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Are you a mindful eater? Discover the benefits of eating and drinking slowly


Are you a mindful eater? Discover the benefits of eating and drinking slowly

Credit: Gian Cescon

Again and again, fad diets have been proved unsuccessful. Diets focus on calorie restriction and the elimination of certain foods and generally do not take into account the dieter’s ability to exercise self-control or regulate their eating behaviour. Many popular weight-loss programs offer coaching and support networks; however, once the goal weight has been achieved and the program concludes, the individual must continue unsupported.

Cultivating self-compassion and applying mindfulness to your eating habits can provide a much greater chance of maintaining a healthy weight.

Mindfulness involves increasing awareness of the current moment and observing without judgment. When applied to eating, it involves paying attention to what you eat and how you eat it. In essence, this means being aware of both your inner cues and outer environment and how they influence food choices and consumption.

“Mindful eating is eating more consciously so you can eat just enough to be satisfied — without eating too much or too little.”

Media, technology and our fast-paced lifestyles all have an impact on the way we approach food. Distractions such as watching television or checking emails can result in automatic, mindless eating. Media and advertising can influence our food choices and, often, decisions are based on convenience.

Emotions also play a large role in influencing our eating habits. According to Susan Albers, PsyD, author of Eat, Drink and Be Mindful, “The majority of food decisions people make have nothing to do with hunger. They have to do with stress, anxiety, sadness or frustration”.

What is mindless eating?

Thich Nhat Hanh highlights the cycle of mindless eating in his bookThe Miracle of Mindfulness. Nhat Hanh discusses a conversation with a close friend who at the time was eating a tangerine. So immersed was he in the conversation, the friend was barely aware of his actions and was ready to pop the next section of tangerine into his mouth before he had even finished the first. “It was as if he hadn’t been eating the tangerine at all,” explained Nhat Hanh. “If he had been eating anything, he was ‘eating’ his future plans.”

Eating mindfully is not about restrictions or calorie counting. As Albers writes, “Mindful eating is eating more consciously so you can eat just enough to be satisfied — without eating too much or too little.” It allows you to eat in a sensible way so you can still enjoy the foods that you love.

When eating mindfully, you pay attention to the physical aspects of eating such as the smell, taste, texture and appearance of your meal. You focus your awareness on bodily sensations during and after eating. This allows you to become more in tune with your body and recognise hunger cues and feelings of satiety.

By acknowledging your thoughts and emotions around food as they arise and observing them rather than fighting them, you become more aware of your food choices, your eating habits and ultimately what triggers them.

Through ongoing practice and observation, you can achieve a deep understanding of the roots and causes of negative eating behaviour.

The ability to tell the difference between cravings and genuine hunger pains, as well as to recognise and understand emotional triggers that cause you to overeat, allows you to restore your body’s natural ability to regulate your eating behaviour. It can be helpful to record your feelings and emotions around eating in a diary. Spend time reflecting on these emotions and you may find patterns emerging that will help you better understand your choices.

Through ongoing practice and observation, you can achieve a deep understanding of the roots and causes of negative eating behaviour.

How to eat mindfully

Set up your meal in a quiet environment. Never stand up while eating and try not to read a magazine or look at your phone. Be aware of what you are doing.

Sit down and take three large belly breaths before you start. Enjoy the colours, textures and aromas of the food. Some people like to practise gratitude for what is on their plate, which gives them the opportunity not only to be thankful but to pause before getting lost in a meal.

Once you begin, savour the food by eating slowly and observing the taste. Chew thoroughly and put your cutlery down between bites.

If your thoughts pull your awareness away from your meal, notice whether the pace of your eating quickens. Often half a sandwich disappears without us even being aware we are devouring it. Take a moment to bring your awareness back to the plate in front of you. Once again, take a few deep breaths and, as you resume eating, tune back into your senses.

The raisin meditation

A beneficial exercise in mindful eating involves a single raisin. Pick up the raisin and look at it as if for the first time. Notice its colour and the folds and ridges of its contours. Squeeze and roll the raisin gently between your thumb and forefinger and feel its texture. Bring the raisin to your nose and take in its subtle aroma. Begin to notice any sensations that may be taking place in your mouth or stomach.

Now bring the raisin slowly to your mouth and place it on your tongue. Allow your tongue to register the taste of the raisin before you begin chewing. Take your first bite into the raisin and notice the changes in texture and taste as you continue chewing. With mindfulness, that one raisin may be the most enjoyable thing you have eaten in a long time!

The benefits of mindful eating

“When I eat mindlessly, I have more calories and less pleasure. When I eat mindfully, I have more pleasure with fewer calories.” ~ Dean Ornish

When we eat mindfully, not only do we take the time to truly enjoy our food, we also feel more satisfied as our mind and body are registering what we are eating. Eating mindfully encourages us to eat more slowly, which offers a host of health benefits.

Digestion starts in the mouth and, by chewing our food thoroughly to break it down, we promote better digestion and optimum absorption of nutrients. It has been proved that when we eat more slowly we consume fewer calories, as the brain has time to register when we are full. Eating quickly can allow more air to enter your stomach, resulting in gas and bloating.

