Following on from the March newsletter guidelines on detoxing…let’s now zen about food and look at how you can nurture yourselves in April by learning to eat mindfully.

All too often in our modern world we don’t take the time to sit down to savour a meal without interruptions, outside stimuli like tv or video games, or eating in a hurry to get onto something else. Wolfing down a sandwich and a soft drink (or even a healthy soup or salad) in front of the computer while working has become an all too common occurrence in our busy Western world. And yet, other than the choice of what to eat, nothing can be more important to digestive health than taking the time to chew, savour and enjoy our foods in a stress-free manner. In fact, even if you choose a healthy meal, rushing through it can counter the benefits.

Mindfulness is all about awareness and in relation to eating, this means learning to pay attention to what, how and why we are eating in order to make our relationship with food about nutrition and enjoyment, rather than an emotional crutch. Eating mindfully has a number of benefits:

  • Certain studies have shown that it can:
    • reduce overeating and binge eating
    • help with weight loss
    • help people cope with chronic eating problems such as anorexia and bulimia, or even simply comfort eating
    • reduce anxious thoughts about food and body image
    • help improve the symptoms of Type 2 diabetes (which in many cases is largely manageable through diet)
  • Mindful eating helps reprogramme your body’s internal sensors so you know when to stop and start eating, and over time it can help you get rid of cravings and be able instead to choose foods that your body actually needs for nutrition. This natural ability to sense real hunger and fullness, and make good food choices, can be largely skewed by years of comfort eating, snacking, large portions, fad diets and eating foods high in sugar or refined carbohydrates.
  • Mindful eating can begin making you aware of emotional eating patterns where food is a way of distracting from worry or boredom, or in worst cases, filling an emotional void. This awareness can in turn help change the way you think about and more importantly, react to, your thoughts about food and food cravings.

All of these benefits sound great of course but I realise that a full-on regular mindful eating practice is not a realistic goal for most people with typically busy lives. However, you don’t need to practice it like a guru; there are a number of things you can do realistically to stop eating mindlessly and develop more mindful eating habits!

I’ve put together some suggestions below that you should be able to incorporate easily or step-by-step into your normal daily routines and make into lasting habits.

  1. Ditch the distractions: Put away the cell phones, the computer, the video games and turn off the tv. Make meal time about savouring your food and “real life” community, or alternatively take a much-needed break from your work routine.
  2. Slow down and allow your stomach to catch up with your brain. In France we say “to have eyes bigger than your stomach” – in the context of food this could mean craving more food than your body actually needs. Slowing down is one of the best ways to get our mind and body in alignement. It takes your body about 20 minutes to tell your brain that it is satiated (full), which, especially if we eat fast, can lead to overeating and getting that “too stuffed feeling” after a meal. However, if you can learn to slow down when eating, you can give your body a chance to catch up with your brain and hear the signals that let you know you’ve had enough. Here’s what you can do to slow down:
    • Prepare your food. Cooking from scratch using whole foods can not only help make your meals healthier but also force you to think about your food choices. It is also a great way to relax, to get in touch with your creative side, can be more economical and be an experience the whole family can share in. It doesn’t take much more effort to make extra portions for freezing or prepare some food in advance for work healthier meals as well.
    • Breathe. Take a few moments before a meal to become aware of your breathing, regulate it and pay attention to any feelings or stress. If you are feeling stressed, then get into the habit of learning a simple breathing practice. Even a couple of minutes can go a long way in regulating your breathing and undercutting the stress response, allowing the body to receive and use food in a more optimal state.
    • Chew thoroughly. My father was taught to sit down to eat, and chew each forkful 25 times (or more). Much to our dismay at big family dinners he still does this while we wait for him to finish. But I admit, it is actually very sound advice and helps slow down and improve digestion!
    • Eat small portions. Pay attention to your serving sizes, and start with small portions – you can always have seconds.
    • Avoid drinking too much. Drinking too much while you eat can interfere with digestion, as can drinking too much before a meal.
    • Avoid snacking. Unless you are an athlete, have a high metabolism or a medical reason which requires you to snack throughout the day, try to limit your food intake to 3 proper meals. Limiting your food intake to a set period of time (12 hours for instance, divided into 3 meals) and leaving the rest of your 24-hour period free of food can help ensure your digestive cycle is completed, support pancreatic function and help give your body time to digest, restore and renew. Eating less (including calorie restriction) has been proven scientifically to help increase longevity.
    • Enjoy. Focus on the colours and flavours of your food. Take a few minutes to think about the sources of your food and how it was made. A little thought and gratitude for where the food comes from, the people who have worked to make it, and the nourishment it is bringing reinforces the awareness of what we are feeding ourselves with. A great little reminder of the adage that we are what we eat!
  3. Listen to physical hunger signals, not the emotional ones. Instead of eating when we get emotional signals, such as boredom, sadness, stress or loneliness learn to listen to and separate these from the physical signals your body sends your brain to tell it it is hungry. These include your stomach growling, stomach “hunger pangs”, low energy, or feeling a little lightheaded. Eating mindfully is about learning to distinguish when you really need to eat for nourishment and choosing nutritious foods (without forgetting to make meals enjoyable too).

Slowing down, listening to your body, thinking about how a particular food choice will help you, becoming aware of the nurturing aspects of food selection and preparation, honing your own inner wisdom (for instance by keeping an emotional food diary for a week), getting into the habit of small nurturing rituals and considering all that went into our meals on a more regular basis, can all help you make your relationship with food nurturing. Integrating even just a few of these suggestions into your eating habits can help you gain some valuable insights into your relationship with food. In turn, you will find it easier to make healthy decisions without having to make food less enjoyable. And after a while these can become a normal part of your life.

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