Mindful Eating: How/why you should practice it

The world we live in now is so used to instant gratification. So many of us do things without even thinking about why we do them, we “just do it” as Nike says. Think about it, have you ever asked yourself why you pour the cereal in the bowl first and then the milk, as opposed to milk first then cereal? You have a reason for doing so, but you’ve never tuned in with yourself to figure out why. Mindfulness, simply put, is observing what you think/do, and why. It can be applied to many habits such as checking your phone once you are alone, an addiction, picking your nails, fidgeting etc..but today, I am going to focus on mindful eating. Many people just eat because it is there, or eat to get rid of uncomfortable emotions (otherwise known as stress eating), which in turn creates unhealthy habits. This applies to everyday life; have you ever watched TV with a big bowl of popcorn and before you knew it, the bowl was empty and you didn’t remember eating that much? How about have a bad day at work or school and reach for the nearest sugar source? Nothing about those examples is mindful.

So why does this even matter? Two reasons. The most obvious reason people say is that it hinders weight loss efforts, or is simply a bad habit because eating five times the serving size isn’t the best for you. Every time eating is used to rid feelings of boredom or negative feelings, that pattern becomes engraved deeper into our brains, making it hard to get ourselves out of. TV then gets unconsciously associated with chips, and stress with snacks. Second, what most people don’t know, which I have come to know, is that being mindful when eating leads to better gut health (because we aren’t feeding ourselves trash), which leads to better brain health, which leads to better health overall! The stomach is connected to the brain in so many ways, it is essentially your second brain due to all the nerve connections, and can directly affect mood and thought processes, which is why mindful eating should be something that everyone is doing. It is not just for those who want to break a habit or lose weight. Here are 10 things to do in order to be mindful when eating.

1. Be thankful

One of the most repeated terms I have heard from my doctor this year, is “rest and digest.” There is a purpose for taking time before you eat to pray be thankful for the food on the table, or nowadays, take a picture of your McNuggets because they are snap worthy. Our bodies have two modes when we are put under stress: fight or flight. When we are in flight mode, our body shuts down “unnecessary” functions in order to be able to run away from the stressor. There is a reason we don’t eat while on a run (mostly because it is incredibly hard to run with a plate of pasta flinging around), but also because our body is putting more energy into our legs and lungs. In my case, my body thinks it’s always in danger/stressed, and has turned off my stomach acid production which makes it extremely hard to digest food. Flight is the most common mode to be in when we are stressed because we try to run away from our problems-it isn’t just a figure of speech! Eating is supposed to be a happy time for humans, and giving yourself this pause to be thankful, signals to your body to stop fleeing in order to focus fully on your food and digestion. Mind-body connection is real! Being able to let the stress go away, and be thankful, allows for your body to focus on the right thing at the right time, and practicing mindfulness helps your body to get better at differentiating stress from rest. So do yourself a favor and be thankful before a meal, because in the end, you’ll also be thankful that you didn’t give yourself indigestion.

2. Out of sight, out of mind

Do you find yourself grabbing a piece of candy out of the bowl at the bank, doctors office, front desk, etc just because it is there? If you answered yes, now answer this. If there were no bowl, would you ask the bank teller, or receptionist if they had any candy in the back? I’m going to guess probably not because I’m positive you weren’t thinking about candy until you saw that bowl. The Proximity Effect in psychology easily applies to this, as it states that we like something better when it is close to us because it is convenient. Studies have shown that regardless of the food (in one particular study it was M&Ms and raisins), participants ate just as many of each when they were in close proximity, even if they didn’t like raisins. We take advantage of opportunities just because they are there, and free, despite the fact if they are good for us or not. Instant gratification at it’s finest. When snacks or food are out of sight, it usually leads to not thinking about them. The mindfulness part comes into play, because when they are out of sight, once it comes to mind, it means that you probably actually are hungry rather than mindlessly eating what is there. It allows you to honor what your body is telling you, rather than what your mind is telling you. Now back to the study I mentioned earlier. If the raisins weren’t sitting in a bowl in front of you, but rather, were in the pantry, not close in proximity, would you go get them just to eat them for no reason? Probably not..I mean come on, they’re raisins. Being aware about what is there in front of you, and if you’d eat it if it weren’t there, is a huge part of this practice. Keep your food in the pantry where it belongs. No reason for raisins!

3. Portion it out

Ok so let’s say you actually do want raisins. You go to the pantry and get out your five pound bag from Sam’s Club (or Costco, I don’t discriminate). Instead of bringing that bag with you back to the couch, portion out the serving size recommended, and then put the bag away. So many of us will take the container or bag with us and continue to devour the whole thing while we work on homework, talk to friends, or watch Netflix, just because we can, and aren’t thinking about how much we truly need. The serving size label might as well be in a different language. Another example is when we go to restaurants. Most of the time, we are given a larger portion than we need. So before you dig in and get lost in conversation, portion out how much your body needs, and put the rest in a to go box. Not portioning out food is so dangerous because we don’t realize how mindlessly we eat; and because we are listening to the TV, glued to our textbook, or talking with dinner mates, we aren’t listening to hunger cues. There’s nothing to stop you, and before you know it, you ate more than you wanted to, but more importantly, than your gut wanted you to. It is hard to be mindful when the giant bag of raisins is never ending, or steak fries are bottomless at Red Robin. Endless food has become some weird form of permission to keep going. Most of the time, we think that we need a large quantity of something for us to feel satisfied, but really, that isn’t true! It is ok to not finish food, or empty the container! Ultimately, it’s going to be waste either way if you know what I mean, so might as well save your body the troubles.

