If you’re anything like me, I have to pay attention while I am eating or I taste the first 2-3 bites of any given meal, and then check out. If you are not present when you are eating the foods that you have prepared for your body to enjoy, you can end up feeling less than satisfied which will in turn cause you to eat more than what your body truly needs. Many of us share in this habit. In fact, recent studies show that in America, at least 20% of our meals are eaten in the car alone on a daily basis. I imagine it is safe to say that there is not a lot of mindful eating going on in the car while driving, watching out for the texter in the car next to you, or trying to fight traffic during rush hour. The truth is that we are stressed out and unable to find the time to take part in one of life’s greatest pleasures: mindful eating.
There are a myriad of reasons we don’t eat mindfully. The number one reason is we claim we don’t have time. We also like to say that we’re tired, we want to relax and eat in front of the TV, or we just plain don’t want to. So why does it even matter? It matters because when we don’t eat mindfully, we end up eating way too much food, we have no idea what our body is craving from a nutritional perspective, and we eat foods that are not good for us. When this happens, we end up overweight, we have digestion problems like acid reflux, and we never experience full satiety with our meals which leads us to grabbing those after meal snacks of a high sugar nature…which leads us to overeat (and continue the cycle).
What does it even mean to eat mindfully? There are several definitions of what it means to eat mindfully. The most prevalent definition states that mindful eating is defined as “eating with attention and intention”. That’s pretty clear, but I really like one I came across in FitWomen, which states, ” mindful eating is a means of feeding yourself in a manner that supports your health and weight goals”. Semantics aside, to eat mindfully is to be completely focused and present in the moment while eating. Not just to hold on to being in the moment for the first two or three bites that you ingest, but to hold on to the focused intention of eating mindfully all the way to the very last bite of your meal.
Mindful eating is a skill that takes patience and practice. I enjoy teaching my clients how to eat mindfully during their sessions because it is almost always an entirely new experience for them. We are not taught from an early age to be mindful of what we are putting in our mouths. In fact, many of the early messages we are fed have more to do with what are “bad” or “good” foods, or that we must finish all of the food on our plates. Messages like this take us away from mindful eating by their very nature. If we are going to base our understanding of food on the fact that it is fuel for our body and meant to provide us with everything we need to sustain health, then it allows for us to set up the platform to celebrate eating as if it is a tribute to our sense of self and the very basis for how we care for ourselves and respect our body.
Ready to get started? I encourage you to practice these five simple tips on the next thing you put in your mouth. It can also be fun to do what I do with my clients in my therapy office when I teach these skills. Go get 5 or 6 different texture/taste/sensory food items and place them on a small plate. They should all be single, small items. An example of what I have set up for a client include: 1 blueberry, 1 raisin, 1 pistachio nut, 1 raspberry, 1 small ball of blue cheese, all on a plate together in little piles. We then practice these skills going through the items on the plate one by one. Don’t be surprised if you try this and realize how long it can take you to eat these 6 items in the manner I outline below.
Step 1. Create Space – Make sure when you are going to eat, it is ALL you are doing. This means you get yourself into a place where eating is all that is going on for you. No TV, cell phone, email reading or checking Facebook. When you are eating, practice JUST EATING.
Step 2. Show Gratitude – Give a silent moment of thanks for the food you are about to eat. We are surrounded with convenience on every level to such a degree that we have no concept of the man hours it took to grow and harvest even just the lettuce bed that our meal may be served with. A dear friends daughter who is serving in the peace corps in Africa just recently learned a hard lesson first hand when she spent hour after hour tilling the dry hot African soil in order to plant sunflower plants. She was hoping to make sunflower oil to use in cooking. After spending numerous hours and waiting many hot dry days she harvested the crop of seeds and took it into town to be ground into fresh oil. She literally was able to make 3 tablespoons of oil from all of her hard effort. She shares this as one of the most humbling experiences of her life in the peace corps. It is a lesson for all of us in the disconnect we have from how our food is grown, harvested and shipped to the market for us to purchase. Appreciate this.
Step 3. Sensory Orgasm – Place a small bite on your fork. Smell it. Most of what people perceive as “taste” is actually a result of their sense of smell. You need to rev up those nostrils and get them on board for what’s coming up. Smell your food and imagine that it is acting as a “teaser” for what’s coming your way. Get excited about how that bite is going to taste by considering exactly how it tantalizes you. See if you can recognize the different spices or scents that are being released by the small bite on your fork. The human nose has over 400 different scent detectors that can detect over 1 trillion different scents. How many can you detect in your bite?
Step 4. Titillating Texture – Place that small bite on your tongue (finally!) and just leave it there. The average human has 10,000 taste buds but did you know they are all not on the top of your tongue? They are also under the tongue, on the side of the mouth, the roof of the mouth and even on the lips (which are especially sensitive to salt). So once that bite is on the tongue, move it around and activate those taste buds! See what flavors and salivary glands get spritzing when you do! Your whole mouth can join in the experience as you feel the texture, experience the taste, and get your digestive juices flowing in preparation for swallowing. Enjoy this bite you have given your body and when you have really spent time with it up down and around…chew and swallow.
Step 5. Repeat – But wait you scream! I want another step to this simple process. I have this as your final step because I promise you, it is the hardest one to do. For you to be able to mindfully eat your meal following the process above until your very last bite is a patience that you may find outside of your reach when you first get started. Mindful eating is a practice. It pays off, but you need to work on it. Keep at it. If you find your mind wandering off, bring it back. Try it again.
Food is a sensual sensory experience that is meant to be celebrated, honored, and enjoyed on every level. We are taught so many negative messages about food that sometimes we have negative relationships around meal time from the time we are small. Learn to fall in love again with food by enjoying the many sensations and joyful emotions that can arise when you are present and in the moment with your food. Make everything you put in your mouth worthy of your health, your body and also your complete focus. So what are you having for dinner?
Stacey Neil is a Licensed Psychotherapist and Personal Trainer who is in private practice in Los Gatos, CA. She can be reached at 408.827.5139.