Lindsay and I have become pros at smuggling snacks into movie theaters—a Tupperware full of homemade popcorn in Lindsay’s purse, some dark chocolate truffles in my back pocket, and a few La Croix’s stashed in our jackets. Every time I walk by the ticket taker I feel like George Jung walking through customs in the movie Blow.
Regardless of how many snacks Lindsay and I smuggle in, one thing I’ve noticed is that I’ve usually eaten everything within the first thirty minutes of the movie. As I scavenge the bottom of the Tupperware for popcorn kernels that won’t crack my tooth, I’m left wondering, “Did I eat it all?” and “Where did it go?” The answers to which I already know: yes, and in my stomach. This, my friends, is a great example of mindless eating.
Mindless eating is what most of us do. We eat impulsively, or when we’re stressed. We eat so much we need to take a nap or unbutton our pants afterwards. We eat while driving, working on the computer, or watching TV. We don’t pay attention to the subtle flavors or presentation of our food. We don’t stop to think where the food we’re shoving in our mouth came from, or what it took to produce it.
I have to admit, I’m guilty of all the above, but I’ve been making changes. I, like many others out there, am trying to practice mindful eating. Mindful eating is the complete opposite of mindless eating. It’s slow. It’s focused. It’s paying attention to when you’re hungry and full. It’s having an understanding of where your food came from and who prepared it. Mindful eating has been shown to help people lose weight and overcome eating disorders. If you’re in a bad relationship with food, think of mindful eating as couples therapy.
Here are 7 ways you (and I) can start practicing mindful eating.
- Slow Down: It’s often said that it takes twenty minutes for our stomach to send a signal to our brain indicating that it’s full. If we eat too fast, we’re more likely to override this signal and continue eating to the point of needing pants with an elastic waistband. Some techniques to help you eat slower include: putting down your fork/spoon after each bite, chewing your food 20-50 times per mouthful, having a conversation while eating, using chopsticks, taking a drink of water in between each bite, or sitting back in your chair after each bite.
- Avoid Impulsive/Stressed Eating: If you’ve worked in an office, you’ve learned that birthdays equal cake and early morning meetings equal doughnuts. Avoid eating just because food is available. Also, when stressed, find ways to manage it that don’t involve eating (chocolate). Set specific meal/snack times and only eat at those times. Learn to say “no” when offered cake, doughnuts, or any other in-between meal snack that will sabotage your health.
- Listen To Your Body’s Hunger/Satiety Signals: Wait to eat until you are truly hungry (but not starving). All too often we eat out of habit, not hunger. A quick way to determine if you are truly hungry or not is to do the “carrot test”. When you’re scanning the fridge because you’re bored, think to yourself, am I hungry enough to eat a carrot (or any other healthy food)? If the answer is yes, then you are truly hungry. If the answer is no, then you’re probably not. Beyond listening to your hunger cues, it’s also important to pay attention to satiety cues. In Okinawa, Japan, there is a cultural practice of mindful eating called “hara hachi bu”, which translates to “eat until you are 80 percent full”. The phrase hara hachi bu is typically said before meals as a quick reminder. Elders living on Okinawa are some of the healthiest, longest-living people in the world. This practice is thought to contribute to their health and longevity through calorie restriction which keeps them lean and may actually slow the aging process itself.
- Avoid Distractions: This goes back to my popcorn/movie example. It’s so easy to mindlessly eat while watching a movie, or TV, or while on the phone or computer. Our attention is focused on the entertainment, not our food or how much we’re eating. To avoid this, eat meals the old fashion way—around a dinner table with family, friends, or by yourself. You’ll likely find yourself eating less and enjoying your food more!
- Give Thanks: Before you eat a meal, think about where your food came from. Although you may have no clue, thank whoever grew it, harvested it, and brought it to where it is now—on your plate. Be grateful that you have enough food to eat, as many do not.
- Rethink Food: Most people eat food because it tastes good, which is great. Food should taste good. But go beyond that and see food for what it truly is—something that sustains life by providing essential nutrients that are capable of healing and nourishing our bodies. When you view food in this light, you’ll prefer healthy foods, and KFC will become less and less appealing.
- Pick Up The Subtle Flavors: This is something I really enjoy doing—trying to pick out ingredients in a dish. It’s like solving a puzzle with each bite. This dressing is delicious, what’s in it? Champagne vinegar? Lemon? Thyme? When eating, take time to identify and appreciate the subtle flavors of your food. Not only will you get the full experience of what you are eating, but you may walk home with a new recipe idea.
Like anything, mindful eating will take practice. Try all of the suggestions above, or start with just one. Any improvement is exactly that, an improvement.