eating mindfully

With the approach of a new year, you’re probably making resolutions to improve your health and well-being. That’s great! Unfortunately, resolving to lose 50 pounds or give up eating sweets probably isn’t realistic. Instead, resolve to take small, realistic steps to become more mindful of food and eating.

What does it mean to eat mindfully?

“Mindfulness” has established strong roots in various professions, health disciplines, and lifestyle practices. Mindfulness refers to being aware of what is going on within oneself and within one’s surroundings on a moment-by-moment basis. It involves paying deliberate, non-judgmental attention to one’s internal processes and external environment.

Often, our thoughts wander away from the present moment. We may be preoccupied with what happened an hour a. Or we’re worried about what might happen tomorrow or what we need to do next week. Mindfulness encourages us to notice these preoccupations and then to gently bring ourselves back to the present. Mindfulness promotes balance, choice, personal empowerment, and acceptance of what is.

Be Mindful of Your Eating Habits and Food Choices

You can apply mindfulness to many areas of life, including your eating habits and food choices. Most of our thoughts about healthy eating tend to focus only on what we eat. We pay much less attention to how we eat. Yet a growing body of research indicates that changing our attitudes and practices around meals and eating rituals may be as important as the foods we put in our mouths.

The average person makes over 200 food-related decisions per day. This surprises many people. But we make most of these decisions unconsciously or mindlessly. A mindful approach helps give you more control over these decisions. Mindful eating intensifies the enjoyment of the eating experience, increases recognition of hunger and fullness cues, and enables us to know what and how much we’re eating.

Mindful eating can be particularly helpful in sustainable weight management. And it helps create a positive lifelong relationship with food. Like trying to change any habit, though, it takes a concerted effort. But if you’re committed to the practice, mindfulness becomes increasingly easier. And you’ll learn how to enjoy your food more and naturally eat less.

As a dietitian, the biggest barrier I encounter about the start of mindful eating is “I don’t have time.” Mindful eating, like most worthwhile endeavors in life, is a process. It doesn’t have to be all at once. Start by eating one meal or snack mindfully each day.

At its core, food is sustenance – it gives life and it sustains life, thus it deserves your full attention. You may think multi-tasking is the only option in the chaos of everyday life. But most people recognize that when we try to do too many things at once, we rarely do any of them well. Indeed, the consequences of not paying attention can be disastrous – in school, while driving, while watching your children play, or while eating. The 200 daily food decisions will occur whether you are mindful of them or not. You can increase your mindfulness by taking one decision at a time.

15 Ways to Practice Mindful Eating

  1. Choose or Create a Distraction-Free Eating Environment.
  2. Check In With Yourself.
  3. Eat Slowly.
  4. Chew Each Bite 20-30 Times.
  5. Put Your Utensil Down Between Each Bite.
  6. Engage All of Your Senses.
  7. Discover the Satisfaction Factor.
  8. Sit Down While Eating.
  9. Serve Out Your Portions.
  10. Know Your Food.
  11. Give Gratitude.
  12. Challenge the Food Police.
  13. Cancel Your Membership to the Clean Plate Club.
  14. Appreciate All Food and Eating Experiences Equally.
  15. Take Precautions in Social Situations.

1. Choose or Create a Distraction-Free Eating Environment.

We love to drive, talk on the phone, watch television, use the computer, or read while eating.  But engaging in other activities while eating inevitably makes us less aware of what and how much we are eating.

Have you ever glanced up from your phone or tablet only to find that you’ve finished your lunch? Yet you barely remember eating it. Or found your hand scraping the bottom of a large box of popcorn at the movie theater before the movie has even started? Distracted eating prevents us from fully enjoying our food and inhibits our ability to detect hunger and fullness cues.

At meal and snack times, make food the main attraction. Silence the phone. Turn off the television. Shut down anything with a screen. Pull off on the side of the road or into a parking lot. You can resume your activities as soon as you are finished eating. Nothing is so important that it should take precedence over your nourishment.

Possible New Years Resolutions:

  • I will make my kitchen table an electronics-free zone for my whole family.
  • I will avoid eating in front of a screen (television, computer, phone, iPad).
  • I will keep my phone in a separate room while I am eating.
  • I will not eat in the car while it is moving.
  • I will not read the newspaper while I am eating.
  • I will avoid doing paperwork and/or paying bills while I am eating.
  • I will take part/all of my lunch break X number of days per week rather than eat and work at the same time.

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2. Check In With Yourself.

