6 Steps to Mindful Eating

Family gatherings were a huge part of my childhood. Birthdays, graduations, and any other holiday consisted of all my mom’s brothers and sisters and their children gathering. If there is one thing about a Quain gathering, it’s that there is always be an enormous amount of food. Before the first guest arrives, Rotel dip, guacamole, shrimp dip, Ranch dip, cheese and crackers, a veggie tray, and a variety of chips would line the table. This was amazing! So many delicious foods and the go ahead to eat whatever I wanted. I would pile up my plate and go back for seconds and maybe even thirds. Thirty minutes before dinner the appetizers would be put away only to be replaced by the main course. Lasagna with salad, garlic bread, and various other sides was a go to. I would load up my plate and gobble it up. The evenings would be capped off with a variety of desserts. Of course I couldn’t just choose one. I would get the sample platter of them all. On top of all that I could drink soda, which was not allowed on a regular basis. By the end of the evening I felt stuffed, uncomfortable, and my stomach hurt. 

At some point in elementary school, I forget the exact age, I realized this pattern. I thought to myself, “I don’t want to feel that way after a family celebration.” The next celebration I didn’t eat all the appetizers, I skipped the soda, and only had a small amount dessert stopping when I wasn’t hungry. I enjoyed all the food, but in smaller portions. I felt so much better and still had a great time!  Little did I know I was incorporating mindful eating. 

As a dietetics major a majority of classes are focused on the science of food and the body and nutrition counseling. But, my favorite section was when we learned about mindful eating, which is being aware of the experience of eating both inside and outside the body without judgement or criticism. The big factor here is without judgement or criticism.

How cool is that?! It is such a great tool that can be used anywhere. It allows us to listen to our body, ditch the diet mentality, not berate ourselves about our food choices, and support our health. It is my go to tool and can be used anywhere. 

There is so much more to mindful eating, but for the big strokes, it is broken down in to three parts: 

1. Mindfulness of Body

Mindfulness of body entails being aware of our body. Have you ever paid attention to how you feel when you eat certain foods, how your body responds when you have not eaten any food in a long time, or how your energy fluctuates throughout the day? These are questions that help bring mindfulness to the body. For me I know when I have a good source of protein at a meal I feel fuller longer and have more energy. I know when I eat veggies I have more energy. Using all your senses to enjoy your food, paying attention to your thoughts, and noticing the temperature of your surroundings, the weight of your utensil, and the tension in our body are other ways to be mindful.

The Hunger Satisfaction Scale is a great tool to help us become more in tune with our hunger signals. It allows use to know when to start eating, stop eating, and if we are wanting to eat out of emotion. There are a few variations, but I like the one that goes from 1-6. 

  1. Starving
  2. Physically Hungry- START eating
  3. Satisfied- STOP eating (in 10-15 minutes you will typically feel full)
  4. Full
  5. Stuffed

2. Mindfulness of Emotions

 How do emotions impact our food choices? We may find ourselves eating out of stress, anxiety, boredom, happiness, loneliness, and so many other emotions. This can lead to the vicious emotional eating cycle. An event happens. We experience an emotion. We eat to sooth that emotion. We get mad at ourselves. We eat out of emotion again. Food will not solve the underlying issues going on. As I mentioned above, using the Hunger Satisfaction Scale is a great tool to see if you are actually physically hungry. If you are not physically hungry get curious and ask yourself questions to figure out what’s going on. If this seems a little overwhelming reaching out to a licensed professional can be very helpful. 

3. Mindfulness of Thoughts

I should eat that. I shouldn’t eat that. This food is good. This food is bad. Have you experience any of those thoughts? These thoughts can bring about judgement and criticism. Enjoying pizza does not make you a bad person and having a salad for lunch does not make you a better person. Food is just food. Sure, some food will give our bodies more nutrients and impact our mood and energy levels. Being mindful of the body can help you make food choices that align with how you want to feel, but it won’t change your level of goodness. When we use the should/should not thoughts, in addition to contributing to feeling good or bad about ourselves, I notice it takes my ownership away from making a choice. It becomes easy to blame my choices on this outside authority. We can also have thoughts like, “I’ve had a hard day, I deserve an ice cream.” Writing your thoughts down before and after a meal can be helpful in identifying patterns. 

Steps to Become More Mindful

All of this can seem overwhelming, but start with one habit and go from there. These are my favorite actions that help bring mindful eating to the forefront.

Pause. Before making a food choice, pause, breathe, and become more aware of what’s going on inside and outside the body. This will make all the following steps a lot easier. 

Check in with your hunger signals before and after you eat.By checking to see where we are on the hunger scale before eating we can identify if our body is physically hunger or if we are eating for other reasons. If it’s for other reasons we can get curious and ask yourself some questions to figure out if we are board, stressed, anxious, mad, happy or experiencing some other emotion and then attend to that emotion in an appropriate way. By checking in when we are finished eating, we can see if you stopped at the point our body was satisfied. This will help prevent us from over eating. If this is new, you can start by just identifying where you fall on the Hunger Satisfaction Scale before you eat. Then you can add after you eat. Finally you can add the choice of listening what your body is telling you. Start with one meal and go from there. 

Eat before you feel starving.We’ve all been there! We wait too long to eat and we become another person. For some it’s the hangry version, for others it’s the low energy shaky can’t think version. By this time we don’t care what we eat. We just want food now. We don’t care about how healthy it is or if it is in line with our goals or how it will make us feel later. Chances are we will inhale it and end up feeling stuffed. 

Eat slowly. When we eat quickly we are not giving our body time to adjust to what we just put in it. Have you ever gone back for seconds thinking you were still physically hungry only to feel stuffed after that second helping? I certainly have. I ate my first plate way too quickly and didn’t give it the 10-15 minutes to catch up to what I put in it. When we eat quickly we will eat more and not be as in tune with our hunger signals. We are also preventing ourselves from using all our sense to experience our food. By slowing down can get more satisfaction out of our food and naturally eating more in line with our hunger signals.

Be present when you eat and use all your senses.Have you ever grabbed a bag of chips, plopped down on the couch, and the next thing you know the chips have disappeared? We didn’t even enjoy them and want something else. This has certainly happened to me. When we sit at a table with a plate or bowl of food and use all of our senses to eat, we will enjoy it so much more and naturally eat less. 

Check in with yourself, but leave the judgement.It is easy to be mean to ourselves when we make a choice that didn’t support our goals or wasn’t part of our plan. However, this will only feed into the emotional eating cycle and keep us farther from our goals. No one is perfect. And, no one will go the rest of their life without eating their favorite ice cream or pizza again. That’s not realistic. So, before we give ourselves the third degree, acknowledge that the choice was made and get curious. Was it intentional? Okay great! Move on and make your next choice in line with your goals if you want. Was the choice made out of an emotion? Was it made because our environment wasn’t set up for success? Or, maybe we were in a rush and didn’t give ourselves time to eat slowly and enjoy our food. If we dig a little deeper we can address the real issue. May be it involves reaching out to a counselor or is as simple as making sure to go to the grocery store. Imagine all the free time and energy we can gain if we give ourselves grace and focus on the deeper issue. 

It is so much nicer to look at our health from a place of addition and supporting our body verses restriction. What mindful eating habit will you add to our life?! 

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