the "hunger hormone", ghrelin levels increase when your body needs food. Mindful eating can help you become more attuned to these hunger signals, preventing overeating.
- Leptin: This hormone signals satiety. By eating mindfully and paying attention to the body's fullness cues, you can align your eating habits more closely with leptin's satiety signals.
- Insulin: Mindful eating can help in the regulation of blood sugar levels, which in turn can influence insulin sensitivity and secretion. Eating slowly and giving your body time to process food can lead to better insulin control.
- Cortisol: This is the stress hormone. Mindful eating practices can reduce stress, which may help lower cortisol levels. Elevated cortisol can lead to cravings for high-fat, high-sugar foods.
- Endorphins: These are the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators. The pleasure of eating mindfully can stimulate the release of endorphins, creating a positive eating experience.
How to Practice Mindful Eating
Becoming more aware and understanding of triggers that make you want to eat, even when you aren’t hungry can help you to create a space between them and your response. This can give you time and freedom to choose how to react and distinguish between emotional and physical hunger.
Following even just one of the steps below will help you practice and work on mindful eating.
Start with a question
Before you eat, pause and ask yourself, "Why am I eating? Is it due to hunger or emotional needs?" Understanding the trigger helps create a mindful foundation for your eating experience. Notice little cues such as a bowl of chips within arm’s reach, feeling hungry, or craving junk food to help you relax after a stressful day. By setting an intention, you create a foundation for the mindful eating practice.
When you eat, focus on eating. Turn off the TV, put away your phone, and sit down at a table with minimal distractions. When we are distracted we tend to consume more than we need and have less enjoyment from the food as we are more focused on the distractions.
Pay attention to hunger cues
As you eat, pay attention to your body's signals. Notice when you start to feel full and take this as a cue to slow down or stop eating. Similarly, pay attention to any cravings or hunger signals that arise, and honor them with a balanced, healthy meal or snack. Try to avoid eating out of boredom or as a distraction from problems and emotions.
Engage all your senses
As you begin to eat, bring all of your senses into play. Notice the colours, textures, and aromas of the food. Savour each bite, taking the time to chew slowly and mindfully. Engaging your senses in this way helps to create a sense of pleasure and satisfaction around eating.
Try to find enjoyment in cooking
Mindful eating can be a great opportunity to explore new foods and flavors. Experiment with different types of cuisine, or try preparing your favorite dishes in new and creative ways. By keeping an open mind and being curious about your food, you can develop a greater sense of enjoyment and satisfaction around eating.
Make mindful eating a daily habit
Remember that mindfulness is a practice. It takes time and effort to create a habit, but the benefits are worth it. Try to make mindful eating a part of your daily routine, whether that means setting aside a specific time for a mindful meal, or simply taking a few minutes to breathe deeply and focus on your food before you eat.
Utilize supportive online resources
You can try to find and practice mindful eating meditations using apps such as Headspace or Youtube.
Honour your cravings
There is no such thing as good and bad foods, what matters is the quantity and frequency in which we have all foods. Observe your cravings and explore them rather than eliminate all of them. Have you ever had a cookie and thought "oh well, the harm is done! Might as well have the whole pack"? This can happen often when you restrict yourself from all your favourite foods and mindful eating is key in correcting this behaviour. For example, if you are craving pizza but want to maintain your healthy lifestyle, why not have a slice or two but with salad and a source of protein on the side? Honouring your cravings while making the meals more nutritious and complete will take you a long way! Try to be kind to yourself and remember that you don’t have to resign from your favourite foods.
Try to eat slowly
It can take approximately 20-30 minutes for the body to send a satiation signal (a hormone called leptin), which is why we often overeat subconsciously. Try to not rush and use the time to engage all your senses.
Mindful Eating Exercise: The Raisin Exercise
Here's a simple and effective mindful eating exercise that focuses on using all the senses. This exercise can be a great way to introduce readers to the practice of mindful eating. It's often called the "Raisin Exercise," but you can substitute the raisin with any small piece of food like a piece of fruit, a nut, or a small piece of chocolate.
- Objective: To engage all your senses and fully experience the act of eating.
- Duration: 5-10 minutes
- You’ll need: A raisin (or any small piece of food)
- Look: Begin by examining the raisin. Notice its color, shape, and texture. Observe any shines, shades, or particular features it might have.
- Touch: Hold the raisin between your fingers. Feel its texture. Is it rough or smooth? Soft or hard? Notice the sensations in your fingers and hand.
- Smell: Bring the raisin close to your nose and take a deep breath in. Notice any smells or aromas. Does it evoke any memories or feelings?
- Place: Gently place the raisin on your tongue, but resist the urge to chew just yet. Roll it around in your mouth, feeling its texture against your tongue.
- Taste: Now, start to chew it slowly. Do not swallow immediately. Try to taste it as if it was the first time you're eating a raisin. Notice the flavors that release, the sweetness, the tanginess, or the blend of tastes.
- Hear: Pay attention to the sounds that come from chewing. Is there a subtle sound as you chew?
- Swallow: When ready, swallow the raisin. Follow the sensation of it going down your throat and into your stomach.
- Reflect: Take a moment to reflect on this experience. How did it feel to eat with such attention and awareness? Were there any new sensations or discoveries?
Embracing Mindfulness in Eating
Incorporating mindfulness into our eating habits isn't just about what we eat, but how we eat. By practicing mindful eating, we learn to enjoy our food, understand our bodies better, and make eating an intentional act of nourishment rather than a mindless reaction, we learn how to fuel our bodies. As we become more mindful eaters, we pave the way for a healthier, more harmonious relationship with food.
References and resources:
For those looking to dive deeper into mindful eating, resources such as Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food by Jan Chozen Bays offer extensive insights into becoming a mindful eater. Remember, the journey to mindful eating is unique for everyone. Embrace it at your own pace, and watch as it transforms your relationship with food and nourishment.
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