An Introduction to Mindful Eating
Many of us are experiencing heightened stress and anxiety at the moment, as well as a stronger connection with the suffering and uncertainty around us. These feelings can make us more sensitive, and may cause digestive tract issues to worsen and emotional or disordered eating tendencies to become more pronounced.
These are completely normal responses, but managing them non-judgementally and to the best of our current abilities can bring about peace and wellbeing.
While we are at home with more time and less focus on the outside world, I believe that now is a perfect time to bring in some mindful eating exercises and tune in.
What is Mindful eating?
Mindful eating is a general term for any practice or method that uses mindfulness to bring awareness, self-regulation and choice into dietary habits. Mindfulness creates space between trigger and response, allows us to ride out our emotions without being thrown around by them and increases awareness of our inner thoughts, feelings and sensations. All of this wisdom can be used to create change within our daily food-related experiences.
The aims of Mindful Eating are...
- To be comfortable with dietary flexibility
- To tune in to hunger and satiety
- To really taste food
- To learn when you’ve eaten enough
- To choose foods wisely
- To balance inner & outer wisdom
Mindfulness, as we already know, is a powerful tool.
Why do we use Mindful Eating Techniques?
Unfortunately, our environment and biology encourage us to look outside of ourselves for cues on when to eat, what to eat and how much to eat. We eat because the table was booked for 7pm, we eat a huge bowl of cheesy pasta because it looked good on Instagram, and we finish the plate because we can hear ‘you can’t get down from the table until you’ve cleared your plate’ in our heads.
Starting from a very young age, all of these collective influences lead to a lack of interoceptive awareness - awareness of body sensations like hunger, satiety and taste.
We make 200-300 unconscious food choices each day and sometimes these can lead to feeling out of control around food. Mindful eating practises can switch off autopilot and bring back some space to make conscious choices, balancing inner and outer wisdom: the inner wisdom of own bodies and awareness, and the outer wisdom of what’s healthy, in the research and what we know to be good for us.
The specifics of a healthy diet look different for every individual and consider personal preference. However, unglamorous, a healthy diet generally speaking. Is the same as it has been for many years: whole foods, lots of plants, quality protein and not too much. Accessorised with good hydration, sleep, exercise and sunshine!
Mindful Eating Tools & Practices
Here are my top three mindful eating practices that you can introduce at home, straight away. If you do use them, remember that you are becoming more aware of your behaviours and not judging yourself. Awareness and learning will lead to change, and that’s the aim of the game!
1. Mindful Meals
A mindful meal is an examination of your mealtime as a whole, aimed to discover where you could introduce some mindfulness to help you. Eating a mindful meal will help you identify triggers, unconsciousness and uncomfortable behaviours.
Remember, this is a data collection exercise, not an exercise in judgement. So use your best non-judgemental mind for this one!
Pause before preparing your meal. What are you feeling? Are you hungry? What’s on the menu and why have you chosen it? Become aware of these answers, note them down.
DURING THE MEAL:
While you are eating, think about what’s around you. Who is there? What distractions are with you? Phone? Book? Computer? How quickly are you eating? Are you enjoying the meal? Note these down too.
AFTER THE MEAL:
Thinking about your feelings after a meal is very powerful, but can be uncomfortable, so set aside a few minutes here. How do you feel? Are you full? When did you stop being hungry and started to chase fullness? Did you enjoy what you ate? Are there any overriding emotions? Note these down and then thank yourself for the awareness you have created.
Try this a few times under different circumstances and reflect on the influences that came into play during your mealtime. Were there any unconscious decisions you’d like to bring to the front on your mind? Did you feel out of control at any point? Are you influenced by beliefs such as having ‘three square meals’ a day? When in reality you can really whenever you like, two meals, five meals, anything! You can then use this information to recognise unwanted behaviours and change them to serve you better. As with all mindfulness, this is a skill to cultivate, so keep trying and learning.
