7 Subtle Things Mindful Eaters Do at Every Meal
What is mindful eating? Only the thing that's going to change your relationship with food forever.
Understand mindful eating
Mindful eating is rooted in the practice of mindfulness, which is about staying in the moment, remaining conscious of everything you're doing—the opposite of auto pilot. Mindful eating sounds simple—it involves being aware of how hungry you are and how much you're eating—but anyone who's ever curled up on the couch with a bag of chips only to plow through entire bag without paying attention knows it's easier said than done. Annie B. Kay, lead nutritionist at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, says the trick to mindful eating is to go beyond simply thinking about what you eat and focus on how you're paying attention to your eating. "It's a type of meditation where you focus on the present moment, moment by moment, with a meditative attitude of non-judgment," she says. Even if you're a meditation novice, you can learn to eat mindfully. Here, Kay, along with Toby Amidor, nutritionist and author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day, share tips to help you re-frame your relationship with food for good.
Assess how hungry you are
Before you swing open the fridge out of habit, ask yourself: Are you hungry, bored, or stressed? If you're actually hungry, reach for a healthy snack (try these healthy and low-calorie snacks). But if after a moment of thinking about it you realize that you just need a break or are feeling anxious or stressed, look for another outlet, such as going for a walk, meditating, taking a yoga class, reading a book, or calling a friend. (Or try these simple ways to beat stress.) If your mouth craves excitement, brew a cup of tea or pop in piece of sugarless gum. Here's what your different food cravings could reveal about your health.
Eat slowly and thoughtfully
"Most people shove food in their mouth as they're running out the door," Amidor says. (Guilty!) But the point of mindful eating is to actually make time to enjoy your food. That means sitting down instead of standing at the counter, and when possible, taking at least 15 to 20 minutes to savor the flavors of your meal (set a timer to remind yourself if that seems helpful). To force yourself to slow down, Amidor recommends using chopsticks to eat or chewing each mouthful at least 30 times before swallowing. Another good trick is to try eating with your non-dominant hand, or making sure to rest your fork on the table after every bite. Here's how to actually eat in moderation.
Savor your food
Once you've mastered the art of eating slowly, you'll be able to appreciate your food more. Kay recommends taking a few minutes to think about what went into the preparation of your food, perhaps by saying grace or taking a moment to express gratitude for all you have, and then consciously observing the flavor experience. "Take in the colors, the textures, the aromas, and think about everyone who played a role in your having this plate of food," Kay says. "Breathe and relax." You might feel weird the first time you do this, but recent research suggests that this type of meditative eating pays off by alleviating stress. Kay says there's even some research that suggests contemplative processes (such as mindful eating) can change the structure of your brain, making it more resilient and better able to ward off disease.
Keep a journal
If you're struggling to connect to the mindful eating process, Kay recommends that you focus slowly on one bite of food and write down what you feel when you're finished. Begin by describing your meal, including its flavors and textures and any emotions it might bring up. How do you feel about the specific food you're eating? Good? Bad? Judgmental? Regularly jotting your thoughts down on paper will help you note any patterns you've developed and help you learn from your experience.
Don't mix mealtime and screen time
Eating in front of a screen, whether it's your phone, laptop, TV, or tablet, is a surefire way to distract yourself. That's good if you're trying to unwind from a long day at work but bad if you're trying to lose weight or develop healthy eating habits. In fact, multiple studies have shown that eating in front of the TV can actually lead to weight gain. Instead, sit down at your kitchen table or another quiet environment where you can focus wholeheartedly on the meal in front of you. Here are other weight-loss tricks from naturally thin people.
"When you're eating throughout the day, it can be difficult to assess how hungry you really are," Amidor says. This doesn't mean you shouldn't eat any snacks at all, but just be mindful of the snacking—are you truly hungry?—as opposed to just going through the motions. No matter how many meals per day you eat, aim to sit down at the table and focus on each one.
Eat in silence
It might seem weird to tell your spouse or kids that you want to eat in silence, so consider asking them to hold off on conversation for just the first three to five minutes of the meal, which will give you a chance to zero in on the sensation of eating—the aromas, textures, and flavors, and how it feels to chew and swallow the food. Try getting them in on the mindful eating action: Ask everyone to say three words that describe their experience of the meal. Amidor cautions that it takes about six months to develop healthy habits and recommends focusing on only two or three mindful eating techniques at a time. "It's also normal to fall off the wagon," she says. "That's all part of the process. Your job is shake it off and get back on track again."