4. Cut out distractions

Raise your hand if you eat at least one of your meals while watching TV, looking at your phone, listening to music, or doing something else instead of 100% focusing on your plate. I’m picturing every single one of you raising your hand. This tacks on to my last point about portion control and not realizing how much we eat, because we are DISTRACTED. Imagine sitting at your kitchen table with that giant five pound bag of raisins with no distractions at all. Just you, that giant bag, and silence. I would find it surprising if you ate that whole bag of raisins because now, you are more aware of your actions, and consciously know that eating five pounds of raisins is hard to do if that’s your main focus. This mindfulness tip is probably the most important, because it truly allows you to be in tune with yourself, and listen to your body. Cutting out distractions allows for our decision making part of the brain to take over, rather than our primitive brain that wants us to ease feelings of discomfort regardless of what’s logical. This tip is probably the hardest since most of us can’t handle being by ourselves without our phone. Apply the golden rule of “treat others how you want to be treated” to your meal time. Give the full attention to your food that you’d want from your significant other or your spouse. Yes, it may feel so weird to sit in complete silence, no sports center, no Instagram, no HGTV..but I promise you, your food will start to taste better, last longer, and your food baby will be smaller than third trimester.

5. Eat slower

Our society has adopted the belief that everything is a competition, and that faster is better. I remember my friends and I challenging each other to see if we could swallow our Kraft mac and cheese without chewing. This completely goes against rest and digest. I’d love to ask the world record holding hot dog eater if they remembered SPECIFICALLY what their 15th hot dog tasted, and looked like. Odds are, they wouldn’t be able to because they can’t remember it, and never took the time to stop and look at it. I’d also like to ask them how their intestines felt after all that. Eating too much too fast creates an excess in dopamine (feel good neurotransmitter) making our brain eliminate dopamine receptors to accommodate for too much, creating tolerance, which requires more of the good thing in order to get past the new tolerance threshold and feel satisfied. It is a chain reaction. There is so much psychology to eating, and eating slower has proven to help so many things. First it helps you digest your food, and allows your brain to activate the correct amount of neurotransmitters and hormones. Second, it allows you to enjoy your eating experience longer, which makes us feel good! Why do we look at our food after we take a bite instead of just chomp it down? Because of the same reason I like to look at Channing Tatum: we like to look at things we enjoy. We all very easily could devour a taco in under a minute, but have you ever noticed that you simply don’t do that? Why? Because it isn’t as enjoyable as eating a taco at regular taco-eating speed. Ever heard the saying “less is more?” Well, it only works if you allow your taco to exist for more than five seconds. There’s a reason we have teeth, use them!

6. 20 minute rule

When we portion out food, most people will question how they know the quantity their body needs because serving size is not “one size fits all.” Because of this, our eyes usually are bigger than our stomachs. That is where this rule: allow yourself 20 minutes before going back for more food, comes into play. Many will eat more than we need because we are in a rush all the time, not allowing our body to process the amount of food we ate. Growing up, I was told that eating standing up was bad for you (I thought I would blow up or something), and now I finally understand why it is bad. My doctor explained to me that humans should take several hours for each meal to sit down, enjoy the food and company, and to rest so we digest. Standing usually means rushing, but as we all know, we don’t have hours to eat each meal every day. The 20 minute rule allows for the food to be processed, and for your brain to create Ghrelin or Leptin. Ghrelin is the hormone that tells you when you are hungry. Leptin is the one trying to tell you to stop eating the five pound bag of raisins while binge watching The Office. If you didn’t portion out enough the first time, Ghrelin will tell you to get more. But if you portioned out too much, Leptin will tell you to stop. A big part of being mindful, is listening to these two hormones, and 20 minutes is what we need in order to hear the “go” or “stop” regarding getting back in line at the Pizza Ranch buffet. Your body will tell you when you are hungry, you just have to give it time to decide!

7. Stop at satisfied

Being mindful while eating prevents having to unbutton your pants because you ate too much, and truly just feeling not good at all. Food is fuel, so think of your stomach as a gas tank. Your car only takes as much fuel as the tank needs to run smoothly, and it never takes more than it needs because it would spill over! Feeling satisfied means that you first need to figure out what satisfied hunger actually feels like to you, because a lot of us stop when we are full. Most people have a hard time with this one because while they know they should stop, and aren’t hungry anymore, their mind wants more because it tastes good, leading to overflowing the tank. Allow yourself to have enough to be satisfied, but not full. What this means, is to stop when your tank is at 80% (satisfied) about a 5, not 100% (stuffed), a 10. While having to refrain from eating the rest of the chocolate cake to stop at satisfied isn’t as fun, your gut will thank you. Once you are satisfied, use the 20 minute rule to evaluate if you truly have satisfied your hunger. There really is a lot of thinking and self talk when it comes to eating/being mindful. Stopping at satisfied also avoids the “gas” in the gas tank metaphor if you know what I mean.

