What is mindful eating? An adaptive way to manage the modern food environment.

It's the holiday season and food is everywhere! How does one navigate the modern food environment without gaining weight? This is a tough question to answer, as we have evolved in an environment where food was scarce. In order to survive, it was best to eat anything and everything available. Our world has evolved too quickly for us to keep up - in terms of keeping our bodies healthy. For many people in the developed world, food is too available given our biological predisposition. Food is also designed to hit the "need more" and "want more" triggers, as it's particularly sweet and fatty - good things for beefing up before the next food shortage. 

Mindful Eating

One solution (or more so lifestyle adaptation) to the modern food environment is mindful eating. We can't control our biology and evolution. But we can bring consciousness into the reality of the food environment and what we really need. Mindful eating is mindfulness applied to eating - a focused awareness on eating and hunger cues without judgment. If you'd like a refresher on the basics of mindfulness, visit these postsMindful eating is not about what you eat - it's about how you eat. When you practice eating mindfully, you notice when you are hungry, see if you can identify what your body needs, nourish your body with the food it needs, and savor that food slowly, noticing every bite with your five senses. And also noticing when you become full and seeing if you can use that cue to stop eating. Let me break it down further because that's a lot of info!

Mindful eating is about noticing both internal and external cues:

  • Internal: Internal cues involve paying attention to what your body, mind, and spirit is telling you about food and eating. Your stomach may growl when it's hungry. You may crave something specific - perhaps spinach because you need iron. Or you may crave cookies because you are sad, lonely, tired, etc. Another important internal cue is satiety. How do you know when you are full? Do you stop eating once you become full? Or do you eat so quickly that your satiety isn't kicking in until after you've eaten more than you body wants. Food cravings and your internal hunger and satiety cues are influenced by your body's physical needs for certain nutrients, your emotional state, and your thoughts.

  • External: External cues involve anything and everything in your environment that influences food and eating. We've all likely had the experience of avoiding a certain aisle in the grocery store so that we don't end up bringing home foods we know we will eat, yet are not the best for our bodies. If it's available in our environment, we will likely eat it. External cues are also heavily influenced by behavior patterns. Perhaps you always drink a glass of milk when you have cookies, so it's difficult to just have a glass of milk without cookies - especially if cookies are available! Social settings are also a trigger for eating - if others are eating, you will likely feel pressure to eat. Even certain colors have been shown to influence one's hunger and food consumption. 

Through the practice of mindful eating, we become more aware of both internal and external triggers to hunger and eating. When we become aware, we can make more informed choices about nourishment for our bodies. Awareness is the first step, but there are other important aspects as well. Mindful eating is also about the enjoyment of food and facilitating a positive relationship with food and with our bodies. Eating can be quite pleasurable when we are present to our experience of eating!

One exercise you can do to engage in mindful eating involves using all of your senses to experience each bite of food. Turn off the television, put away your cell phone, and reduce any other distractions. Prepare your meal and sit down at a table, giving yourself a moment to appreciate the sight and smell of the food on your plate. Pick up your fork/spoon and place some food on it. Allow yourself to smell it before bringing it to your mouth. When you chew the food, notice texture, temperature, taste and how this changes each time you chew. Continue like this for the rest of your meal, bringing a purposeful attention to eating with your senses. See how this mindful eating experience is different or similar to the way you normally eat. 

I plan to post more on mindful eating and some additional mindful eating exercises in the future! Contact me if you're interested in joining a mindful eating group meeting at my office in Andersonville or if you'd like individual in-person or online support for adapting to our modern food environment. 

Update: Here's a mindful eating exercise to try!