Mindful Eating Basics
You've hear me talk about mindfulness and mindful eating a lot. It's because just as some people always place a pitcher of water or a salt and pepper shaker at the table, mindful eating is always a main character at ours. It wasn't always that way though. For most of my life, and even for most of our marriage we ate full of distractions, many times in front of the TV, and how much we ate depended on how much I, or the person making the meal, would put on our plates. While I was on the many diets I tried, it was the restrictive diet du jour which told me how much I should eat. Making it so that everything that was "allowed" was eaten, no more, and no less, regardless of hunger, of satisfaction, and even regardless of whether the food was enjoyable or not.
You've heard this little dichotomy I was so fond of before, right? If the diet du jour told me 1 cup of this or that, I followed it with rigid perfection. Then, when I couldn't anymore because, well... diets!, I would pile on the food, gobble it up mindlessly, feel overly full, and only if a second helping wasn't offered would I stop there. If seconds were even mentioned, or if it was a particular favorite of mine, or if serving platters were on the table and still had food on them, I would eat until plate, ladle and pot were squeaky clean. Not because I was really hungry, or because the food was giving me so much pleasure I just had to dig in, but because....well, diets.
Diets and the prospect of dieting were always lurking around the corner, meaning I had to take in what I could before it was taken away in the next one.
The thing is, that within those non-diet delightful meals I would make and which I could have been enjoying to the maximum, there was no presence either. There was rushing, eating to soothe emotions, guilt and shame for feeling like I shouldn't be eating certain foods, so I ate them even faster. There were distractions, and then the uncomfortable feelings of overeating, or of being hungry still, when the new diet had come around.
There was no satisfaction factor.
There was no mindfulness or awareness.
There was always the fear of "you will never have this again so do it now".
Or, there was the fear of "do as the diet says or else you'll fail, and it will be your fault for not doing it right".
There had to be another way.
What about trying to pay attention in the moment through the practice of eating mindfully?
You know the drill right? Set the table, arrange the food nicely on a plate, get centered, enjoy pleasant company and conversation but no distractions like TV or social media, and really taste the food and eat slowly. All of these are part of mindful eating but some very important ingredients are missing from this well-known definition, which we're going to talk about today.
The road to mindful eating began for me long before I found out about the role restriction plays in our relationship with food and our bodies. It was a good way to get started on this journey, but today I want to share both the basics of being present when you eat, as well as the lesser known components of eating mindfully which made all the difference in my journey. Because what I didn't know when I got started, is that what I like to call "the fear of never again", aka, the dieting mindset, eventually had to go bye bye in order for true mindful eating to take place.
Don't worry, we'll get to that, but let's start from the beginning.
Many people have the misconception that mindful eating is all about making yet another effort to control portions, but its little magic lies in getting you re-connected.
Forget about scales, forget about measuring, forget about serving food on tiny plates or eating it with tiny forks. I'm going to invite you back into your body's internal guidance system. I can remember the first time I ever really started researching this mindful eating thing (not even knowing that it had a name. It was the beginning of a life changing practice for me when it came to eating.
We had a dinner party at our house, and one of our guests was a nurse, and he began talking about what he did when he discussed food with his patients. He would simply advise them to start eating slower, and to put their forks down between bites, and allow their body's natural response of satiety (knowing when it feels full) to kick in. This little piece of wisdom was coming from such an unexpected source that something in me was really listening. When the dinner was over, my husband Carlos immediately started talking about what he had said and vowed to start trying it, and I got so intrigued I started doing a little digging. It was so simple yet it made so much sense. Our friend's wise words are the beginning of what we call mindful eating.
Many years later thanks to another one of my closest friends, who told me she was taking a mindfulness course, I learned that it didn't really stop at mindful eating. Mindfulness was this incredible thing that has been around for centuries, and as proof that I truly "get by with a little help of my friends", I began the mindfulness practice that would have so many effects and such an impact in my life. I cannot imagine my life without it now!
It turns out mindful eating stems out of this incredible philosophy and practice that has effects in so many aspects of our lives. You can practice mindful parenting, mindful cooking, mindful exercise, mindful listening, mindful teaching, mindful relaxation, mindful working, and mindful eating among anything else, because mindfulness is simply the act of being fully present, and fully aware of your moment to moment experience.