Before eating, take a few moments to reflect on how you feel – physically, mentally, and emotionally. What are you bringing to the table? Are you rushed? Sad? Bored? Frustrated? What are your wants? And what are your needs? Differentiate between the two.

Analyze your level of hunger: Ask yourself, “How hungry am I on a scale from 1 (empty, completely ravenous) to 10 (sick, stuffed)?” Observe your body and notice the hunger and fullness cues that guide you to start and stop eating. These cues differ based on the person.

Listening to your hunger and fullness cues can help you to control your portion sizes and avoid overeating. It also prevents you from getting so hungry that it is hard to stop eating once you start.

Some people find it helpful to take a few deep breaths prior to a meal/snack to help center themselves in the eating experience. Throughout the meal, take “pause points” to assess changes in your body’s sensations and urges. Is your hunger decreasing? Are you eating quickly or slowly? Are you mindlessly munching or noticing each bite? Is the food still enjoyable? Do you need to keep eating? Are you satisfied? Is the food worthy of your taste buds? Are you eating it just because it is there?

Remind yourself that food tastes best when you’re actually hungry. The first bites are often the most satisfying. Additional bites may not be as pleasurable, and the last bite is never as od as the first.

If you aren’t physically hungry, evaluate what may be prompting you to eat. For example, the desire to eat could be triggered by something in your immediate environment:

  • Commercial advertising a new food product,
  • The smell of baking bread as you walk by a bakery
  • Witnessing a co-worker eating on her lunch break
  • The time on the clock
  • The presence of chocolates on the corner of your desk.

These are all external, not internal, cues. Naming and acknowledging these triggers reduces their power over you.

Food is also frequently used as a tool to placate emotional hunger. While eating may briefly alleviate negative emotions, it isn’t designed to soothe or numb, or distract us from our feelings. Feelings are part of the human experience. Don’t be frightened of feeling lonely, angry, or stressed. Sit with your feelings rather than fleeing from them. Remind yourself that if physical hunger isn’t the problem, then food isn’t the solution. Going for a walk or confiding in a close friend is a much more effective and productive remedy for emotional distress.

Possible New Years Resolutions:

  • I will take a few deep breaths prior to eating.
  • I will rate my hunger and fullness before and after eating on a scale of one to 10.
  • I will make a list of non-food related coping skills that I can practice in the event of emotional hunger.
  • I will pause throughout my meal or snack to monitor my levels of hunger and satisfaction.
  • I will not ignore hunger or procrastinate eating, as doing so may result in excessive hunger and difficulty in feeling satisfied.
  • I will use my body’s internal cues to tell me when I am hungry and/or full rather than the external cues in my surroundings.

3. Eat Slowly.

Eating is not a race. And it takes about 20 minutes for your gastrointestinal tract to send satiety (fullness) signals to your brain. If you eat quickly, you may have already overeaten by the time your brain registers that you are full. Slowing the speed at which you eat gives your body and stomach time to communicate a sense of fullness.

You can see the benefits of eating slowly in numerous European societies. In Europe, businesses and shops commonly close for several hours in the middle of the day. At this time, employees typically return home to eat a meal. Desktop dining and dashboard dining are virtually non-existent. Interestingly, obesity rates across Europe are much lower than those of the United States.

But how’s that possible? Anyone who has traveled to Europe can attest that the regional cuisines are comprised of staples such as cheese, bread, cream, butter, chocolate, alcohol, and pastries – all foods associated with weight gain. Multiple food scientists have proposed that the secret behind Europeans’ weight control is not about what they eat. It’s about the generous amount of time they allocate to eating.

Possible New Years Resolutions:

  • I will set a timer for 20 minutes, and try to make my meal last until the timer es off.
  • I will wait 20 minutes before ing back for seconds.
  • I will eat one meal per day with chopsticks. (Eating with chopsticks requires extra concentration and limits how much food can be picked up at a time, which helps to slow you down.)
  • I will pace my eating with the slowest eater at the table.
  • I will eat one meal per day with my non-dominant hand. (The more challenging eating is, the slower the process will be.)

4. Chew Each Bite 20-30 Times.

Purposeful chewing is probably the simplest and most effective way to develop mindful eating habits. The average person chews each bite of food about three to six times before swallowing. However, the longer you chew your food, the more pleasure you can derive from its flavors and textures. Plus, the better chewed your food is, the easier you can digest it.

