Mindfulness is a concept that refers to the act of being aware of our thoughts, feelings and emotions. While we may typically associate mindfulness with meditation and spiritual practices, how does mindfulness relate to food? And what is mindful eating?April 25, 2022 10:30 am April 19, 2022 7:31 pm
What does mindful mean?
The term mindfulness has become a popular buzzword in recent years, but what exactly does it mean? We can define mindfulness as being aware of our thoughts, feelings and emotions as they relate to ourselves and to our environment. Moreover, being mindful is not just about awareness, it’s about being kind and nurturing towards our experience and perception of the world around us and within ourselves. For example, an example of mindfulness would be noticing the feeling of cold water against our skin as we swim in the ocean, and acknowledging the feeling without judgement.
In fact, the crux of mindfulness is acceptance. Through mindfulness we learn to accept our thoughts, feelings and emotions without judging them. In this sense, there is no “right” or “wrong” feeling or emotion at any given time. When we practice being mindful, our attention is focused on the present moment instead of replaying the past or wondering about the future.
The origins of mindfulness date back to ancient Buddhist meditative practices. However, in modern times, a newer type of mindfulness has developed. In fact, it began in the late 70’s at the University of Massachusetts Medical school. An academic named Jon Kabat-Zinn was one of the first pioneers to define mindfulness as we interpret it today. Kabat-Zinn’s main contribution to mindfulness was his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program which is an eight-week evidence based program originally designed for stress management. Subsequently, numerous studies have followed in Kabat-Zinn’s footsteps by uncovering the significant physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness. In fact. The MBSR program has been adapted in various settings, from schools to hospitals to correctional centres.(1)
From mindless to mindful eating
Mindfulness is not only a tool to reduce stress, it is also applied in the context of food and eating. In fact, mindfulness can significantly transform our relationship with food and our eating behaviours. Overall, this ancient practice can help us build a foundation for a lifetime of healthy and balanced eating.
In today’s society, especially in the West, many of us eat several times a day. Furthermore, most people are unable to remember everything they ate in a day, and much less the physical and emotional sensations that arise while eating. Research shows that the average Westerner spends over 2.5 hours per day eating. However, for over half of this time, we are multitasking. For example, many people eat whilst watching TV, or in front of their computer, or while driving. The issue with multitasking while eating is that our main focus is not on the food we are eating, we are not fully present or aware of our food intake. This is known as “mindless eating”, in other words, a lack of awareness of what we are consuming, a somewhat absent-minded behaviour. Unfortunately this common attitude towards food can have negative health consequences. In fact, Dr. Cheung from the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that this general lack of awareness may be contributing to the obesity epidemic along with other health concerns.(2)
“Mindfulness is rooted in focusing on the now, on the present at hand, all while accepting any thoughts, feelings and emotions that arise within us.”
How can we be more mindful at the table?
As previously explained, mindfulness is rooted in focusing on the now, on the present at hand, all while accepting any thoughts, feelings and emotions that arise within us. The principles of mindfulness are also applied to eating. Moreover mindful eating is more than just about the relationship between an individual and food. In fact, it also relates to what we eat and how it impacts the environment. Indeed, nowadays there is more awareness about sustainability with regards to food and farming practices. For example, in 2015, the US Dietary guidelines included considerations regarding the sustainability of food crops as well as the nutritional value of food.
Mindful eating refers to the approach towards eating but also to the food itself. In fact, mindful eating typically involves “healthy” food choices, similar to foods associated with the Mediterranean diet.(3)
For example, these include an abundance of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. However, the mindful eating approach can be applied to all foods, even to the “unhealthier” options. Indeed, mindfulness can actually help us to indulge in discretionary foods more often, because by paying attention to our food, we are less likely to overeat it. Overall, mindful eating is conducive to paying full attention to how we buy, prepare, serve and consume food.(4)
The road to mindful eating involves several steps and behavioural changes, especially regarding how we view mealtimes and occasions which revolve around food. In fact, Dr. Cheung proposes a series of practices to follow if you are new to mindful eating.
In her book, Dr Cheung lists 8 simple techniques to follow in order to achieve mindful eating.(2)
They are as follows:
From store to table
- Start with your shopping list. A good place to start is before leaving the house to get your groceries. In fact, planning ahead and making a detailed list of what you want to buy is a great way to minimise impulse buys when you are at the store. A good rule of thumb is to walk around the perimeter of a store. In fact, you will find that most of the time, this is where most of the fresh produce is displayed. Conversely, the centre aisles are typically filled with the most processed foods. Also, be aware of the check-out counters where sneaky merchandising techniques will lure you into buying strategically positioned chocolates and other snack foods.
- Eat when hungry, but not starving. Dr Cheung states that skipping meals can lead to overeating later. Therefore, when you are ravenous and haven’t eaten in a while, you are more likely to overeat at your next meal or to eat less nutritious foods to satisfy your void. In doing so, you may engage in mindless eating where instead of enjoying and savouring your food, you are merely focused on filling the pit in your stomach. Overall, it’s best to eat when you are hungry as opposed to waiting until you are starving.
Using your senses
- Start small. Sometimes our eyes are bigger than our stomach, meaning that we serve ourselves more food than we are truly hungry for. Start with a small serving first, and if you are hungry you can always go back for more.
- Appreciate your food. Practice pausing before a meal to appreciate what you have in front of you. Taking a moment before eating can help you to appreciate the effort it takes to bring food to a table, from the farmer who grew the crops to the person who cooked the meal, even if that person is you! You can express your gratitude either to your fellow dining companions or to yourself.
- Use your five senses at the table. Pay special attention to the colour of your food, the texture, smells, taste and even the sounds it makes when you are cooking, serving or eating a meal. Try to guess all of the ingredients of a particular dish while you are chewing your food. Perhaps close your eyes for a brief moment and make a mental note of what ingredients and seasonings are familiar to you.
Small and Slow
- Take smaller bites. Did you know it’s easier to fully taste food when your mouth isn’t completely full? Taking smaller bites of a meal can help you to savour flavours and be more present in the moment. In addition, resting your utensils on your plate between bites can help you to slow down and appreciate your food.
- Chew thoroughly. We often forget to chew food properly and thoroughly in order to savour it to the fullest. Dr Cheung suggests chewing each mouthful between 20 and 40 times, depending on the consistency of your food. You may be pleasantly surprised to discover how much more you can taste by taking the time to chew mindfully.
- Slow down. Eating more slowly will allow you to be more mindful about your food. A rule of thumb is to spend about 5 minutes eating mindfully before you engage in conversation with people at the table. Take this initial time to yourself to focus on and savour your food.
More than just awareness
Overall, mindfulness based approaches not only make us more aware of our food consumption, they may also help combat unhealthy eating patterns. For example, the literature has shown that mindfulness is effective for binge eating and emotional eating. Moreover, mindful eating practices may prevent weight gain in overweight and obese individuals. In fact, through heightened awareness of internal cues to eat, mindfulness regulates our behaviour. For many people, mindfulness may be an answer to address difficult eating behaviours. In conclusion, encouraging mindful eating appears to be a positive addition to general health and diet advice.(5)(6)
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