In mindful eating, what you're doing is simply being so in the moment and aware, that you're able to notice how you're feeling, how the food tastes, if you're enjoying it, how that particular food makes you feel, and of course, you're more able to notice when you're already satiated and comfortably full, independent of external factors like distractions or whether or not there is still food on your plate. It starts guiding you towards this awesome journey of self discovery when it comes to food. What foods feel good in your body? What foods give you pleasure and delight? What foods give you energy? What foods do you truly enjoy and which do you not enjoy?
When it comes to mindful everything else, it means so many other great things I feel we should have a separate post to tell you all about the wonderful changes it has brought to my life. Something incredible happens when you're fully present in your life. Time stretches, anxiety leaves the building or is at least eased significantly, and you're able to feel that you're fully there, living your life, not feeling that time is swooshing by you and you're missing it. Even uncomfortable, boring or stressful tasks lose their negative power because you're not lost in the thought of "this is difficult", instead you're fully there, fully aware, doing what needs to be done, and before you know it, it's finished and behind you. When it comes to the good things, well... what can I tell you? Good, special and one of a kind moments, or those small beautiful moments of day to day life stay seared in your memory, they feel like they extend and last a lifetime, when you're there, aware, not taking a photo of it but taking it in with all your senses.
What can I say? Mindfulness rocks and it has been the biggest self improvement tool I've ever put into practice.
Mindful eating can stem from that, or if you're like me, mindful eating can be the doorway to bringing mindfulness to all the other aspects of your life. Regardless of the order, the result is the same, you're in your body, noticing it at every moment, noticing what you're feeling and how you're feeling before you react, and in the case of eating, you're also re-training your body to listen back inwards instead of outwards. It re-trains you to rely on your internal cues again, as opposed to external rules of what or how much you should eat.
So what does this look like in the practical sense?
We've all heard and read this before right? Set the table when you sit down to eat, don't do it in front of the TV, focus on your food and its colors, the tastes, how your body is feeling, etc. These are essential parts of the equation, but what really helped me get started after that conversation with our friend, was Carlos reminding me before every single meal to "eat slowly". That simple reminder was like a quick flip of a switch to make me come back down from mind to body.
I started putting my fork down, taking sips of water, having great long conversations, taking another bite and slowing down. The first two days I was about to have a nervous breakdown because it felt utterly ridiculous and against my gobble down nature. After a few weeks though, just like you feel after a good yoga class, or when you wake up feeling completely rested, I started seeing what all the fuss was about. I was enjoying my food even more than I usually did, lunchtime turned into an incredibly blissful moment I couldn't wait to get to, and this time it wasn't only because of the food. I felt relaxed and rested at the end, instead of stuffed or lethargic.
It was magic!
For the first time in years of feeling out of control with food, feeling the desperate need to clean my plate, and finding an almost mental relief when I felt overly stuffed (which of course wouldn't last very long), I had found a practice that would help me take a breather. Noticing the wonderful experience of eating and how it felt to finish my meal and feel energized and comfortably full and totally satisfied and relaxed, as opposed to stuffed, uncomfortable and guilty.
Our bodies are so wise and incredible that they will know how to balance things out if you just listen. It can take over 20 minutes for the brain to receive signals of satiety from the stomach, meaning, when we don't take our time and truly savour our meals, we eat past a comfortable place of fulness, in a rush, and suddenly, usually while we're doing the dishes, our tummies say "whoaaaa... what did you do to me?! When's my nap?".
This was always my case, since my big problem with food was always eating very large quantities of it, relying on it emotionally, and then of course, restricting as a means to balance things out which would always lead to more overeating and more eating to self-soothe.
As a young girl I could eat much more than my grown uncles and grandfather, and I was praised for it. No one noticed that it was a sign that something was going on with my relationship with food. I was very petite and tiny, so everyone thought it was hilarious that I could eat so much and never said no to any foods. What happened is that carried on, and I grew up as an "all you can eat" adult, and my body wasn't happy because of course, that "eat until uncomfortable/feel so much guilt/restrict to compensate/overeat some more" problem, was pure pain and over obsession on a plate! Mindful eating was the first step out of that for me.
Mindful eating, along with all the other tools I've been teaching you when it comes to your relationship with food, is a very sweet way of saying, "let your body do the talking!" and I can tell you it has changed the entire way I see my plate and the moment of eating.