Increasing the time spent chewing can also help to prevent overeating. It unavoidably slows down the pace of eating. The ideal number of chews per bite vary, but anything over 20 will likely provide a benefit. The most important part is that you choose a number and count your chews until you reach it. If you have young children, why not try making a game of it. “Who can chew their food the longest?”

Possible New Years Resolutions:

  • Every day at breakfast, I will concentrate on chewing each bite of cereal 20 times.
  • I have noticed that I eat bagels very quickly, and I swallow them in such large pieces that I get hiccups. This year I will make each bite of a bagel last 25 chews.

5. Put Your Utensil Down Between Each Bite.

Putting your utensil down between bites forces you to focus on the food in your mouth rather than on the next bite. It encourages you to slow down and draws your attention to the actual taste. When you are attuned to the flavors of food, you can get more enjoyment from each bite. And you’ll better detect the number of bites you need to feel satisfied.

The act of picking up your utensil also increases a sense of intentionality. Each bite becomes a conscious choice. Wait to pick up your utensil(s) until after you have enjoyed and swallowed what you already have. If you are eating food that doesn’t require a utensil (a sandwich, an apple, a slice of pizza), place the uneaten food back on your plate or the table after each bite.

Possible New Years Resolutions:

  • I will put my fork down on the table between each bite of spaghetti rather than clutch it in my hand.
  • I will avoid holding onto my favorite sub throughout the whole meal. After I take each bite, I will place the sub back in its wrapper and let go of it until after I have swallowed.

6. Engage All of Your Senses.

Notice the sensory details of food – the specific colors, aromas, flavors, and textures. Take a moment to really see the food in front of you: to smell it, to let the flavors rest on your tongue. Discern the tanginess of a lemon, the spiciness of arugula, the crunch of a pizza crust, the creamy texture of an avocado.

Eating is much more pleasurable when it is a multi-sensory experience. Savor each sensation. Ask your children what hummus tastes like, or tell a friend about the mouth-feel of whipped yogurt. Focus on the various flavors in your mouth and how they interact. Try to taste and identify all of the different ingredients in your meal. If the food does not stimulate sensory gratification, leave it.

There’s a common misconception that if you enjoy food too much, you’ll never stop eating it. Research shows the opposite. The more thoroughly you enjoy food, the less you need to eat to feel satisfied. If food is mediocre or undesirable, it will not satisfy you. Then you may find yourself eating more food to find the satisfaction you want. Mindful eating is not about denying yourself the pleasures of eating. In fact, it is just the opposite. It’s all about fully enjoying foods that you consciously choose to eat.

Possible New Years Resolutions:

  • I will take the first bite of each meal or snack with my eyes closed.
  • I will eat in silence for the first three minutes of a meal or snack so that each of my senses can fully capture the details of the eating experience.
  • I will set a goal to identify X number or X percentage of the ingredients in my meal by the time I am finished with it.
  • I will thoughtfully discuss the sensory qualities of various foods or recipes with my family as we are eating.

7. Discover the Satisfaction Factor.

Get in touch with your own food preferences and reactions. What do you like? What don’t you like? What associations do you have with food? Many chronic dieters have mastered “tricks” to help them avoid eating. They become programmed to eat only what they are told, and they forget what foods please their palates.

Following a strict meal plan to dictate what and how much you eat may seem error-proof. But adherence to a narrow menu 100 percent of the time takes the human factor out of eating. Both extra-rigid and overly permissive approaches to eating are equally mindless.

Respect your individual taste buds. Your preferences may be lifelong or may change from time to time. Would you prefer something sweet, salty, sour, or bitter? Crunchy, smooth, soft, lumpy, creamy, or fluid? What is the most appealing temperature of your foods? A steamy bowl of soup may hit the spot on a cold and rainy day. Yet chilly frozen yogurt is not usually desirable when you’re shivering under an umbrella.

What volume/filling capacity are you in the mood for? Some days you may want air-popped popcorn or a light salad. Other days, you are only satisfied with a heavier, more filling food such as oatmeal or pasta. Acknowledge your response to food without judgment or guilt. Neither belongs in a healthy relationship with food.

The Japanese have the wisdom to promote pleasure as one of their goals of healthy living. In the furious desire to be thin and fit, we westerners often overlook one of the most basic gifts of existence–the pleasure and satisfaction that can be found in the eating experience. When you eat what you really want, in an environment that is inviting, the pleasure you derive is a powerful force in helping you to feel satisfied and content. You will find that it takes much less food to decide that you’ve had “enough.”

