If having better, or sustained health is your goal, then mindful eating can be life changing. It’s especially so if you sometimes secretly struggle to maintain your healthy eating habits. Or worry that the way that you’re eating may be making you ill. Or if you get caught up in feelings of embarrassment because you haven’t got it all together. You’re not alone! and this is for you.
Mindful eating or eating mindfully isn’t a new approach to healthy eating. In fact, it’s quite old. If you remember or can recollect your parents talking about eating at the dinner table or making dinner from scratch. Or having all of the neighbours round for a barbeque and thinking that the preparation was fun and not stressful. In a way, that’s all mindful eating.
But if that’s not necessarily your experience? What’s changed?
You’re probably thinking, ‘what’s changed is that I’m way busier than my parents were. There’s more stress and endless demands on my life and I don’t get chance to cook from scratch or even sit down to eat!’ And yes, all of that contributes. But it’s also our cultural eating habits (which influence us) that have changed and this is how.
Food has become cheaper (or has it?). According to 1DEFRA, food prices spiked by almost 10% in the UK around 2008 (due to the credit crunch). But in general, food is still cheaper for the consumer. The mindful eating connection. If we take cheap food for granted, we can easily create a ‘hidden cost’ of not really valuing what we eat or buy.
I know that for me, BOGOF (buy one get one free) or 3 for 2 offers can actually make me quite ‘mind -less’. Don’t get me wrong, I really like them because they save us money, so we can stock up on things that we like. But, remember that these offers often entice us to buy more than we really want, or need. It can in fact actually make shopping more expensive and cause us to sometimes even devalue what we’ve bought.
Mass ‘health’ marketing creates confusion about what to eat. I hear this a lot from clients. Because of the endless health messages we receive, people can struggle to discern what healthy really is, or is not. And what ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t we be eating? I think initiatives like the ‘5-a-day’ which was introduced in 2003, are great. It’s simple to understand and easy to apply. But there’s definitely a health/diet (macrobiotic, plant based, vegan, Durkan, food combining, the 5:2, Atkins and even keto anyone?) trend which is still growing and simply confusing people.
It’s especially so, when we see that cereals, processed vegetables, fat, milk, meat, biscuits and crisps still make up (on average) the largest percentages of our nutritional intake. What???? How’s that? Don’t the messages say that these all bad for us? The mindful eating connection. It’s easy to see why with so much information out there, why making good food choices for our health can be challenging and confusing.
Food is easier to access. In a way this is similar to the first point. We can buy virtually any food that we want, simply by going to the supermarket. Or if it’s not in there, then a few clicks on our phone or laptop can have it delivered to your front door. The mindful eating connection. That’s great when we’re busy, but it can also lead us towards us not really thinking or engaging with our food.
So, how can mindful eating help you?
Mindfulness is all about being ‘present’ or at least connecting to where we are and what we’re currently doing. I really agree with, 2J Nelson who in Diabetes Spectrum, suggests that mindful eating takes us away from the stressful ‘diet’ culture which is outcome driven, to a practice which is in the moment and is therefore, a process orientated practice.
I’d go one step further and say that for me, mindful eating is a critical component of self-care and self-kindness.
There is a small (but growing) body of work which shows that mindful eating may contribute to supporting and aiding a whole host of health issues including:
Digestive problems, especially helping us to recognise when we’re full. It can thereby help to address stress eating. It supports weight management, especially by helping us to make peace with our food and eating habits. And it supports diabetes care. But a big one for me is that it can help us to not label food as ‘good or bad’.
It always saddens me when I hear people say that they’re having to restrict food because they’ve been naughty or bad. Firstly, as adults, we’re allowed to make our own food choices. The mindful eating connection. These are choices that we’re wholly responsible for. So, if we want to eat biscuits all day, we can, as long as we also accept that choice.
So how can we become more mindful about the way that we eat?
Recognise that it’s a journey. When we’re in a perpetual busy, stressed and tired loop, we can dismiss mindful eating as not appearing to be doing anything. It may be a challenge for us to pay attention and give ourselves time (time that we may feel that we don’t have). And so, we may conclude, very early on that it’s a lot of input for very little output. But, that can quickly change and when we get into the process, the benefits can be huge.
KISS (keep it supportively simple). I can’t re-iterate this enough. For me, good nutrition and healthy eating is all about self-care and self-love. I once heard Michael Pollan say (and I’m paraphrasing here) that ‘we’re almost having to become biochemists to understand what we eat’ and I’d agree. Trend eating is both crazy and unnecessary. But keeping it simple isn’t, and that’s the key.
