Mindful eating is probably one of the most powerful ways in which you can change your relationship with food, eating and your body as a whole.
Before we look at what mindful eating is let’s take a look at what it isn’t. Most of us are familiar with this scenario - You come home tired and hungry after a day of work, you boil a pan of water while you check Facebook, chuck in some pasta, switch the television on while it cooks, drain, pour into a bowl, sprinkle over cheese, slouch on the sofa and eat ravenously while you watch the One Show, not noticing that you’ve eaten past your fullness point, and grab a bowl of ice-cream to watch the soaps with, and a few biscuits for the ten o’clock news. You fall into bed exhausted, bloated and tense.
Another example of not being mindful is what I think of as having ‘too much mind’, it might look like the following – You wake in the morning with your head full of good intentions about how today you’re going to have the ‘best diet ever’, you weigh out your 45grams of Special K, you measure your 100ml of skimmed milk, and top with 20grams of raisins. While eating you worry about the train being delayed, you remember last night’s meal and you’re cross with yourself and think that you’ll have to work harder at the gym today. You run for the train aware of a tight, griping sensation in your tummy and wonder whether you have a food intolerance – maybe it’s the milk or the wheat?
Or maybe, the problem isn’t the food that you eat. Maybe it’s the way that you eat food.
When you’re stressed your body actually turns off its digestive function in order to preserve energy and prepare itself for the onslaught of whatever the perceived ‘danger’ is; if you’re tense every time you eat because you’re worrying about how many calories, how many grams of fat, what time the next train is, what your boss thinks, what’s going on in the Middle East, or what’s going on in Eastenders, then you are shutting down your body’s ability to digest and assimilate the food that you’re eating, meaning that whatever you eat isn’t able to nourish you – and that is what eating is primarily for!
So now we know what mindful eating isn’t – what is it?
Mindful eating is about taking the time to pay attention to your food, without judgement, as you prepare it, consume it, nurture and nourish yourself with it. Noticing how each of your senses is stimulated as a response to the foods you eat. Do you take time to present your meals in an appetising way? Are your meals colourful? What memories and feelings are evoked by the smells of certain foods? Mindful eating is about noticing these things, not about getting caught up in judgements about them, just noticing.
Notice how your body responds to the different foods that you eat. It’s amazing how often people tell me that when they begin to eat mindfully they suddenly realise that they don’t like foods that they previously thought they loved!
Eating mindfully is about acknowledging how you currently respond, emotionally, physically, and mentally to foods and dining situations, perhaps your likes and dislikes, your pre-conceptions, again, this is not about judging, it is just about noticing and acknowledging. By bringing your full awareness to the table so to speak, you are deepening and enriching your experience of eating, you begin to fully appreciate the experience and become naturally motivated to make it a positive and enjoyable one; and you are rewarded with improved digestion, better assimilation of nutrients, fewer cravings and more natural control over your food choices.
My first suggestion on how to start your mindful eating journey is to only ever eat sitting down, at a table, with a knife and fork. Of course, in the reality of life you will not always be able to do this, but to begin with I have found this the best way to enable you to really focus your attention and awareness, particularly around noticing your physical cues of hunger and satiety, these are your body’s unique messages to you about when to start, and when to stop eating.
I would encourage you to eat mouthful-by-mouthful, the first mouthful being the most important as this is the mouthful that really prepares your body for the food that it is about to receive and be asked to digest. Really take your time, see, smell, taste, chew, savour, notice. Sometimes it can be helpful to put your knife and fork down between mouthfuls to allow yourself to really appreciate each mouthful individually, this also promotes a slowing down of your eating, recognising that by slowing down you will be closer to knowing that you are full before you stop eating – if you bolt down your food you have often eaten more than you need a long time before your body is giving you the signal to stop – cue indigestion, bloatedness and general discomfort, not to mention weight gain from over eating.
Remember – You do not have to finish everything on your plate. The starving children in Africa will not be helped by your using your body in place of a bin. Your body is a beautiful, complex, wondrous miracle, it is not a bin.
For some people, in particular those suffering from Anorexia, slowing down will not be necessary at all, as often you are eating very slowly already. What I would encourage you to first bring your awareness to is those inner voices that hamper your progress through a meal, remembering that you cannot digest and assimilate those vital nutrients while stressed (calories however will be not be affected). This is not about listening to those voices or obeying them, this is simply about noticing them, acknowledging them, recognising them for what they are, and continuing to bring your physical senses into awareness, we are not interested here in the calorie content of the food, we are interested in the taste, the mouth feel, the smell, the crunchiness, the sweetness, the chewiness, the juiciness, your enjoyment and nourishment.
When we begin to eat mindfully we become more aware of how our dietary choices affect our own individual health, we become more aware of how our food is digested, at what speed and with what ease, we become more attuned to the messages that our own bodies give us and can begin to trust these messages and intuitions, remembering that what works for us is not what works for our next door neighbour, our partner, our favourite celebrity with the washboard stomach, or the latest diet guru.
There are no food ‘rules’ with mindful eating, there are no foods that are off limits; no food is a ‘sin’. However what it naturally encourages is balance, wisdom, choice and acceptance of what is, in our bodies, in our environments, and in our eating. This is not an overnight miracle; it is a process, it takes time and patience as we rebuild our relationship with our bodies, as we learn to trust our bodies’ attempts to communicate and as our bodies learn to trust that we are going to consistently make the choice to nourish it appropriately.