Mindfulness & Nutrition: Part 1 of the Mindful Eating Series

mindfulness

I’m sure you’ve heard of mindfulness & mindful eating. You’ve heard statements like: Don’t eat while watching TV, and Always sit down while eating. 

While these can be good pieces of advice, there is a lot more to mindfulness than this.

Mindful eating is not about having rules. (Btw, I eat in front of the TV every week, and I am still a mindful eater). It’s about learning your body and self and then connecting what you know to your behaviors. 

I may not be able to convince all of you that mindful eating is better than calorie counting. But I know some of you are sick and tired of My Fitness Pal or counting your points. You want to enjoy your food again but you’re scared of letting it go.

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In this series, I’ll walk you through the principles of mindful eating and provide you tips that I use with my clients to help them move towards a more mindful lifestyle.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a concept based on zen Buddhism, and is a method of changing behavior through emphasized conscious awareness of self. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded and led the stress-reduction program based on mindfulness at UMASS medical school, defined mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (1).

Mindfulness can help manage (1): 

  • Pain
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep issues
  • Diet
  • Disease
mindfulness

What is Mindful Eating?

Mindful eating is mindfulness applied to your eating behaviors. It is a sensory awareness of one’s experience with food (1).

The purpose of mindful eating is to appreciate and enjoy food by learning to be fully present in our eating experiences (1).

RELATED: HOW MINDFUL EATING CAN CREATE FOOD ENJOYMENT

While calorie counting and dieting are outcome-driven, mindful eating is process-oriented (1). Mindful eating is based on your own perception and your experience with food. 

When you’re calorie counting or dieting, you are striving to conform. You’re conforming to a set amount of calories that society says you need. But society doesn’t know YOU. 

Society knows statistics and cultural desires to fit into an ideal body type and pushes unhealthy and unrealistic behaviors upon you in order to achieve that ideal body type. 

Mindful eating allows you to know what YOU need to feel your best and be your best version of you. Yes, it can help you manage your weight. But it is SO. MUCH. MORE.

mindfulness

Principle One: Acknowledge Responses to Food

Mindfulness and mindful eating are learned. It’s not as easy as flipping a switch. In addition to mindfulness practice like yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises, there are things you can do to improve your mindful eating practice. 

A good place to start is with the first principle I like to focus on with my clients: Acknowledge Responses to Food.

Whenever you’re making a change in your life, it’s always best to start with the simplest task. While none of this is simple, especially for life-long dieters, I find that simply paying attention to how you respond to your food is a great starting point.

Here are some pointers for getting started on this principle (1):

  1. Have patience. Slow down during a meal so that you can be fully aware.
  2. Focus on your 5 senses. Notice how your food looks, tastes, feels, and smells. Use your hearing, sight, and smell to be present in your location and moment.
  3. Assess your emotions. Notice what you are feeling before, during, and after eating.
  4. Acknowledge physical feelings before/during/after a meal.
  5. Avoid distractions. I know I mentioned above that you don’t need rules and can eat in front of the TV while still being a mindful eater. But if you have a habit of mindlessly munching while binge-watching your shows, I’d suggest letting go of this behavior for now, and come back to it later when you’re more experienced as a mindful eater. This doesn’t mean that every single meal needs to be you sitting alone at the table. But aim to make at least some of your meals completely distraction-free so that you can learn about your body and it’s responses to your food. 
  6. Be intentional. Is your intention with this food to satisfy a craving? Fulfill your hunger? Seek comfort? Note whether or not this food is achieving this intention, and if not, find another way to accomplish it.

Let Go of Judgment

When it comes to mindfulness, judgment has no place. The same is true for mindful eating. You simply cannot be in the moment if you are judging. If you’re judging the moment, you’re comparing. Therefore you are not present and you are not enjoying anything.

To let go of judgment when it comes to your food intake, follow these tips (1):

  • Don’t restrict your intake. Restricting your intake leads to judgment of yourself. When you can’t stick to it, you feel like you failed and you believe you are less. 
  • Disregard all preconceptions of food. Have no expectations of the food. This actually will help open your taste buds up to new things in addition to helping you become more mindful. When you taste something without expectation or preconceptions, you are more likely to like the food. For instance, if you taste whole wheat pasta for the first time, expecting it to be just like the pasta you’re used to, you won’t like it because it won’t be the same. If you taste it with an open mind, as if it were a new food, you’re more likely to enjoy it. I had this happen to me with almond butter. I expected it to be similar to peanut butter. Boy, was I wrong. The first taste was so odd to me. But being aware of my preconception, I continued to try it. Now, I love it. Just because something is similar, or considered an alternative, doesn’t mean it’s the same. 
  • Similarly, let go of all of your prior beliefs when it comes to this food. This includes
    • Health/nutrition of the food
    • Taste
    • Resentment of being forced to eat it as a child or of the fact that society pushes it on you as “superfood” or “good for you”
    • Foods you thought of as “trigger” foods
  • Trust your experience. Your experience will be different from anyone else’s. Trust it! This allows you to accept yourself and believe in your OWN perceptions of food and nutrition. 

References:

  1. Nelson, J. (2017). Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat. Diabetes Spectrum30(3), 171-174. doi: 10.2337/ds17-0015
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