Eating Mindfully

2014-06-21 09.20.32If I asked my friends to describe me in a word they would say that I’m a “foodie”. I am the annoying guest who won’t take a mouthful of food until it has been photographed from every angle and posted on Instagram with an appropriate filter. I love everything about food and it is not only my hobby but I am also attempting to turn it into my livelihood.

Because I spend so much of my time with my mind focused on food, it can sometimes be hard to find balance. While food plays a hugely positive role in my life, forming the basis for how I spend time with friends and family, it is also where I seek solace in times of anxiety or when I seek comfort. When my life is in balance, my eating mirrors this and when I’m unbalanced, I eat too much. When I eat this way, food becomes less about nourishing my body and I feel worse about myself because my body feels uncomfortably full. When this happens I put on weight which also feels uncomfortable. I often try new diets but in practice they rarely work because they rely completely on willpower.

We all instinctively understand the benefits which stem from eating consciously and appreciating food so why don’t we do it? Life gets in the way. In my corporate job food was often just fuel snatched between meetings to be consumed while frantically responding to urgent flashes on my screen. I had assumed that when I left that job my eating habits would automatically improve but they didn’t. This is because my habit is to wolf food down, to ignore the signals telling my brain I’m full.

Clearly what we eat plays a big part in this equation. Reducing sugar and eating whole-grains, greens and unprocessed food will all nourish the body, keeping you satisfied and fuller for longer. However, I tend to eat fairly well so it was less about what I eat and more about the quantity and how I eat so I decided to focus on this. I started to track the times when I over-eat. Unsurprisingly there were obvious triggers including stress and tiredness suggesting that these poor eating trends are habitual.

Forming mindful eating habits
Over the last few months I have been researching and reading about the fascinating topic of habit forming. This month I stumbled across a talk by neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jn0Ygp7pMbA) on applying Buddhist mindfulness techniques to eating. By eating slowly, chewing your food for longer and relishing the textures and flavours of the food, you are sending signals to your stomach via your brain that food is on the way and pausing between bites enables your body to establish if you need more. I wondered if I could use this technique to move away from pure willpower and develop a new lasting habit to stop eating when I was full.

After around a month of mindfulness eating I have started to notice I am leaving a lot more food on the plate. Mindful eating doesn’t feel like deprivation in the way that most diets do, because you get to eat a little of everything. I used to think that wanting more food on one day than another was merely a test for my willpower as to whether I would succumb but these days I’m giving myself permission to eat more when I feel hungrier.

Habit change is by its nature uncomfortable and most of us want to do the same things we’ve always done so that we never feel uncomfortable. But starting small with some willingness to push through a little discomfort can result in the creation of a new habit. What I’ve started to realise is that there’s nothing wrong with being uncomfortable and this is becoming a useful tool for changing habits. I still have days where I fall back into mindless eating but the discomfort of being overly full is becoming less common and therefore my body remembers how bad it feels and will be more likely to stop be getting to that uncomfortable place.

The following tips are really helping me to embed this principle. I choose one thought or aim per meal which has stopped my brain from getting bored using one particular methodology. For more useful tips I’d recommend Darya Rose (http://summertomato.com), a PhD neuroscientist writing about mindful eating and habit change. I have also been using a brilliant application called coach.me (http://www.coach.me) where you can log you habits over time.

Slow down.
It takes time for our stomachs to communicate how full it is with our brain. Chewing food about 20 times before swallowing was tough for me but it made me realise that it is the initial hit and taste of the food I enjoy. Once you’ve munched until the food isn’t tasty anymore, the appeal ceases slightly and that triggers the signals to your stomach that food is on its way. This also applies to slowing down generally. Food tastes much better when you prepare, plate-up and sit down at the table to eat. If you eat with a partner or with the family, mindful eating can ensure you take the time to connect at meal times.

Pause
As well as slowing down each mouthful, it is helpful to pause between each mouthful by placing the fork down.

Concentrate
It’s really difficult to focus on eating if you’re doing other things so I consciously try not to look at my phone or the computer screen while eating.

Sense
While I can always be found drooling over gorgeous food porn in magazines or online, I often forget about the beauty of the food I am about to eat. Taking the time to notice sets the scene for mindful eating. It is also helpful to think about the flavour, texture and even the sound of the food in your mouth.

Last one standing
This worked well for me when I’m eating a meal out with friends. It is one of my favourite things to do but with the conversation and excitement I found it tough to concentrate on mindful eating. I discovered a simple trick is to be the last person at the table to pick up your fork and the last person to finish your meal.

Start small
Like all new habits, it takes time to enforce. I started by eating one meal each day mindfully but if this is really difficult choose one snack and start there. If you start small, the discomfort of change isn’t overwhelming.

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