Who doesn’t love eating? It’s a natural, healthy, social and pleasurable activity, right? Well at least it was when you were a kid. As a baby, you ate when you were hungry, you stopped when you weren’t, you took great joy in playing with your food, and you loved sharing with everyone around you, including your pets and toys.
And then what happened??
Life as we know it today happened. Once your parents got past the excitement that their little human was eating solids, the rules started; Don’t throw your food, eat your vegetables, finish your meal, use your spoon, you’re eating too much, you’re not eating enough….and so on and so on.
Your families cultural background and the way they viewed food and eating will also have strongly influenced your food philosophies, food preferences, and emotions surrounding eating. So would school, your peers, and of course advertising on tv, movies, the web and social media. If you were unlucky enough to have health issues or a perceived ‘weight problem’, then chances are you added a whole lot of new rules around eating to your repertoire…and some unwanted emotions too, like guilt, fear, angst & self-depreciation to name a few.
It’s no wonder we are confused about what we should be eating and why meal times aren’t the fun they used to be!!
Maybe it’s time for a shift away from the rules and inner diet police and a move towards forming a better relationship with food and eating. There are many tools that can help us change the way we think about eating. Becoming more mindful is one of our favourite ways to not only help reconnect with food and the way it makes us feel, but also to enjoy life to the fullest.
Mindfulness helps focus our attention and awareness on the present moment, helping disconnect from habitual, unsatisfying and harmful habits and behaviours. Mindful eating put simply, is the opposite of mindless eating.
Eating mindfully, that is, giving food and eating your full attention, can help us achieve maximum satisfaction and enjoyment without eating to excess. Mindful eating makes it possible to experience the difference between psychological satisfaction and fullness, allowing us to feel more satisfied with smaller quantities of food. Learning to savour our food simply makes eating more pleasurable. Knowing what satisfies you and getting the most pleasure from your eating experiences are key factors for a lifetime of healthy, calm eating.
Whilst most of us will struggle with eating like a monk at every meal, we can probably all change our eating behaviours to incorporate more mindful actions. Some of the things we do to eat more mindfully include:
- Tune in to our levels of hunger – both physical and emotional, and become aware of when and why we are choosing to eat.
- Sit and eat in a comfortable, quiet place away from distractions (television, phone etc.).
- Use our favourite serving dishes and present food so it is looks good (even if you’re eating alone!). Use fresh herbs, sprouts, or even edible flowers for extra flavour, colour and texture.
- In Western society we are increasingly becoming more disconnected from our food with many of us not even considering where a meal comes from beyond the supermarket packaging. We are missing out on the amazing opportunity to connect more deeply with nature, the land and each other through healthy eating. Before you start eating, take a moment to consider the story of how the foods you are about to eat came to your home and your plate. Were they grown locally, in Australia or perhaps imported, what is their cultural background, have they been processed, what are the ingredients, what health benefits might they be offering you, how did they get to the supermarket/shop/market you purchased it from, were they sustainably produced, and so on. No judgements need to be made, simply bring an awareness to everything about the food that is about to nourish you. This may naturally lead to gratitude for every person and process that was involved in bringing this food to you.
- Use all our senses to enjoy our food. When you look at, and smell your food it begins the digestive process before you have even taken your first bite. In fact, it is believed that somewhere between 75 and 95 % of what we think of as taste actually results from the stimulation of the olfactory receptors in the nose instead! A delicious aroma of food will kick your salivary glands into gear, moistening your mouth and releasing digestive enzymes ready to start breaking down the food you anticipate eating.
- Bring our attention to the chewing process as we eat. Become aware of how long it takes to chew different foods of varying size & texture. Chewing is the first step in digestion, breaking down larger molecules of food into smaller particles which reduces stress on the oesophagus and helps the stomach metabolise your food. When you chew each mouthful properly, you also release a lot of saliva, which contains digestive enzymes. Scientific evidence currently suggests that chewing may decrease self-reported hunger and food intake, possibly by altering gut hormone responses related to satiety. An added benefit is that chewing may exert a positive effect on your ability to concentrate, particularly for long periods, and may also improve mood and reduce stress levels. We aim to chew each mouthful well before taking the next bite (there are actually apps around to help with this!).
- Slowing down the eating process is one of the best ways to get our mind and body to communicate what we really need for nutrition. The body actually sends its satiation signal (both for fullness and nutrient content) about 20 minutes after the brain, which is why we often unconsciously overeat. But, if we slow down, we can give our body a chance to catch up with our brain and hear the signals to eat the right amount.
- We sometimes have a bit of fun with using different utensils to help slow down the eating process, bringing our focus back to the ingredients of our meal. We use chopsticks, or a child’s fork or when appropriate, simply go back to the basics and eat with our (clean) hands like we did as a child.
- We also try and remember while eating a meal or snack, to stop occasionally and check in with our hunger and fullness levels. It is always interesting to see how you finish a meal - do you use external or internal cues to wrap up mealtime? External cues are things like someone removing your plate, lunch hour is over, the bag of popcorn is empty. Internal cues are our hormones , nerve signals and neuro-chemicals (chemical messengers in the brain) that drive our desire to eat as well as signal us to stop eating.
Mindful eating is a skill that needs continual training but can certainly help us find some freedom from ‘food rules’ and encourage a relaxed, satisfying & even joyful relationship with food.