Why self-compassion is essential

Cultivating self-compassion involves generating awareness and an attitude of non-judgement towards yourself. By practising self-compassion along with mindfulness, you can work towards accepting your self and body as they are.

Self-compassion should not be confused with self-indulgence or complacency. Self-compassion in fact leads to higher motivation, as a person who feels good about themselves is more likely to take a proactive approach to their health and wellbeing than someone who is caught up in a cycle of self-criticism. Constantly judging and berating yourself can lead to low motivation and a lack of self-control. Shame or remorse from overeating or unhealthy behaviour can often provoke further self-sabotage.

Savour the food by eating slowly and observing the taste. Chew thoroughly and put your cutlery down between bites.

The relationship between self-compassion and eating habits involves a motivation towards self-kindness, sensitivity and tolerance to your distress. Change happens more readily when it comes from a place of self-acceptance. When you make peace with who you are by accepting your uniqueness and imperfections, the resistance within begins to quiet down.

Self-compassion allows you to be warm and understanding towards yourself when you fail or feel inadequate. This means accepting yourself with an open heart and showing yourself the same kindness and care you would show a friend. Rather than ignoring your pain, exaggerating your failings or giving up completely, self-compassion gives you the space to make mistakes and not let them derail you. The key is to accept when you have made a mistake, consider what factors or emotions helped cause it and what you could do differently to prevent it from happening again.

In addition to practising self-kindness and achieving a state of mindful awareness, self-compassion also requires a feeling of connection to others. Dr Kristin Neff, a pioneering researcher in the field of self-compassion, advises, “Self-compassion involves recognising that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience — something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to ‘me’ alone.” Recognising that others are suffering can put your situation into perspective.

Self-compassion also reduces the need to constantly compare yourself with others. Comparison always has the potential to result in feelings of inadequacy or envy. Neff recommends accepting your fragilities and imperfections as part of what makes you the magnificent person you are as well as embracing what you share with others. This can make you feel more connected and whole.

A compassion meditation

Both mindfulness and self-compassion can be cultivated through meditation. Begin by centring yourself through the breath. Invite a sense of kindness and self-acceptance to begin in your heart centre. Offer yourself unconditional love such as a mother may direct to her baby. When thoughts of inadequacy or failure try to distract you, centre yourself again with the breath.

Allow this love to radiate through your entire body. You may wish to do this slowly, concentrating on each body part individually, moving from the feet up to the top of the head. Allow yourself to bask in the healing energy, breathing in the feeling of unconditional kindness and love and breathing it out.

Mindfulness and self-compassion can also be incorporated into our everyday lives and actions. Regularly tune into your senses in order to achieve moment-to-moment awareness as you go about your day. Accept that your thoughts are fleeting and do not define you. If you make a mistake or fail at a task, centre yourself by taking a few deep breaths then acknowledge the error. Direct the feelings of warmth and self-kindness towards yourself that you have developed through meditation practice. You may then take steps to rectify the problem or merely accept it and move past it in order to continue on with your day.

Courses and programs to help

Mindfulness-based programs are commonplace and a number of them incorporate workshops on mindful eating and mindful self-compassion.

Look for mindfulness associations and counselling services in your state and you will discover that many offer courses, online programs and even mindful eating groups you can join. Certain health retreats and spas also offer programs that include tips on mindful eating. International bodies such as the Center for Mindful Eating and the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion offer membership and online programs and often run courses in Australia in addition to webinar training.

Savouring the benefits

When was the last time you actually listened to your body? Do you check in after a meal to see how your body is feeling? Are you full or have you overeaten? Do you have bloating, indigestion or discomfort in your digestive tract or stomach?

Mindful self-compassion allows you to become more in tune with your body so you can identify any food tolerances, allergies or simply the food that makes you perform at your best. Knowing what your body truly needs takes practice and allowing yourself to experience real hunger takes discipline but these are the steps that are required to regulate your eating.

Once you have practised mindful eating for a period of time, you will find you no longer reach for a piece of chocolate mindlessly. Instead, you may open the pantry door but then pause to ask yourself, “Why am I eating this piece of chocolate and do I really want it?” It allows you to identify whether you are just thirsty and if a glass of water could be enough to satisfy you. Or, if you are feeling emotional, bored or stressed and are not actually hungry at all.

The beauty of applying mindful self-compassion to your eating is that, once you have acknowledged your behaviour, you can set an intention and allow yourself a portion of the item you were craving. By eating it in a mindful way, you will savour and enjoy every mouthful and in doing so find that one or two pieces are enough to satisfy. No longer will you sit in front of the television with a block of chocolate only to find the entire block is gone and you didn’t really even register eating it. Not having to deprive yourself of the foods you love makes mindful self-compassion a sustainable approach to healthy eating.

Mindfulness and self-compassion are powerful tools in managing your weight. The process of using them is not a quick one. It involves listening to your body, making sensible choices and not being enticed by external messages or convenient and often unhealthy options. Your ability to practise mindfulness and self-compassion improves over time. The more you practise, the greater your chance of success until mindful eating and self-compassion have become a way of life.



 

Emma Nuttall (Higginson)

Emma Nuttall (Higginson) is a freelance health and wellbeing writer and is currently completing studies in Nutrition and Dietetics. Emma shares her passion for natural health through her website.