The issue many people don't realize when it comes to mindful eating, is that it can't exist in a vacuum. It's not just about putting some pretty flowers on the table or taking your time.
One of the tools I've been teaching you is how important it is to leave the diet mentality behind, not worrying about the food police, the vegan police and starting to see food as neutral, reminding yourself that the foods you love won't be taken away or restricted any longer. When these tools and the many that I've been sharing through our blog and podcast are internalized and practiced (which all stem form the intuitive eating approach), mindful eating is the perfect addition to hone in on these internal cues and begin a new way of relating to food and the moment of eating.
It starts with being present, taking your time and tuning inwards, but it comes full circle when you know the foods you love will not be taken away. If you know you'll be able to enjoy them again and that restriction is really out of the picture, then you¡ll be able not only to notice how you're feeling, but to be able to make decisions based on those feelings. It's that essential component of mindful eating that not a lot of people understand.
Here are my top tips for starting to incorporate a mindful eating practice every time you sit down to eat.
1) Every time you sit at the table, repeat, like a mantra; "eat slowly". Make this a requirement before you start eating, similar to saying grace if this is a tradition in your home. This brief reminder will completely focus you and relax you before you begin your meal.
2) Remember that the food isn't going anywhere, and you can have it again any time you want. Start working on saying goodbye to the diet mentality, to good and bad foods, and start seeing food as neutral.
3) Remember to breathe, and I mean deep relaxing breaths while you're eating and between bites.
4) Relax by resting your back against the chair and enjoy the present moment, the conversations, or that simple time of solitude and quiet time with yourself when eating alone.
5) Put your fork down from time to time. It isn't going anywhere and just like a kid with a toy, you'll use it if you're holding it. Between bites, or while you're talking to whoever is sharing the meal with you, set your fork down and relax, tune in to the moment.
6) Arrange the food on your plate in a nice way, make it so that you really love the entire experience, and yes, the usual tips of setting a nice table and making it special also apply here. It's a special moment, just like you love the candles or the incense and nice music when you're going to get a massage or trying a yoga class, make this a ceremonious moment for yourself. It will help bring you into the moment.
7) Drink water throughout the meal.
8) Pay special attention to three crucial moments during your meal, the start of your meal, the half-point on your plate, and when you're almost finished eating. These are three moments in which we will tend to eat faster or without awareness. The first because we're naturally hungry and want to start enjoying our food. The halfway point (aka when we've eaten approximately half of our plate), is simply a good gentle reminder to tune in and see how you're feeling, check into your hunger and fulness levels and see if you'd still like to enjoy more, or if perhaps you're almost comfortably full and are on your last few bites, Respect whatever your body tells you, whether that's finishing your meal, or leaving any leftovers for the next day because you're already satisfied. The moment when you're approaching the end of the meal is important because some of us get very anxious and react in very different ways when we're about to finish our meals. We can feel anxiety because the meal is ending, or stress because it means we need to go back to work. Be extra mindful during these moments, as well as when your favorite meal is being served. This can also be a tricky one in which it's more challenging to slow down, but give it a try, in this case it's even more special to pay attention because it's your favorite! Enjoy it, savour it, remind yourself that you're no longer restricting, that all options are possible, that you can have it again any time, but also, that it's here right now, so take the time to enjoy it.
9) Listen to your body. Do a body check, see how your tummy is feeling and how you want to feel after the meal. If you've taken all the previous steps and you really slow down and relax, you'll be able to tell when your body feels comfortably full and nourished. Some days you'll need to eat the entire helping, and some days you'll need to get out that tupperware and leave some for later. Let your body do the talking, and it will, if you slow down and listen.
I want to leave you with this great video by psychotherapist Sabrina Weyeneth about the psychological aspects of mindful eating and some other tips and tricks you can incorporate to help you along the way. Her message is special for all my fellow perfectionists in recovery, to notice that even the moments in which we forgot or weren't able to be mindful, can still have so much information and value. Since anything that pulls you away from the perfection trap is great in my book, I thought you'd enjoy it too:
We'll be having another post and episode soon on mindfulness practices in general, and how they've changed everything for me, but for now, getting started with mindful eating is a wonderful way of cultivating presence, and helping you get re-connected to the internal guidance system that you've always had within you.