The sense of satisfaction in a meal actually decreases the yearning for foods at a later time. Compare the experiences of having a full-course meal for dinner with just “picking” or scrounging. People who take the time to prepare a meal that attracts their senses of smell, taste, and sight report a feeling of satisfaction and a decreased need for more food later on. In contrast, those who come home and drop on the sofa with a box of crackers and a soda find themselves getting up at each commercial for another snack. They feel that they haven’t really eaten and never seem to be satisfied. By the end of the evening, they are overfull and frustrated.

If you feel truly satisfied with your eating experience, you will find that you eat far less food overall. Conversely, if you are unsatisfied, you will likely eat more and be on the prowl, regardless of your satiety level.

A patient recently told me about a day when she could not stop thinking about French fries. Concerned about the calories in the French fries, she instead settled for a plain baked potato. But that did not satisfy her craving. Still feeling unsatisfied, she ate her way through a container of nuts, a bag of yogurt-covered raisins, and a box of organic cookies. None of these perceived “healthier” foods satisfied her desire for French fries. By the time she gave in and ate the French fries she had wanted, she had consumed four times the number of calories she would have eaten had she just allowed herself to have the French fries in the first place. She was “chasing a phantom food.” She tried to fill the void formed by denying herself the satisfaction from the food she originally wanted. Settling for food that is undesirable or inferior can often leave you wanting.

Eating a variety of foods not only ensures a balanced and nutritious diet, but it also will provide you with much broader and more satisfying eating experiences. As you become more perceptive of these experiences, use your new insight to consider how your choices can work within your specific health goals.

Some people fear that giving themselves unconditional permission to eat “forbidden foods” means they will never stop doing so. While the intake of such foods may increase initially, it does not long term. Continued exposure to the same food ultimately results in boredom and a decrease in the desire for that food. It is deprivation (or even the mere thought of it) that leads to backlash eating.

Possible New Years Resolutions:

  • I will get to know myself better by learning about and accepting my food preferences.
  • I will plan and choose meals and snacks based on what I am really hungry for.
  • I will consider the various sensory qualities of foods when deciding what I want to eat.

8. Sit Down While Eating.

If you are accustomed to eating on the go, sitting at a table may sound overly formal. Yet actually sitting down with food allows you to concentrate on your food and better process the entire experience. Food that is eaten in the car, bedroom, or while cooking tends to be eaten hastily. It is also often a forgettable experience, so you may find yourself eating again soon afterward. Nevertheless, these calories add up.

Possible New Years Resolutions:

  • I will eat only when sitting down at the kitchen or dining room table.
  • I will chew gum during food preparation to help prevent excessive tasting.
  • If I want a snack, I will bring it to the table rather than just grab a handful when I walk by the cupboard.
  • If I take a piece of candy from the candy dish at work, I will bring it back to my desk and sit down to eat it rather than eat while I am doing errands around the office.
  • I will avoid eating while standing up.

9. Serve Out Your Portions.

Resist eating straight from the bag or the box. It is much easier to overeat when you can’t see how much you have consumed. It is also harder to fully appreciate your food when it is hidden from view. Identify the serving size listed on the container of food and then place one serving on a plate or in a bowl out in the open. Put the original container away and enjoy the food portioned out on your plate. This behavior compels you to see exactly what and how much you are eating.

Possible New Years Resolutions:

  • I will learn to read a nutrition label to increase my awareness of serving sizes.
  • I will avoid eating anything that is not on a plate or in a bowl.
  • I will remove one serving of food from a bag or box and then put the original container away.

10. Know Your Food.

Nurture a constructive relationship with food by learning more about it. Visit a farmers’ market, plant a vegetable garden, or try baking bread. Listen to a farmer tell you about his/her experience of growing and harvesting the food. Connecting with the story behind your food fosters a deeper appreciation for it.

Possible New Years Resolutions:

  • I will visit the local farmer’s market weekly.
  • I will purchase a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share for my family this year.

11. Give Gratitude.

In the past, individuals and families were more likely to begin each meal with an ode of thankfulness or blessing. Today, this ritual is largely absent. Now we pick up food in a bag at a drive-through window, eat from cartons taken directly from the refrigerator, or spend mealtimes separated from family members. Nonetheless, it is still important to honor our food and express our gratitude for it.

