Mindfulness has been getting a lot of hype from media headlines and wellness blogs as one of the top ways to improve just about everything in your life. From reducing stress to improving your health, it seems that just about everyone is touting the benefits of a mindfulness- and for good reason. In conjunction with a healthy lifestyle that includes eating well, getting plenty of physical activity and good quality sleep, practicing mindfulness can improve all aspects of your health. But what exactly is mindfulness, and what does it have to do with nutrition?
While the practice of mindfulness has roots in ancient Buddhism, its benefits can be seen in today’s fast-paced, high-stress world. Mindfulness is the practice of focusing your thoughts and attention to the present moment and accepting the moment without judgment. Being mindful is being aware of your emotions, as well as any physical sensations you may have in the moment. The goal with practicing mindfulness is to notice and eventually stop habitual thoughts and actions. Basically, turning off “auto-pilot” and turning on presence. While mindfulness is something that can be practiced in just about any situation, the practice of mindful eating focuses on just that… eating, mindfully.
Mindfulness is the practice of focusing your thoughts and attention to the present moment and accepting the moment without judgment.
MindLESS eating is certainly not a new idea. We’ve all experienced it. I’m sure just about everyone can relate to a time where we grabbed a bag of chips to snack on in front of the TV and before you know it, half the bag (okay let’s be honest – the whole bag) is gone. In fact, Brian Wansink, food psychologist, started Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab just to study this. In his 2007 book aptly named Mindless Eating, Dr. Wansink discusses his 20 years of research on eating behaviors and its effect on weight and health. One fact that really struck a chord with me was that on average we make over 200 food-related decisions a day! No that wasn’t a typo – 200 decisions a day! Think about that for a moment. How many CONSCIOUS food-based decisions you make in a day. Personally, I spend my whole day thinking about food and my next meal and I don’t think I make more than 10. The mindless snacking, eating on the run, emotional or stress induced eating are just a few of the examples of mindless eating that can lead to problems with weight.
So is mindFUL eating just the opposite? Sort of. Yes, you pay attention to the food choices you make, but It’s also more than that. We put so much emphasis on what we SHOULD eat, that we don’t pay much attention to HOW we eat. With mindful eating, you pay attention to the ritual of eating too. Who are you eating with, where are you eating, why are you eating, and what are you eating. Are you fully focused on eating, or is it still second to watching TV, driving, or doing work? As you eat, become aware of each bite, noticing the smell, how the food looks, how it tastes and how it feels in the mouth. Notice the physical sensations, such as your mouth watering, or the feeling of fullness you get with each bite. What thoughts do you have while eating? “I’m cheating on my diet,” “I shouldn’t be eating this,” “This is bad/good for me,” or “I deserve this meal” are just a few I hear often. And finally, what emotions do you have while eating? Happiness? Or is it a feeling of guilt or shame?
We put so much focus on defining foods as either good or bad, and the emotions and feelings that come from eating off of these “lists” can make us feel empowered or downright awful. The negative emotions associated with food and eating really don’t serve us. Eating a cookie, or a second slice of pizza certainly doesn’t make you a failure or a bad person, but so many people I’ve worked with have this mentality. Remember, the key to being mindful is noticing the moment, WITHOUT passing judgment. With our good food/bad food mentality, this can be a real challenge. Noticing these thought patterns associated with food can be a huge help for people who are struggling with emotional eating, weight problems or disordered eating.
Remember, the key to being mindful is noticing the moment, WITHOUT passing judgment. With our good food/bad food mentality, this can be a real challenge.
As you practice mindful eating you will become more aware of both the physical and emotional feelings and thoughts associated with eating. You’ll cultivate an awareness of your hunger and satiety cues, allowing them to guide you in making decisions on when and what to eat. You’ll learn to let go of the emotions that so often drive our food choices. Maybe not all the time, but hopefully at least some of the time. And finding balance and acceptance are all part of the practice of mindfulness.
Interested in giving mindful eating a try? Here are a few of my favorite books on the topic where you can learn more:
Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life (2011) by Thich Nhat Hanh and Lilian W. Y. Cheung, D.Sc., R.D.
Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (2007) by Brian Wansink, PhD
Eating Mindfully: How to End Mindless Eating and Enjoy a Balanced Relationship with Food (2012) Susan Albers, PsyD