Most of us have likely heard the term mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness, which has roots in Buddhist teachings, centers on the idea of awareness and attentiveness to the present and to all the sensations (emotional and physical) that one is experiencing. Mindfulness is increasingly being integrated into various aspects of our culture: the corporate world is recognizing that the practice can help employees increase and maintain focus; educators are noticing the impact that mindfulness can have in schools to relieve students’ stress; and many of us are incorporating mindfulness in our lives to improve health and happiness.
Mindful eating is one way this practice can help improve our relationship with food and, ultimately, our overall health. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 68.7 percent of the US population is overweight or obese, putting many of us at risk for early chronic disease. Our fast-paced lifestyle, coupled with hundreds of social and environmental distractions, is leading many of us to consume food mindlessly—without awareness of what, and how much, we are putting into our bodies. We often eat quickly, don’t chew thoroughly, and don’t pay attention to what we are consuming—all of which contributes to weight gain.
The practice of mindful eating can be a useful tool in weight loss and maintenance. When we pay attention to when and how much we are eating—as well as the sensory experience of consuming the food—we become more aware of the body’s cues, so we can learn to eat when we are truly hungry and avoid unnecessary calories. Simply put, mindful eating encompasses eating without distraction, becoming aware of our physical body, and being “in the moment” with food. It focuses on exploring in detail the taste, textures, and smells of food, which increases satisfaction and reduces the need to eat more. Mindful eating can give us power over urges, allowing us to make intentional choices about what—and when—to eat.
Although mindfulness does require focus and intention, it is not about superhuman concentration but rather a commitment to respect, appreciate, and enjoy what we eat. It is about changing attitudes and practices around meals and meal routines, which are as important to our health as what we eat.
To begin eating mindfully, try just a couple of daily exercises (see sidebar “Be Present and Enjoy Your Food”). Over time these practices can become second nature. Remember: it does take dedication, but if you can commit a few minutes each day to devote to mindful eating, you will find yourself a few pounds lighter and much happier in your relationship with food.
Are You Really Hungry?
Strategies to help you evaluate your hunger will help you eat more mindfully.
- Rate hunger before each meal to help you become attuned to your body’s needs (see graphic below).
- If you don’t know you are hungry, you probably are not—you may just want to eat.
- If you are only neutral or slightly hungry, you may need to eat somewhat prior to true hunger to avoid getting overly hungry at inappropriate times (when food may not be available) and to stay on schedule.
- Generally, if you are eating on a good schedule, it is appropriate to be hungry (but not ravenous) prior to each meal.
- Practice this mindful eating exercise at least once a day:
- Take one bite of food.
- Chew and taste the food; note the texture, temperature, and flavor.
- Stay focused on the food.
- Note the transition from chewing to swallowing.
- Swallow the food.
- Take a deep breath and exhale.
Be Present and Enjoy Your Food
Tips to help you engage in mindful eating
- Take a few breaths before eating.
- Savor the food.
- Sit down when you eat; don’t stand at the counter or at the refrigerator.
- Use a plate; don’t eat straight from a bag or box.
- Turn off the television and the computer and silence your cell phone before your meal.
- Do not multitask while eating.
- Eat with your nondominant hand to slow you down (this is a great brain exercise as well).
- Sip water between bites.
- Use smaller plates. (Studies show that the larger the plate, the more you eat!)