Ask the dietitian: “What’s ‘mindful eating’ all about?”

At its core, mindful eating means eating with purpose and awareness. The primary purpose of eating is to nourish your body and provide it with the fuel it needs. You can do this by being aware of the factors that influence what, when and how much you eat. Sounds simple in theory, but the reality is a bit more complex.

Why we need to re-connect with our bodies’ needs

If you observe most babies and young children, you will notice that they have an innate and acute sense of what their bodies need. They know when they are tired, in pain or hungry, and they give us very clear signals these problems need attention! What happens to this connectedness to our bodies as we age? Beginning with preschool or kindergarten, we are put on someone else’s schedule telling us when to eat. It doesn’t matter when we are hungry and this “eating by the clock” continues throughout our working lives. We also start to learn associations between socialization and food, as well as emotions and food, and food becomes attached to many things other than physical hunger and nourishment. When we eat in response to these external triggers and cues, our bodies take a toll. We make low-quality food choices and we overeat, which usually leads to weight gain and health problems. At this point, we have lost touch with what our bodies truly need.

How to break the pattern of mindless eating

  1. Accept that you are human and, therefore, imperfect
    Becoming a mindful eater requires you to embrace imperfection and commit to self-compassion. You will not be a mindful eater 100 percent of the time, and that is OK. Self-blame and guilt will only hinder your progress.
  2. Identify situations where you tend to eat mindlessly
    Maybe you snack out of the peanut jar while working at your computer. Perhaps you always finish your restaurant meal because that’s what is served to you. Or maybe you eat ice cream because it’s the first thing you see whenever you open the freezer door. It may be difficult to identify these situations at first (most people don’t realize how much mindless eating they do), but keep working at it and you will!
  3. Slowly (and that is the key word), start implementing sensible strategies to help increase your mindfulness in those situations
    For example, portion out your peanuts before you begin working at the computer. Ask for a to-go box with your meal at the restaurant. Move the ice cream to the back of the freezer so it isn’t a trigger every time you open the door. Regardless of the specific situation, there are two basic strategies that almost always increase your level of mindful eating:

    • Give eating your sole attention 
      Do not engage in any other activities while eating. Taste and enjoy your food and think about how much you need to eat to feel satisfied. Without other distractions, you can truly focus on giving your body what it needs.
    • Develop a mental “pause button”
      When you are in a challenging situation, make it a habit to pause and check in with yourself. Ask yourself what you are thinking and feeling, and think through your choices instead of going on “auto-pilot.” Doing this will almost always increase your chance of making a better decision.
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