You've heard it over and over: changing your diet without changing your habits won't get you very far. Those lifestyle changes can be small and easily achievable or big and daunting. They include efforts like:
- Eating breakfast every day
- Eating meals seated at a table, not on the go
- Making time for meals with family
- Getting 150 minutes of exercise per week
- Getting at least 8 hours of quality sleep every night
But there's one behavioral change that we can adapt a bit more easily — because we can do it while we're eating. It's called mindful eating.
What is mindful eating?
Mindfulness as a term has kind of a bad rap — it can signify either meditation and other "woo-woo" spiritual practices that may scare people off; or it's just a word that people throw around in today's overstimulated culture (i.e., "I need to be mindful of how much time I spend on Instagram."). So, what is mindfulness in practical terms?
- mindfulness (n): a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations
Mindfulness is a component of meditation, but it's different because it applies to pretty much anything we do, not just sitting in quiet reflection. Mindful eating, then, is a way of focusing awareness on what we're smelling, tasting and enjoying.
In other words, says Sarah Gamble, CNP, The Christ Hospital Physicians - Primary Care, mindful eating is "the opposite of what the majority of us to day to day".
She continues: "I would venture to say the majority of Americans eat quickly, and specifically those who work in an office setting are eating quickly, and often times multitasking while eating lunch or snacks. The consequences of this often result in either overeating, or not feeling satisfied which results in more snacking."
Gamble's interest lies in helping patients with wellness, disease prevention, management of diabetes and hypertension, and diet plays a big role in all of those goals. So can mindfulness. In fact, mindfulness was developed in a medical setting by Jon Kabat-Zinn, head of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The practice was designed to give patients the skills to manage chronic pain, disease, depression, sleeping problems and anxiety.
How do you practice mindful eating?
Unlike dieting, mindfulness is all about the process, not about the outcome (i.e., losing X number of pounds). Mindful eating is something we can do every time we sit down to a meal or snack.
Kabat-Zinn devised a 14-step meditation on eating that is very deep and detailed. In summary, the steps to mindful eating include:
- Paying attention to the appearance of what you are about to eat — its texture, color, smoothness or stickiness or roughness
- Smelling the food and noticing how you react to the aroma
- Placing the food in your mouth and savoring its feel and taste on your tongue
- Chewing slowly to release the flavor and fully experience the taste
- Finally, noticing how you feel after you've swallowed
It's worth reading about Kabat-Zinn's 14 steps to mindful eating and trying them yourself to get the full experience. But it's rather impractical for everyday eating.
"After researching mindful eating there were some ideas that just don't seem attainable," Gamble says. "But I did feel there were some good ideas that we can incorporate into our daily lives."
Among those ideas, she says: "First and foremost, put the technology away. If you're in the office, step away from the computer. If you're at home, turn off the TV. Put the cell phone away and take that time to escape from tech."
In addition to setting technology aside, here are some easy ways to practice mindful eating:
- Sit down in a designated dining space to eat; perhaps that's a dinner table or breakfast bar at home, or a lunchroom or lounge at work.
- Come to the table hungry, but not famished.
- Start with a small portion. Modern dinner plates are oversized; it might help you moderate portions to use a smaller (9-inch) lunch-sized plate.
- Consider gratitude. Think about where your food came from, the care you took to prepare it and the people you're sharing the meal with.
- Take small bites and eat slowly. We tend to overeat when we wolf down our food.
- Use all your senses. What does the meal look, smell and taste like? Can you identify all the seasonings in a dish? What about the variation in texture or crunch?
Gamble also recommends having family meals as often as possible, where everyone leaves their cellphones in another room and engages in conversation. Too, she says, hydration is key to mindful eating. "Your body may think you are hungry when really it is thirst," she says. "Drink at least 48 to 64 ounces of water per day, depending on your activity level."
Mindful eating is a small, achievable change that can yield big results in diet, fitness and wellness. "The practical health benefits include a decrease in snacking, which can lead to a decrease in weight," Gamble says. "We'll actually enjoy the food we eat instead of scarfing it down as quickly as possible to move on to whatever we have to do next. This can lead to increased enjoyment and potentially less stress."
Learn more about Sarah Gamble, CNP, or schedule an appointment online with her today at The Christ Hospital Outpatient Center- Liberty Township.