8. Keep a food journal

For those trying to reach goals such as losing weight or eating healthier, this is a big one. Now, it might seem kind of stupid to write down what you are eating, and how you feel about it, but it can give you so many answers as to why what you are doing is/isn’t working. This is a great tool to find patterns such as food sensitivities, or weight loss/gain. The journal above was super helpful in seeing the correlation between my food sensitivities, and FND. Being interactive with your food, rather than just eating it, can tell you so much about why you feel sluggish when eating cheat meals on the weekends, or have so much energy when eating clean. It is visible proof as to how the brain and stomach are connected. Hangry is a legit thing! When you are crabby in your stomach, it triggers your Amygdala (controls feelings) to make the rest of you crabby. Amazon has a huge selection of journals that allow you to track what you ate, how it made you feel, and how you can improve the next day. Or, just simply find a template online and make your own. They make you think about food in a way you never have before. Food journals also keep you accountable depending on what your goal is. Have you ever thought about how grilled cheese makes you feel deep down? Here is your chance.

9. Ask questions

Asking questions while eating is the greatest tool to being in tune with yourself. Like I mentioned, mindful eating comes with a lot of self talk. Asking questions allows us to focus on our buddies Ghrelin and Leptin, and what our body is telling us. Sometimes we just get so distracted, or fall into a habit of being in the clean plate club, that we disregard a lot of important cues. It may sound silly, but ask yourself these things while eating. Am I full? If yes, stop eating. Does this sandwich taste good? No. Then why the heck are you eating it? Good question, I’ll stop. How does this chocolate make me feel? Terrible heart burn. Stop eating it! Do I want more tacos? Yes. Do I need more to feel satisfied? No. If I eat this cookie, will it satisfy me? No. So why eat it? Touche. Will this flaming hot Cheeto hold me over more than this apple? No. Ok, I’ll choose the better option. Will this cookie nourish my body more than this cucumber? No, but it will satisfy me more so I will eat it. Do I want to clean my plate? No, I’m full. So don’t! Is this ice cream worth the stomach ache later since I’m sensitive to dairy? Yes, but it’s worth it (as all lactose intolerant people claim to say). These questions are really just like a tennis match with yourself. So much back and forth conversation until a conclusion is reached. There are no right or wrong answers, but being able to have that dialogue with yourself is what mindfulness is. You are in control of your decisions once you become mindful of what you eat.

10. Be intuitive

The best example of eating intuitively, is newborn babies. They stop when they are full, eat when they are hungry, and don’t eat what doesn’t taste good to them aka spit it out all over their bibs. Eating intuitively means listening to what your body needs (mindful), but also, honoring your cravings. Because we were all newborns at some point in our lives, it means we ate intuitively, so why not do it again? We have lost touch with this because cravings, distractions, eating fast, and all the things I mentioned above have come into play. Going back to listening to our body’s needs and wants is the healthiest and most enjoyable way to live. Why is this so important? A lot of times, we will crave something not so healthy, but deny ourselves from it. This leads to it backfiring on us because we feel deprived, so instead of eating the one cookie we craved, our brain tells us to eat the whole box since it marked it as “scarce”, which then leads to feeling gross. Being mindful allows us to eat intuitively, allows us to honor our cravings, and allows us to be able to say no to what we truly don’t want. There is no social obligation to have to eat dessert if you truly don’t want it or like it, but food gets tied to social activities a lot of the time in our society. Choosing not to have dessert that your grandma made for after dinner doesn’t make you any less polite than if you did have it. Intuitive eating sounds so simple, but because we aren’t mindful, adhering to societal “rules”, or in tune with our bodies, it becomes impossible. Don’t try to control your diet, when your body is so good at telling you what it needs. You just have to learn to start listening!

Being mindful is not a trend, and it is not a chore. One of the main reasons mindfulness is so hard to do, is because most people don’t want to. They don’t see the long term benefits to their mind and body of eating without scrolling through their phones, chewing their food a few more times than normal, talking to themselves, waiting 20 minutes before eating another subpar pizza slice, writing down that they ate a pickle, refraining from eating five lbs of raisins, or keeping their food out of sight. Eating mindfully opens so many doors and reduces lots of unnecessary stress (rest and digest). It takes time to be able to do, but is so worth it when you finally have the freedom to eat without guilt, without discomfort, and are able to say no. Being in touch with yourself is such an advantage both physically and mentally! While trying out all ten of these at once may be a bit much, try to pick a couple and give them a go. There is so much research out there about how beneficial being mindful is whether that be in eating, breaking habits, or dealing with stress.

Have a great weekend, and be mindful of being mindful!