Look at the photo above. Let’s pretend we’re about to sit down in front of that plate and eat this meal. What is the first thing you notice before you even pick up the fork? For me, it’s that I’m already salivating at the thought of that crispy and buttery waffle hitting my tongue. I can actually smell the maple syrup and the toasty smell of the waffle browning in the waffle iron even though this is just a picture. I can feel the cool crisp contrast of the tart strawberries and the sweet velvety whipped cream in my mouth, and again, this is just in my mind. I can hear the crunch as my fork presses down to carve a bite out of the waffle. A clink as it hits the plate. The maple syrup has gotten onto the stem of the fork and it’s slightly sticky. Just by looking at this photo, all of my senses can anticipate what they’d experience if only this waffle was really sitting in front of me. This is how we begin to eat mindfully, by being totally present and using our senses to experience food.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 5 – 10 years, you’ve probably heard of the term “Mindful Eating” as a solution to weight loss. It’s an alternative for those who’ve tried diets and gained the weight back, for those who still struggle with their weight despite trying to eat the right things. I have had great success using it in my own life, after growing tired of the diet mindset that left my weight going up and down and I now help other women incorporate tools like mindful eating into their own life.
It’s not for everyone and it’s not easy (despite how the practices below may sound) but if you are exhausted from trying to lose weight and keep it off by counting calories, points, and fat grams, and you know that it’s not working for you – mindful eating might be something to consider.
Today I’m going to share two of the main mindful eating practices I use but first let’s talk briefly about why diets often fail us.
Diets Fail Us
Overeating is the most obvious cause of weight gain and diets are awesome at managing the physical component of this – the “what” part. What should I eat? How much should I eat? Most weight gain is due to taking in more calories than our bodies are able to use. The calories we don’t use end up being stored as fat. Diets take those math equations and assume we are robots who can and will do exactly as they prescribe forever without any obstacles.
The problem with diets is that they fail to address the emotional and mental components of overeating. You may understand on a mental level that you have gained weight because you have eaten more over a long period of time than your body needs but we rarely understand why we are doing that. Why are we overeating? Diets act as if this part of the equation doesn’t exist. Again, like we’re obedient robots, instead of humans who do things for a variety of reasons.
If we can address why we are overeating in the first place, we can reduce how often it happens. If overeating is less of an issue, weight gain is not going to be much of a problem anymore.
There are several reasons why we overeat, one of them I addressed in How to Feel Your Feelings. Another reason is because of how mindlessly we eat (and how mindlessly we go through life in general). We eat too fast, with too many distractions and we’re not present when we consume a meal. With our senses not taking in the meal and at the speed we eat, our brain doesn’t receive signals it needs (from our stomach as well as sensually) that we’ve had enough to eat. Living this way makes it challenging to ever feel satisfied after a meal – we’re always left wanting more, even if we are physically full. Mindful eating is a practice that can help bring us back to the present and quell the urge to overeat because it connects the dots between the brain and our stomach, helping us to feel satisfied.
Now we’ll get down to it!
Two Big Mindful Eating Practices to Try
1. Start treating mealtimes as if you were meeting with a old friend you haven’t seen in years.
If you were super excited to see this friend, you would give her your full attention! Your eyes would take all of her in the moment you saw her (does she look the same? totally different?). You’d give her a hug and the smell of her perfume would bring you back to another time. The sound of her laugh would make you feel completely at home. You wouldn’t dream of multitasking, checking email or reading while spending time with her, would you? Omg, no that would be so rude!!! Do the same thing when you eat, every time.
Give the meal your full attention.
Be completely present with the food in front of you.
Don’t do anything other than eat – no multitasking. That means put your smartphone away, turn off the TV, don’t read the newspaper or a book, don’t eat in the car (unless it’s absolutely necessary).
Don’t distract yourself.
Use all your senses: Look at the food in front of you (is it colorful? textured?), Smell it (does it have a strong aroma? pleasant? pungent?), Does it make any sounds? Is your plate sizzling hot? Does the food crunch when you chew it?, Taste: Do you like how it tastes? Is it sweet, salty, sour, bitter or savory? Feel: How does the food feel in your mouth? Is it too hot or cold? What is the texture like? Smooth, silky, rough, crumbly? Other things to notice: when you see or smell the food, do you notice saliva forming in your mouth? Are you excited to eat this meal? Are you actually hungry? If you were going to describe this meal to an alien from another planet, how would you describe it to them?
2. Learn the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger, commit to eating only when you feel physical hunger and get into the habit of talking to yourself.
Physical hunger comes on slowly, emotional hunger feels urgent (gotta have it now!!).
Physical hunger can be satisfied with anything (you’re willing to eat broccoli or a salad), emotional hunger will only be satisfied by something specific (I want something sweet!).
Physical hunger goes away when you’ve eaten, emotional hunger hangs around even when you’re very full.
Eating to satisfy physical hunger feels neutral, while eating to satisfy emotional hunger will bring up feelings of guilt and shame.
