Mindful Eating! Here’s a topic that is not often addressed in the health and fitness industry, (in fact you often see the polar opposite, especially on social media!) but is arguably one of the most important concepts to understand when we think about having a healthy relationship with ourselves and enjoying our food. In this article, I cover what mindful eating is, how to get started with it, and run through a handy tool that can help you along the way!
Mindfulness and Mindful Eating
The practice of mindfulness has seen a resurgence over the last decade as our understanding of how we focus and perceive the world around us has grown, intending to develop our thoughts, emotions and awareness of our physical state to stay present and fully conscious of any given moment.
Mindfulness as a practice has many applications most notably for fostering gratitude, enjoyment, self-awareness and presence of mind, all of which can be very beneficial to a person's outlook and life experience.
Mindful eating is a practice that focuses on your interactions and relationship to food. By bringing your awareness to your physical sensations surrounding food, how you experience eating, and your thoughts and feelings towards it you build a deeper relationship with your food and a greater understanding and appreciation for how you interact with it, both physically and mentally in a non-judgmental way.
This is particularly useful when bringing awareness to our eating habits, considering what and why we eat, how and how much, allows us to objectively decide whether they are serving or hindering us, fosters gratitude for the meal and builds greater enjoyment from eating, enabling the development of a more positive relationship with our food and our bodies.
There's a lot of confusion between mindful eating and intuitive eating. Indeed there is a lot of overlap between the two methods, both leading into to the same philosophy of fostering and good relationship and being in tune with ourselves and our food. The biggest difference between the methods is that where mindful eating concentrates on our internal state, Intuitive eating encompasses our wider experience of food, encouraging the rejection of diet culture, challenging food labels (good and bad foods) and societal shaming of bodies and eating patterns alongside encouraging movement and non-judgmental nutrition choices.
Mindful eating sits squarely in the intuitive eating framework and by encouraging a mindful approach with yourself you are better able to foster an intuitive approach to food and health.
Here are a few pointers on how to get started with eating mindfully...
How to get started with a mindful eating practice
1. Consider the journey the food has been on to get to you. Where it was grown, prepared or manufactured. E.g. if it’s a meal of rice, chicken and veg consider where it was grown, where the chickens were reared and how you prepared it for eating.
This isn’t limited to foods you prepare yourself, or for what are considered “health foods”. Where did that chocolate bar come from? Who made it and where were the ingredients from? Much like with people, empathising with your food can bring a greater appreciation for it and a better understanding of the impact it has, not only on you and your health but also on the local and global environment.
2. How does your body interact with your food? How does it sound, smell, taste? What colour is it? what effect does it have on you? Are you hungry? How hungry? Does your stomach growl?
Eating (and by extension feeling hungry or full) is an extremely sensory experience. By listening to your senses and considering your body’s reaction to food, such as hunger and fullness you are better able to judge how much food you need and when to stop, if it produces a negative effect (if any) and fosters your enjoyment of the food you eat.
3. Consider your portion size - when you eat a plate of food, consider if this serving size brings you to a satisfied fullness.
Eating to fullness is a core principle of mindful eating. By knowing when you are full (or not) you can better judge if you are over or under eating or hitting it just right. Although it may not directly lead to weight loss, this is an especially useful skill to have when paired with weight management as it can bring you a greater understanding of your body and its needs whilst aiming for a calorie deficit or excess. It can also foster more positive associations with food and counter negative feelings such as guilt or worry often associated with foods you might really enjoy.
4. Pay attention to your hunger cues to dictate when and how much to eat.
By listening to these cues and eating intuitively it can help you plan your days so you have regular meal times, planning and preparing time and ingredients for snacks and meals so you are better able to enjoy them and less likely to overeat to make up for missed meals, on the flip side you may also decide you are just not hungry right now and decide to eat later or stop eating sooner at a meal time - this is all totally OK and normal.
Mindfulness and eating intuitively - We can learn a lot from our kids!
Children are born with the innate ability to eat intuitively. Because they are not yet influenced by social cues and pressure and have very little awareness and understanding of food (at least at the beginning) they exclusively follow their hunger and fullness cues.
