Updated: Sep 23, 2019
One of the most popular questions that students ask me every semester is “How can I eat healthier?”. For some this means eating less in an effort to lose weight, others might want to gain lean muscle to improve athletic performance, and some students would like to eat more sustainably for the environment. We’ve all seen fad diets come and go, but typically, restrictive diets and specialized meal plans don’t last long-term. The most important factor that can lead to a healthy relationship with food, and a healthy body as a result, is MINDFULNESS. MINDFUL EATING can be applied to any dietary lifestyle- vegetarian, high protein, food intolerances- and does not require purchasing special pills, powders, shakes, or meals; but I promise that you will feel healthier after just a week or two of beginning the practice.
Mindful eating begins by addressing your emotions paired with physical sensations to determine WHAT, WHEN, WHY, and HOW MUCH to eat. Life is busy, and sadly most people don’t typically listen to their body’s cues to determine the answers to these questions. Mindfulness calls us to stop and check in with ourselves to make more intentional decisions about eating which leads to better health.
Here are some tips for beginning to practice mindful eating:
1. Determine why you are eating. Listening to your body’s physical cues of hunger and fullness such as a headache, growling stomach, irritability, or bloating, and energy levels is always the best way to decide whether or not you should eat. It might take some practice and a more regular eating pattern to begin to recognize these signals, but trust the signs. Using a Hunger/Fullness scale can help you get started (linked below). Notice the effects that the food you eat has on your body and emotions. Aside from physical hunger, we as social beings also tend to eat for other reasons such as holidays, celebrations, or to connect with people by sharing a meal. This is not intrinsically unhealthy, as long as you are mindful that you are eating for more of an emotional rather than physical reason. When eating for more emotional reasons it is easy to over-indulge; therefore, checking in with yourself and being mindful is even more important in these situations. If you begin to recognize that you are eating more often for emotional reasons than physical needs, then focusing on the next step can help you hone in this habit.
2. Slow Down and Enjoy food. Eating without distraction is nearly an extinct phenomenon in today’s cultural environment of constant stimulation, but eating while watching TV, reading, or even driving means that you aren’t focusing on our food or bodies as we eat, which typically leads to overeating. Choose a quiet space to eat that allows you to pay attention to the meal. Slow down by setting down your utensils between bites and talking to others, or simply thinking about the meal if you are eating alone. My favorite aspect of mindful eating is this step: observe the colors, textures, size, smell, and taste of each bite. It may sound simple, but when you take time to appreciate the characteristics of food you will feel more satisfied by it, and will be less likely to overindulge on large portions. Consider this Chinese proverb: The more you eat, the less flavor; the less you eat, the more flavor.
3. Recognize that Food is Fuel. Think about how the food you eat is contributing to your body’s health or decline. The human body requires a variety of nutrients: calories, protein, carbohydrates, fat, water, vitamins, minerals in order to work at its best potential. A well-balanced eating plan incorporates all of these elements in healthy amounts. We need food for energy, but too much of it can end up slowing us down. Being more intentional about eating a variety of food groups throughout the day is one easy step toward improved health. Choose the most colorful, most fresh, most nutrient dense foods you can find, and your body will feel energized and efficient. Choosing high sugar, processed, fried, and salty foods will lead to feeling sluggish and weighed down.
In closing I’ll share these words of wisdom from a health-minded journalist and activist, Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants”.
For more information on Mindful Eating visit https://www.thecenterformindfuleating.org/
Hunger/Fullness Scale: https://www.move.va.gov/docs/NewHandouts/Nutrition/N04_HungerAndFullness.pdf