Start practicing trying to eat only when you feel physical hunger. This will probably be the hardest thing to do – that’s ok, just start noticing the difference between the two and becoming conscious of the choice you make (no judgements).
Sounds easy enough to figure out which is which, right? But it’s not so simple when you’re in the moment. When you feel emotionally hungry, all you can think about is “how can I get my hands on something that will satisfy this?”. The way I work around that urge is to have a conversation with myself. I ask myself “What would make me feel best in this moment?” and then I really listen closely to the answer before I actually respond to the craving.
If it’s physical hunger, I have the consciousness to choose something that is nutritious for my body (hard boiled eggs, quinoa salad, a banana and peanut butter etc).
If it’s emotional hunger, the question leaves room for an answer that is something other than food. Notice I don’t ask “What do I want to eat?” If I did that and it’s emotional hunger, I am going to sabotage the shit out of myself with a bag of doritos. Asking what would make me feel best in this moment? opens the door for that emotional urge to be expressed in another way.
Believe it or not but most of the time, the true answer to this question will be something other than food – it might be a hug, a nap, a phone call to a friend, a walk, some time spent journaling, a long bath and a good book etc. Your emotions want to be felt and expressed and if they had the option, food wouldn’t be their first choice in expression, so help them out by asking them something that will bring out other answers.
Occasionally you’ll ask this question and even when listening closely for the answer, it will be an ice cream sundae or a piece of pizza. That’s ok. Sometimes those things are what would make us feel best but honestly those times are rare. If you get an answer like this and aren’t sure if it’s emotional hunger or truly what would make you feel best, how do you know? This part is actually easy . . . do you think eating that ice cream sundae will make you feel bad after you eat it? If you know it will, that’s emotional hunger and you should dig deeper for another answer to “What would make me feel best in this moment?“, because if it’s going to bring up guilt or shame, those are obviously not emotions that are going to make you feel best. If you know you can eat the sundae and feel neutral and at ease about it – you’ve answered the question thoughtfully and mindfully and you can go ahead and have it.
How To Start Eating More Mindfully
You aren’t going to go from a lifetime of using structured diets to seamless mindful eating in one go. It best learned slowly. You want to dip your toe in slowly like you would in a cold pool of water and then slowly move into the water a little by little as you get used to the temperature of it. Sure, you’ll get used to the water a lot faster if you just dive in, but you run the risk of wanting to get out of the pool immediately!
Choose one meal per day to practice this with at first. Which meal of the day naturally allows for the most time to yourself? Which meal will allow you to not feel rushed? Pick that meal and for 10 days practice mindful eating with that meal only. Again, pretend you are seeing an old friend for the first time in years – treat the meal the same as you would her, with your full attention. At this daily meal:
- Eat while sitting down (not in the car) and without distractions or multitasking.
- Chew each bite slowly and thoroughly.
- Notice the food with all your senses. How does it look, smell, taste, sound and feel? Your mind will naturally want to wander to your to do list, if you want to give it something to do, bring your attention back to your plate and experience the food with all of your senses.
- Take deep breaths and relax into the process.
When you start to feel like being mindful at this one meal per day is totally doable, see if you can do it for two meals per day or for one meal and when you have a snack. This will take time. Do not become discouraged if it’s not easy!
Begin a meditation practice. I know, it may seem like another subject entirely, but one of the biggest struggles with people just beginning a mindful eating practice is that they’re not used to being alone with their thoughts and it is uncomfortable not “doing” anything else while eating. One way to flex this muscle so that being present while you eat becomes the norm is to get used to meditation. All you have to do is find a quiet place where you can shut your eyes and take deep, slow breaths for 2 minutes a day. If you can do 2 minutes easily, try to do 3, if that’s easy do 5 minutes. Notice how long you can go before you start to feel restless and practice relaxing into this time for yourself. I found this really hard to do at first because I’m not very good at relaxing naturally – but working on this has made mindful eating much easier for me to settle in to.
Keep coming back to it. If you start a mindful eating practice and notice that 4 bites into the meal you automatically picked up your phone to browse the internet. Just bring your attention back and try again. If you notice that you are eating fast while standing at the sink because you’re in a rush, sit down and try again. No one learns to play the violin in a day and gets to Carnegie Hall. We have years of habits to correct – be patient and unrelenting in your persistence. It will get easier the more you do it.
This is just a small taste of how you can start to use mindful eating as a tool for weight loss and preventing overeating. If you’d like to see if it’s something that might work for you, I’d love to support you in doing this. I’m passionate about helping women connect the dots in their relationship with food! This stuff is much easier to do when you have support along the way. Contact me and we can set up a time to discuss.
If you’re not ready for a consult with Andrea but you like what she has to say, then please download your free copy of Healthy Eating Shouldn‘t Be a Workout: Real Life Strategies to Take the Confusion Out of Healthy Living (includes recipes, snack and meal ideas, ways to save money and more!).