Mindful eating is the practice of deliberately paying attention to the process of eating. It is a non-judgmental approach to eating. We should pay attention to what, how, why and when we eat, like that of an observer of the process without self-criticism or judgment. It is the process of understanding the internal and external cues that play a role in our eating habits, and recognising and acknowledging our emotional, physical and mental state before, during and after eating.
Food and eating are not always triggered by hunger. Hunger is just one of the reasons we eat. In an ideal world, hunger and satiety should be the only cues to trigger eating. This would help us maintain our weight and prevent obesity. But we now have an unlimited choice of food and other social cues and emotional responses to food. Eating is often controlled by factors beyond our awareness. When we eat indiscriminately and mindlessly in response to cues other than hunger, our hunger response gets blunted and true hunger cannot be recognised. This is particularly true when the habit of overeating or eating for comfort starts in early childhood.
Adults often coerce children to eat too much. ‘Clean your plate’ is often told to a child by a parent/caregiver, without considering the child’s true requirement for food. Force-feeding children is the norm, and food is often used as a treat or held as punishment. An emotional link to food such as ‘sweets mean reward’ or withholding food means ‘guilt and shame’ can create a dysfunctional relationship with food as we grow older. As a result, we eat when we are sad, stressed, angry or frustrated and worse, eat all the wrong kinds of food for instant gratification. Rarely would you reach for a bowl of broccoli when you are stressed or bored. More likely it will be a bag of chips with that addictive salty/sweet/sour, crispy feel or that decadent dessert.
These early childhood experiences can blunt our ability to read hunger/satiety signals from our body and encourage us to use food as a form of comfort in times of stress or unease. There may be other pre-conceived, deeply ingrained ideas such as — ‘I have to eat at a particular time’ — irrespective of hunger, which once again blunts the body’s own genuine response to food, hunger and satiety.
Other external factors can also influence how much or what we eat. For instance — room lighting can influence food intake. Ever wondered why fast-food outlets are brightly coloured and lit? This encourages increased intake of food, as also how much those around you eat. A quiet, sober, low-lit, fancy restaurant where everyone is served small portions and speak in a low tone, automatically encourages you to do the same. But a raucous buffet with a huge volume of unlimited food will encourage you to eat way more than you need to. Ambience matters. So do size of crockery and cutlery. In one study it was found that people eat 25 per cent less when given smaller plates.
Another disastrous distraction during mealtime triggering mindless eating is the television, telephone or other forms of screen time. Advertisements play on our emotions. Picture this: You’re watching TV after a good dinner… an advertisement for ice cream comes up, reminding you of the one in your freezer. Or makes you order one on your food delivery App. That is the power of advertising, used for marketing by big food companies.
Eating on autopilot, not consciously paying attention to what or why we eat, is very common. We all have pre-conceived ideas about our food. How many of you truly believe you should eat three big meals and two snacks every day whether you need it or not. Have you asked yourself if you are really hungry? If you are unaware of the reasons for eating, don’t remember what you just ate, or blindly reach for food as a solution to any problem, you are eating mindlessly.
Mindless eating also happens when we are in a social or family gathering and everyone else is in a self-indulgent frame of mind. A great culinary spread, an upbeat mood, alcohol, good company can all seduce us to eat much more than we actually need to or even want to.
Mindless eating results in eating the wrong kind of food, weight gain and chronic diseases and the body signals get blunted, while the real issues such as depression, stress etc are not solved.
How to achieve Mindful Eating
Listen to your body. We often ignore feelings of fullness when we are faced with one of our favourite treats. Or we disregard the discomfort created by eating a certain food that we love.
Be aware of the voice in your head. Good food, bad food, don’t waste, I feel guilt etc — these are age-old conversations that play out in your head regarding food. Some may have been planted in childhood, others, picked up along the way through friends, advertising, fad diets, or big food companies. You may be making food choices as a result of this programming or old habits. Be aware of this and the resulting behaviour.
Make eating a pleasurable experience. We may not always be able to do this. A midday snack may be a working lunch, but we could sit down to a proper meal in the evening, have a conversation and enjoy it. Pay attention to the food, flavour, and the company.
Remove all distractions. Television, the smartphone or your computer can be distractions that prevent you from really paying attention to your food.
Be non-judgmental about your body and food. A dysfunctional relationship with food is often associated with similar relationship with your body. Trying to lose weight can cause obsession about food and you may swing from starving yourself to the latest fad diet, not necessarily paying attention to what your body really requires. Not everyone is the same so they may not share your lactose intolerance. Only if you pay attention to how your own body responds can you react appropriately. If you are constantly being self-critical about how much you eat or agonising over an extra spoonful, there’s very little time and effort to pay attention. You’re too busy self-flagellating. So stop and pay attention.
Understand food. While you should pay attention to what you eat, you also need to understand the basic nuances of food and nutrition. Such as food groups, getting proteins for vegetarians, the serving sizes, and additives/preservatives in that food. It’s far easier to make the right choices when you know enough about food. You don’t need a degree in nutrition science to be able to manage your own meals, but you do need a keen awareness and understanding of food. This is probably the area most people neglect, waiting instead for advice from a celebrity or your friend who lost some weight. You are not them. You need to discover what works for you.
Stay in the moment. Savour the moment. Whether it is a simple snack or a five-course meal, savour it, enjoy it, chew well, pay attention to the flavour, texture, smell and sight. Experiencing food with all our senses enhances satiety.
Recognise how external cues influence your eating. Advertisements for food and drink influence us greatly. Recognise this as an external cue and not necessarily what your body needs. The size of plates, spoons and bowls influences how much we eat. Larger plates and bowls encourage us to eat more. The smell, sight and sounds of others eating also influence how much we eat. Lighting, music, conversation around us are important cues to our own behaviour.
Be aware of your triggers. There may be specific triggers that cause you to eat more or less. Make a note of them. For example:
Positive triggers to eat – (family gathering, celebration, party)
— Apply principles of mindful eating
— Enjoy the process.
Negative triggers to eat – (stress, anger, depression, boredom)
— Make a list of alternative actions to take instead of food
— Understand that food cannot solve this current problem.
The author is a lifestyle medicine physicist and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org