If you sit and watch a baby or toddler eat (especially at the beginning, when they are just starting to wean) they really take in the food they are given. They’ll sniff it, play with it, put it all over their faces and explore what it can do… maybe they even _eat_ it!
All joking aside, as their physical sensations are their only reference point, Kids know very strongly when they want to eat and when they need to stop ( and they’ll tell you, too….this is often when the throwing, distractions and playing come in).
This is something I’ve come to appreciate more since having a little one and realise that we can all take something from this approach to our food (maybe not the throwing part...).
Sadly, what tends to happen as we get older is we pay more attention to external cues and pressures. Our parents, carers and social groups may tell us to “eat all our vegetables” or “we can’t get down from the table until we finish our meals”. This disrupts our natural inclinations, so as adults, we may need to relearn this skill to gain a stronger appreciation for our hunger and food.
Getting in touch with our hunger - a handy hunger scale
As we discussed earlier in the article, eating to our hunger and fullness is a core principle of mindful eating. By considering our physical responses we can eat until we are satisfied, rather than waiting until we are uncomfortable, hungry or over-full. When we come to reconnect with this process as an adult it can be useful to use tools to help us gauge and get back in touch with our natural cues. This is where a hunger scale can be integrated into a mindful eating practice to help you get a handle on your hunger and fullness responses.
The scale runs from 1-10 where you can rank your hunger “no hunger” (1) to “worst hunger EVAAR (10).
Here’s how to start using the scale:
1. Before you start eating, bring awareness to your physical hunger cues. These are sensations such as:
• Growling stomach or sense of emptiness
• Lightheaded or mild headache
2. Ask yourself how hungry are you? A good benchmark is to start eating when you are on a 7 on the scale or higher.
3. Stop eating when you reach 2 or 3 on the scale (this is 80% full or, comfortably satisfied!). Once you reach this point, take a breath and wait 15 minutes before deciding if you are still hungry.
4. Hold space for your physical sensations, thoughts and emotions around eating times. Note them down.
5. Ask yourself if you can distinguish between the states of wanting to eat and the times when you should (or need) to eat.
When trying to judge when to have a meal or if you are hungry at all, here are some benchmarks for when you last ate to 80% full:
One hour after finishing
Physically satisfied, no desire to eat.
Two hours after finishing
You might start to feel little empty, slightly hungry -
you could eat, but ask if you need to?
Three to four hours after finishing
You may be getting a bit hungry - bring full
awareness to the hunger cues above to get a sense
of where you are.
If you are at a 7, eat. If you arn’t that hungry yet,
there is no problem waiting longer.
Beyond 4 hours after finishing
You are likely to be experiencing high levels of
hunger. Good time to check in with your body. If
you sit between 7 - 10 on the scale with some or all
of the cues above, definitely time to eat!
Learning your hunger cues can take time and practice and using a scale such as this can be helpful to develop this awareness instinctively, building it as a habit throughout the day and at meal times.
If you want to get in touch with your hunger cues, here is a worksheet summarising these steps to help you get started.
An important side note I want to make here is that using the chart is intended as a springboard for your wider mindful eating practice, developing mindfulness around eating and learning your hunger cues can take time. trying to be patient and forgiving with yourself is part and parcel of this philosophy, it can be extremely difficult at times, but the payoff is worth it.
The practice of mindful eating can be incredibly empowering, not only do we become more in tune with our own experience of food and how we interact with it, but we foster greater enjoyment and appreciation for meals, where the food has come from and greater acceptance of our bodies.
One of my key concerns with nutrition is the health of my clients, physical and mental so as I finish this article off It seems appropriate I point out that as a bonus, as our awareness of ourselves and our eating habits grows it also becomes easier to be more relaxed about food, enjoy all aspects of the eating experience and enable us to take affirmative steps towards healthier food choices.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article and found it useful. As always, please get in touch with any questions, either in the comments section or via my email address: email@example.com. If you are interested in working with me, email me or book an appointment via my website here: https://www.craigjoycecoaching.com/contact