2. Distraction-Free Meals
This one is my least favourite practices, because it’s uncomfortable. Which of course means... it’s very powerful!
We often eat with distractions. The TV, work, other people. This too encourages us to ignore our internal sensations of hunger and satiety.
Prepare your meal, switch off the tv and laptop, hide away your phone and book and just sit and eat in quiet. Think about the taste and the smells. Think about how you’re feeling and how this experience is playing out. This simple task will highlight a lot on its own, but if you like, you can also think about…
- Are you hungry?
- Are you enjoying the taste and textures?
- What does the food look like?
- How big is the portion?
- Are you full?
- Would you like to leave some on the plate?
- When did you stop being hungry?
Again, you can make notes if it’s useful for you and reflect afterwards. The aim of the game here is the same as all mindfulness practices, create space for awareness and interrupt the autopilot. Try a few distraction-free meals and see what happens for you!
3. The Hunger Scale
A more immersive tool is the hunger scale. Here we want to assess your hunger and satiety more directly. Over time this can build a really good understanding of yourself and your food-related behaviours and sensations.
Right now where would you put yourself on the hunger scale? Why have you chosen that figure? Why not a few points lower or higher? How do you know you’re at that figure? What signals are you listening to?
You can use the hunger scale at any time and I would recommend collecting a bit of data for yourself over a few days and at different mealtimes. Score yourself before, during and after a meal. You could also use it during times where you feel particularly out of control. For example, uncontrollable evening snacking or periods of uncomfortable restriction. Note your score and thoughts each time, so you are able to look over your findings and notice patterns or behaviours you would like to be more aware of.
Creating space for choice in these moments is all you need to encourage and empower change. The ideal practice day-to-day is to eat when you are at 3-4, so you aren’t so hungry it’s difficult to make choices about food. Then to stop eating at 6-7, so that you feel satisfied but not uncomfortable, which can be linked to feelings of guilt.
Of course, there will be times when you’ll eat Christmas dinner up to level 10 and beyond! It’s important to remember that this is a tool for awareness, not for judgement. There is nothing wrong with eating until you are bursting, as long as you are aware that it is your choice to do so.
Enjoying food is important for wellbeing as well as what we are eating. Choosing to enjoy a gooey brownie because you’ve had a challenging day is a nice way to give back to yourself, but demolishing a gooey brownie to self-soothe without tasting it and without the element of choice and enjoyment is self-destructive.
Where to Start
Think about the next few days. Are there any meals coming up that you could introduce one of these practices? If so, choose one method that resonates with you and give it a try.
As with all mindfulness practice, mindful eating is a skill to cultivate. The intention is to introduce consciousness and awareness around food, empowering self-regulation and letting emotions come and go without influencing your behaviours harshly. I wasn’t a believer until I tried it myself!
If you would like to discover more about mindful eating ‘The Joy of Half a Cookie’ by Jean Kristeller PhD is a great resource. Additionally, The Centre for Mindful Eating website has some guides and mediations that you can listen to.
I’m Laura, an evidence-based nutritionist from Cheltenham, in the lovely Cotswolds! I help people with everything from mindful eating techniques to performance focussed nutrition for athletes. I have a degree in Business Management and while I was at university I battled with a lot of self-confidence, body and food related issues. I developed IBS which really affected my quality of life and my GP struggled to help me for over two years. This pushed me to learn as much as I could about nutrition and the body, eventually leading to studying for, and obtaining fully-fledged qualified nutritionist status!
As well as direct support, I take great pride in creating quality, informative content. Misinformation around nutrition is commonplace on social media and in the traditional media platforms, which is a recipe for disaster when it comes to looking after ourselves and tuning in to what’s really healthy and right for us, as individuals. Your dietary needs are as individual as you are and good health is holistic, multifaceted and fluid. I’m passionate about nutrition and shaping the health space into something the industry can be proud of.