Some ways that we can keep it simple is to have plenty of (preferably) fresh vegetables at every meal.
What it will do for you… Vegetables are an amazing energy source. They support your gut and bowel health and feed a multitude of your body’s needs. You get vitamins from A (well the carotenoids which convert to vitamin A) which support your heart and blood circulation. B vitamins which support nerve function, energy, digestion, hormone balance and skin development to Vitamin C, Vitamin E and K.
When you think of food, don’t get caught up in antioxidant, phytonutrients, superfoods, or even functional. Remember when we’re talking about food, we’re simply talking about lettuce, carrots, meat, fish, beans and milk. By simply naming our food as it actually is rather than its numerous benefits and nutritional constituents (which you may or may not understand) helps to remind us to engage with what we’re actually eating. A food not a merely a chemical. So, keep it as simple as possible.
Become aware. Mindful eating is all about awareness and connection. One of the greatest ways we can do this and to learn more about your eating habits, is to maintain a food diary.
What it will do for you… This is really helpful if you want to get an insight into how much you’re eating or what types of foods you crave. Or when and where you eat and even how stress, loneliness or boredom may be influencing your eating habits.
You can download one, or create an online template, or simply write notes in a notebook. What’s important is to be kind to yourself and not admonish yourself for anything that you feel you ‘shouldn’t be eating. But also, be consistent and honest with yourself.
Write down all of your meals (drinks and snacks) for at least 4-6 weeks and also add in where you’re eating, ie at your desk, the kitchen table or in front of the TV. And what else is happening? Were you feeling stressed beforehand or tired or relaxed? All of this will help you not only build a picture and really tune into what you’re eating. But it can also help you to develop a better relationship with how and what you eat.
Eat with your senses. Even before you put food in to your mouth, when you look and smell it, you’re developing a relationship with it. You are starting to engage with it. Your body will start to lubricate your palate and your digestive juices are activated ready to break down what’s to come. This is also highlighted in the brain.
What it will do for you… The more engagement we make with our food, the more pleasure we’re actually creating for ourselves.
So, have fun with it, make yourself a picnic (indoors or outdoors) and enjoy eating with your hands. And when you have time to cook, get used to touching food. Notice the colours and textures when you’re chopping vegetables. And smell the scents, the strong smell of basil, the refreshing scent from a lemon or some glorious caramelised onions.
Engage more with your food. One of the greatest ways we can to do this is to cultivate plants. And it doesn’t have to be difficult. It could be to grow them in your garden or allotment, but even the balcony or window sill is great.
What it will do for you… Simply seeing something grow gives us appreciation for the time and the effort that it takes for the things that we put into our body. But it’s also picking fresh produce from a market or the supermarket. When we get our food in packaging it stops us from recognising that it was once fully alive and growing from the soil.
When we remember this and can be thankful for everyone who was involved in the growing process, we really become more engaged and mindful with what we put in to our bodies
Enjoy without guilt! Feeling guilty about what we eat is one of the most damaging and soul-destroying things that we can do for our relationship with food and to our health.
If you’ve ever stood and watched cows chewing the cud methodically and leisurely, you’ll understand why they are able to digest so well. It’s the same when you see giant pandas nestled at the top of a tree with their legs outstretched. They’re enjoying what they’re eating and they’re in that perpetual ‘rest and digest’ state (something that I go into more in my online mindful eating course – see here for more details).
3Dunbar, in his article on ‘social eating’ uses the term ‘feasting’, something we rarely say these days. I think that’s a shame. For me, feasting conjures up the image of togetherness, enjoyment and taking pleasure in eating (without guilt).
What it will do for you… When we’re ‘mindful’ and conscious of what we’re eating and making our own choices, we get to do away with the guilt. It’s simply a choice. Interestingly, Dunbar also suggests that social eating and engagement encourages positive feelings about ourselves. So, it’s good for our mental health. But whether you’re eating with others or with yourself, enjoy your meals and embrace the lusciousness of it all.
Or you can also take take the mindful eating quiz to get you started on considering your eating habits
1DEFRA, 2015. Family Food 2015. Online. National Statistics. Available at: <https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/597667/Family_Food_2015-09mar17.pdf>
[Accessed 28th July 2020]
2Nelson, J B., 2017. Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat. [online]. Diabetes Spectrum. Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5556586/> [Accessed 30th July 2020]
3Dunbar, R., 2017. Breaking bread: the Functions of Social Eating. [online] Available at: <https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40750-017-0061-4 > [Accessed 30th July 2020]