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  • Writer's pictureMichael McEntee

What is Mindful Eating?

Mindfulness can be defined in many ways. But in terms of how it relates to eating, we can loosely define it as the practice of engaging all five senses to cultivate open-minded awareness of how the foods we eat make us feel (physically and emotionally). Here are six simple guidelines to keep in mind to discern between mindless and (more) mindful eating, and bring our bodies and minds back together:

Let your body catch up to your brain

Eating rapidly past full and ignoring your body’s signals vs. slowing down and eating and stopping when your body says its full.

Slowing down is one of the best ways we can get our mind and body to communicate what we really need for nutrition. The body actually sends its "I feel full" signal about 20 minutes after the brain, which is why we often unconsciously overeat. But, if we slow down, you can give your body a chance to catch up to your brain and hear the signals to eat the right amount. Simple ways to slow down might be, for instance, sitting down to eat, chewing each bite 25 times (or more), setting your fork down between bites, and all those old manners that are maybe not as pointless as they seemed.

Know your body’s personal hunger signals

Are you responding to an emotional want or responding to your body’s needs?

Often we listen first to our minds, but like many mindfulness practices, we might discover more wisdom by tuning into our bodies first. Rather than just eating when we get emotional signals, which may be different for each of us, be they stress, sadness, frustration, loneliness or even just boredom, we can listen to our bodies. Is your stomach growling, energy low, or feeling a little lightheaded? Too often, we eat when our mind tells us to, rather than our bodies. True mindful eating is actually listening deeply to our body’s signals for hunger. Ask yourself: What are your body’s hunger signals, and what are your emotional hunger triggers?

Cultivate a mindful kitchen

Eating alone and randomly vs. eating with others at set times and places.

Another way that we eat mindlessly is by wandering around looking through cabinets, eating at random times and places, rather than just thinking proactively about our meals and snacks. This slows us down for one thing, but prevents us from developing healthy environmental cues about what and how much to eat, and wires our brains for new cues for eating that not always ideal. (Do you really want to create a habit to eat every time you get in the car, or other situations?) Sure, we all snack from time to time, but it can boost both your mind and body’s health, not to mention greatly helping your mood and sleep schedule to eat at consistent times and places. Yes, that means sitting down (at a table), putting food on a plate or bowl, and not eating it out of the container. It also helps to eat with others, not only are you sharing and getting some healthy connection, but you also slow down and can enjoy the food and conversation more, and we take our cues from our dinner partner, not over or undereating out of emotion.

Having a mindful kitchen means organising and caring for your kitchen space. Consider what you bring into your kitchen and where you put things away. Are healthy foods handy? What kinds of foods are in sight? When food is around, we eat it. Classic advice is to also not shop when hungry, but taking the middle ground can also apply. A psychological effect known as “moral licensing” has shown that shoppers who buy kale (or such labelled superfoods) are more likely to then head to the alcohol or ice cream section than those who don’t. We seem to think that our karma will balance out and we can “spend” it on junk food, or other less than ideal behaviors.

Understand your motivations

Eating foods that are emotionally comforting vs. eating foods that are nutritionally healthy.

This is another tricky balance, and ideally we can find nourishing foods that are also satisfying and comforting. As we practice eating healthier and a greater variety foods, we are less inclined to binge on our comfort foods, and more inclined to enjoy healthy foods, ultimately finding many foods mentally and physically satisfying as opposed to just a few.

Connect more deeply with your food

Considering where food comes from vs. thinking of food as an end product.

We have all become ever more disconnected from our food in recent years. Many of us don’t even consider where a meal comes from beyond the supermarket packaging.

When we pause to consider all of the people involved in the meal that has arrived on your plate, it is hard to not feel both grateful and interconnected. Be mindful of the various elements that were part of its creation as you sit down to eat whatever you are eating. You can reflect on the cultural traditions that brought you this food, the recipes generously shared from friends, or brought from a distant place and time to be a handed down in the family. As you consider everything that went into the meal, it becomes effortless to experience and express gratitude to all of the people who gave their time and effort. With just a little more mindfulness like this, we may begin to make wiser choices about sustainability and health in our food, not just for us but for the whole planet.

Attend to your plate

Distracted eating vs. just eating

Multitasking and eating is a recipe for not being able to listen deeply to our body’s needs and wants. We’ve all had the experience of going to the cinema with our bag full of popcorn or Pick&Mix, and before we know it, we are asking ourselves who ate all of our popcorn?? When we are distracted, it becomes harder to listen to our body’s signals about food and other needs. With your next meal, try single-tasking and just eating, with no screens or distractions besides enjoying the company you are sharing a meal and conversation with.

So while formal mindful eating practices may be what we think of at first hand, the reality is that we do live, and eat, in the real world which is a busy place. But we can take the insights gained by trying to slow things down, listen honestly to our bodies, manage one thing at a time, perhaps even start making small rituals, and consider all that went into our meal on a more regular basis and bring more informal mindfulness to our daily meals.

Extracts taken from Christopher Willard from

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