Mindful eating has become a popular term in recent years. It may have even “trended.” But why? What is all the fuss?
To find out, let’s break it down. According to one study, the term “mindful” is “the conscious awareness of whatever the focus might be.” In this case of mindful eating, the focus is our food and how we consume it.
Breaking It Down
Being mindful invites us to gain awareness of our experiences, rather than eat on autopilot. Studies have shown that when we savor our meals, we satisfy our hunger cravings more quickly, while enjoying the food more. Have you ever watched a child (or anyone, admittedly) eat candy? Sometimes they swallow so quickly they’ve barely tasted it! Had they practiced a little mindfulness, they might have relished the candy more in the moment—and avoided the bellyache later.
Where did mindfulness originate? The philosopher and scholar T. W. Rhys Davids coined the phrase in 1881, but it became mainstream in recent years by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn is the creator of MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction), at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He uses mindfulness techniques to calm the mind and return it to the fullness of the present moment. It’s the practice of being distinctly present. Or as he describes it in his best-selling book Full Catastrophic Living (one of my favorites), mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
When Our Mind Should Meet Our Palate and Why
People start diets for any number of reasons. Aside from weight loss, a diet may be adopted to reduce the effects of inflammation or to regulate hormones, including insulin, among many other possibilities.
While diets typically focus on the “rules” (counting calories, what food is or isn’t allowed, when food is or isn’t allowed), mindful eating focuses instead on the experience of eating. It helps tune us into our hunger cues and help discern them from the emotional triggers that might have us reaching for snacks we’re not actually craving. Food becomes more satisfying. Hooray! Who doesn’t want to enjoy food more? On the other hand, when we practice mindfulness, we might become more aware of how eating that entire box of cookies maybe wasn’t so satisfying after all.
The next time you sit down to break the proverbial bread, consider this exercise to make the most of your meal. Start to take note of how you eat, and how you feel during and after. The difference may surprise you.
Mindful Eating Exercise #1: Mindful Tasting
- TIME: 3-5 Minutes
- WHAT YOU’LL NEED: A small piece of food. Choose something neutral (that you don’t love or hate) and small (like a grape, a raison, or an almond). I am using a grape. Set yourself up somewhere private and quiet. Keep your TV, radio and other devices off. Place the food item down on the table to begin.
Try not to think your way through the exercise, experience it, using all of your senses.
- First, observe your food item. Notice its size, shape, color, textures.
- Next, close your eyes and explore it with your sense of touch. How does it feel in the palm of your hand, between your fingers, or when you squeeze it? Touch it to your face and/or to the back of your other hand.
- Keeping your eyes closed, bring the food item up toward your nostrils. How does it smell? Does it smell different to each nostril?
- Now it’s time to take a bite. Before you do so, keep your eyes closed, and no matter how small it is, bite only enough that you have at least one more bite to follow. With your eyes closed, take your bite. Chew very very slowly. First with the front teeth, let it roll around in your mouth, being aware of the different sensations that happen. Chew, taste, and experience each bite.
- Chew until the food dissolves in your mouth, then swallow. Even as you swallow, be aware of the feelings your mouth is experiencing.
- Sit with your eyes closed for a few moments to experience your whole body in this space of presence.
This is a great introductory exercise to mindful eating. You could give this a few more tries over the next week or longer, before delving into Exercise #2.
Mindful Eating Exercise #2: Mindful Meals
- TIME: 15-20 Minutes
- WHAT YOU’LL NEED: Designate 1 meal to be your mindful meal. Allow this meal to last for 20 minutes—set a timer with a soothing alarm to signal when you should be done. Eat this meal alone* Remain in silence for the duration of the meal.
Leave your phone, tablet, computer, radio, TV and any other electronics off. If possible, keep them out of sight. You will be astonished at how often your mind “goes for” one of these devices during this time.
When your mind wanders, do not get upset with yourself, simply notice that your mind drifted away and return to the exercise.
Take a minimum of 20 chews for each bite. If the chosen food is something that dissolves quickly without chewing, resist the urge to swallow it. Let it slowly and fully dissolve, before swallowing and taking the next bite.
Bring the awareness of your 5 senses to this meal: sight, smell, sound, taste and touch.
“Wait, you want me to take HOW long to eat? How will I ever finish my meal if I take each bite like this?”
Don’t worry. You will not take every bite with each of these steps but try to do so for the first 3-5. Then remain in silence, stay off all devices, chew every bite 20 times and be generally aware of the senses as you eat.
Every once in a while, you can return to that full mindful eating by being aware of all 5 senses with a specific bite. I suggest having your journal nearby. I have had very deep and profound experiences on many occasions while doing this exercise and have been happy when I had my journal nearby to write the experience down.
If your goal is weight loss, I would suggest that your try this full exercise during 1 meal per day until it becomes habitual, and you experience mindful eating automatically whenever you eat.
If you have a family ritual of eating your meals together, do not alienate yourself from your family by telling them you can’t eat with them. I suspect that will not bode well for you! Instead, choose 1 small item to eat mindfully and alone for a snack; a piece of fruit, or a small single piece of dark chocolate, are great options.
Let’s Get Started…
- Take time to fully see this food with your eyes. Take in the colors, the textures. Look at it as if you have never seen this item before in your entire life. Observe all aspects of it, let your eyes adjust to see the deeper nuances of it. Notice how your eyes see more the longer you are intentionally seeing.
- Hold it up to your nose, let the scent(s) easily waft into your nostrils. Can you make out different components of the scent? Take a deeper inhale, possibly close your eyes during the smelling portion.
If your mother is anything like mine, she is going to be upset with me for the next instruction, but do it anyway:
- Touch your food. (Make sure your hands are clean, of course.) How does it feel? Is it cool or warm? Is there a texture? Are there multiple textures or layers or texture?
- Next, take a small bite. Resist the urge to put it fully in your mouth. Instead, let your lips make first contact. They are going to tell you more about the texture and you will begin to have your first sensation of taste. The taste buds on your lips are not as strong as your tongue but they are there and they send strong messages to your brain to start producing digestive enzymes, or to reject the food. Feel all of this.
- Then, let the bite enter your mouth allowing the stronger taste buds inside your cheeks and your tongue to have their response. Experience all of them. Does the bite taste different at different places in your mouth?
- Listen to the sounds of your mouth while chewing this food. Does the sound change in different places in your mouth? What does your swallow sound and feel like?
When you’re done eating, allow yourself to sit still in silence and experience your body after the action of eating. Feel the continued sensations of digestion; your body is working very hard right now. When the 20 minutes are up, return to your day.