Thankfulness can be extended to the earth, animals, the farmers who grew the food, the factory workers who manufactured it, the truck drivers who transported it to be sold, the artisan who crafted the plate on which it is served, and/or the chef who prepared it. Recognition of all that es into producing a meal can help you to feel overjoyed rather than overstuffed.

Possible New Years Resolutions:

  • I will remind myself of how fortunate I am to have food each time I eat it.
  • My family will select or develop a short prayer of thanksgiving and recite it prior to each meal.

12. Challenge the Food Police.

Everyone has encountered the food police at some point. They are the voices that tell us what we cannot, should, shouldn’t, have to, mustn’t eat. Despite the claims of popular dieting approaches, there is no right or wrong way to eat.

A healthy diet looks different for everyone, and each person’s eating experiences are unique. Words such as good, bad, right, wrong, and junk are not applicable to food. Food does not have moral values. A peach may offer greater nutrient density than a chocolate bar, but that does not make the peach “good” and the chocolate bar “bad.”

I often tell my patients that there is no such thing as “junk food,” only food that can be eaten in junky ways. The more negatively you think or speak about food, the more problematic your relationship with food will likely become. Nourishment is intended to be gentle, not militant.

Possible New Years Resolutions:

  • I will be mindful of the ways I talk about food and avoid using words such as “good,” “bad,” “right” and “wrong” to describe various foods.
  • I will say something nice about food daily rather than dwell on my discontent. (“I appreciate the way food fuels my body to do the things I want to do” in place of “I ate all kinds of bad food at the work luncheon yesterday.”)
  • I will release any feelings of guilt or shame I harbor about eating or a specific food, as these do not serve me or empower me towards my health goals.

13. Cancel Your Membership to the Clean Plate Club.

Many people have an ingrained habit of eating to completion. We have a tendency to finish a plate of food, an entire hamburger, or a whole bag of chips regardless of the size of the initial portion or our level of hunger and fullness. This may be out of respect for the economic value of food and a desire to avoid food waste.

Yet chronically eating more than the body needs is just as wasteful, and quickly becomes an issue of waste. Perhaps you were taught as a child to finish everything on your plate before you could receive permission to leave the dinner table. Despite the intentions of well-meaning parents, this is discouraged by child psychologists, dietitians, parenting experts, and pediatricians.

Appropriate food consumption is determined by internal sensations of hunger and fullness, not by a clean plate or an empty container. You are not obligated to finish eating food just because you took a bite out of it.

Possible New Years Resolutions:

  • Pack up half a restaurant meal when it arrives at your table.
  • Leave the last few bites of a meal on your plate.
  • Save the remainder of your dinner for lunch tomorrow.

14. Appreciate All Food and Eating Experiences Equally.

It is easy to get excited about a new variety of your favorite cereal. Or to earnestly anticipate your grandmother’s annual pumpkin pie. Or favorably regard a candlelit meal at a fancy restaurant. But what about the lasagna or salad you eat frequently? The chicken you put in the crockpot every Sunday?

Don’t treat everyday food as boring and unimportant. Give it the same interest and esteem that you do to a favorite meal. Regardless of what you are eating, do your best to build and maintain a pleasurable eating environment. Set your table with a pleasing placemat or tablecloth. Arrange food on your plate so that it looks nice. Build your children’s lunches around specific themes. Keep the tone of conversation at the dinner table upbeat and benevolent.

Possible New Years Resolutions:

  • I will use my od dishes daily rather than just save them for special occasions.
  • I will avoid bringing tension to the table.
  • I will not initiate or engage in arguments or unpleasant discussions at mealtimes.
  • I will keep fresh flowers or a pretty centerpiece on the table at all times.

15. Take Precautions in Social Situations.

At a party, potluck dinner, or other special events, the most popular spot is usually in the kitchen or near the food table. Yet convenient access to food and beverage can make it easy to lose track of what you are consuming while you talk. Socialize away from the buffet table. Avoid arriving at social events starving. If you find yourself famished in a food-laden environment, it will be hard to make conscious food choices and to stop eating once you start.

Possible New Years Resolutions:

  • I will eat a small snack, such as some yogurt or a piece of fruit, to curb my appetite prior to ing to a birthday party, potluck dinner, or a special banquet.
  • I will propose and/or plan ways to spend time with friends and family that are not food-focused. (Such as going for a hike, playing a board game, going horseback riding.)

Talk to your primary care provider about your health habits and potential New Year’s resolutions that could work for you!

About UPMC Harrisburg

UPMC Harrisburg is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Harrisburg includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.

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