Our eating habits differ from culture to culture and nation to nation. Undoubtedly, our childhoods do shape our primary eating habits, but today, we’re dealing with an even larger pool of influences from media, friends, and society. We all may have inevitably picked up unhealthy eating habits in some form or another. Mindful eating is a way to restore our relationship with food, not only regarding our own health and spiritual wellbeing, but also our planet’s health. In this article, we’ll explore how mindful eating can help you reconnect with your food, body, and spirit.
What’s mindful eating?
The practice of mindfulness has to do with noticing your thoughts, actions, and emotions in the present moment. Similarly, mindful eating is bringing awareness to your eating habits. This is practiced by paying attention to your thoughts, emotions, and all five senses while you eat. By integrating mindfulness into your mealtimes, you’ll become more conscious of what you’re eating, how you’re eating, and what influences your eating habits.
Buddhist Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh and Lecturer and Director of Health Promotion & Communication at Harvard Dr. Lilian Cheung, the co-writers of Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, define mindful eating as “a way to incorporate mindfulness into one of the most fundamental activities of our existence.”
But mindful eating seems to be antithetical in a society that encourages fast-paced eating — influenced by our fast-paced lives. Mindful eating has to do with so much more than the food we eat — it affects how connected we feel to our food, body, and spirit. Mindful eating, as a practice, has the potential to improve your health, your relationship with your food, your body, and the environment at large.
Now that you understand what mindful eating is all about, let’s look at the juicy benefits of mindful eating. Are you ready? Let’s dig in!
The benefits of eating mindfully
Registered dietitian Monica Meadows tells US Health News: “If we pay attention to what we eat, it tastes better and it’s more satisfying than if we eat by remote control.” Simply put, eating becomes a more enjoyable experience that we can look forward to when we’re fully engaged with what we’re eating.
Improved physical health
The correlation between overeating and weight gain can’t be denied. Although mindful eating isn’t a diet, it has been linked to many physical health benefits. One study concluded that mindful eating in conjunction with mindfulness meditation can lead to weight loss, decreased psychological stress, and a profound change in eating habits.
Healthier eating habits
By integrating mindfulness into your eating habits, you become more aware of your diet without having to restrict yourself. This means that you may opt for a healthy nutrient-filled meal instead of a heavily processed one or, even worse, fast food. There’s a growing body of evidence reporting that mindful eating reduces the frequency of binging. While mindful eating isn’t supposed to restrict our food choices, it has the potential to control our impulses and build healthier eating behaviors. One reported positive side-effect of eating mindfully are improved eating behaviors, although the evidence is presently inconclusive.
Improved spiritual wellbeing
When we practice mindful eating, it encourages us to engage with our food spiritually. Rooted in Buddhism, mindful eating offers us the opportunity to practice mindfulness. Practicing gratitude is also a way to connect to your spiritual nature. Cultivating gratitude for the food on your plate and where it came from are two ways to begin this spiritual practice. As Hanh and Cheung note, mindful eating “is a way to grow our compassion for all living beings and imbue reverence for life into every bite.”
A stronger connection to the environment
Practicing mindful eating connects you not only to your food, body, and spirit, but also to your environment. When we engage mindfully with our food, we connect with our food anew. We embrace the idea of seeing food as more than a meal; we think of our food as an element of our planet, and consider what actions had to occur to make that meal possible, from the vegetables, fruit, and animals, to the people that provided it for us.
5 ways you can incorporate mindful eating into your life
- Slow down to savor
Have you ever heard the phrase “eyes are bigger than your stomach” before? By that, I mean eating way too much, and often way too fast. We’ve all been there before! What’s more is that it’s deeply embedded in our society to overeat. It’s become the norm to over-indulge in buffet restaurants, all-you-can-eat sushi lunch dates, and takeaway meals. However, slowing down to savor the flavors of your food prevents you from overeating and eating mindlessly. When in doubt, think of your mother’s advice: “Slow down and don’t gulp down your food!”
- Chew, chew, chew!
I know I’ve said it 3 times, but nutritionists and Ayurvedic practitioners suggest chewing 30-50 times per bite to aid with digestion. While this may seem excessive, it can offer you some perspective on how much or little you chew. So, next time you sit down to eat, observe how many times you chew. Do you need to add a couple of chews to your bite? Once you’ve gained awareness of how many times you chew per bite, you can train your mind to chew more. Another way you could practice slowing down and chewing your food more mindfully is by using smaller eating utensils, or even chopsticks. Keep in mind that this is all about practice, practice, practice until it becomes a way of life.
- Engage all your senses
Sight: What do you see on your plate or bowl? Look at the shades of color, shapes, and size of your meal. Observe the variety of distinct elements on your dish.
Smell: What aromas do you smell? Contemplate the swirling of fragrances as you breathe them in.
Taste: What flavors do you taste? Is it sweet or sour, salty or bitter? Can you pinpoint the herbs or spices that season your tasty dish?
Sound: What do you hear when you chew? Do you hear music playing softly in the background or a distant chatter? Observe your environment and also the unique sounds you make when you chew on each of the ingredients in your meal.
Touch: How do the textures feel in your mouth? Is the temperature of your food hot or cold? Do these textures compliment each other and make a well-rounded dish? Also, pay attention to how your eating utensils feel in your hands or how your hands feel without cutlery.
Consider doing this as a ritual once a week, or once a month, and notice how you feel after eating a meal this way. Turn up the frequency to once a day, or twice a week, if you find it to be a useful practice.
- Avoid multitasking
When your mind isn’t focused on the food you’re eating, it becomes challenging to sustain the connection between your food and yourself. Typically, when your attention is divided whilst you eat, you can easily slip into a habit of mindless eating. Common distractions include phones, the TV, or working while eating. It’s unlikely that we’re able to pay full attention to what we eat when we multitask. To combat the urge of multitasking, keep distractions at bay and place your attention solely on the food on your plate to cultivate the practice of mindful eating.
- Listen to your body
Did you know it takes your brain 20 minutes to signal to your body that you’re full? By paying close attention to your bodily sensations, you can tune in to your body’s needs. Intuitive eating begins when you ask your body what it needs, instead of slipping into unconscious eating habits. Dr. Lilian Cheung and Thich Nhat Hanh recommend taking mindful breaths throughout your meal to check in with your body. By bringing awareness to your breath while you eat, you become more in-sync with what your body needs in that particular moment.
Mindful eating integrates all six of our dimensions of health at Holisticly: physical, environmental, spiritual, economic, mental, and social. We understand that eating mindfully isn’t always possible given the pace of our lives, but with some practice, we can slowly integrate this process into our day-to-day. Think of it as an invitation, if you will, to enjoy every bite, smell, and taste of your food. Are you curious to try it out?