Often when we eat, we are not fully present, which can lead to unhealthy eating habits. A different approach is eating mindfully. Mindfulness is a kind, objective awareness, not a blank mind, not evaluating or judging, simply being fully present and aware of what is going on inside and outside of us. Mindfulness allows us to re-wire our brains in a way that increases attention and decreases depression and anxiety.
Mindfulness can be challenging because it is a unique way of being. Practicing mindfulness with coaching (either live or pre-recorded) can help with learning this skill. People who have experienced traumatic events sometimes have difficulty with mindfulness because it can allow memories of traumatic events to resurface. Having a specific thing to focus on can help prevent this from happening. If at any point during mindfulness you feel distress, it is appropriate to stop and practice coping skills to deal with the distress. Mindfulness is not meant to be unpleasant, distressing, or something forced. Mindfulness also becomes more natural with practice.
Mindful eating is being conscious of what we eat and why. Sometimes we eat because of hunger other times as a source of comfort, out of habit or expectation, or other needs that are better met by something other than food. When we eat mindfully we increase our ability to give our bodies the fuel they need to run well. We also are better able to identify our real needs so we can meet them in healthy ways.
A Body Scan is a tool to help us be aware of what our bodies need. A Body Scan can last anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour, depending on how much time we want to take or the level of depth we prefer. To do a body scan, sit or lay comfortably and close your eyes if it feels okay to do so. Notice your breath. You don’t need to change it, just observe the sensations as you breathe in and out. Focus your attention on your toes. What do you feel in your toes and outside of your toes? Perhaps you notice the pressure of your socks or shoes. Focus your attention on your feet. Notice the sensations in and around your feet. Just bring a kind curiosity to the sensations. Focus your attention on your lower legs. Perhaps you notice some tension in your calf muscles. Focus your attention on your upper legs. When you feel your mind wander, gently bring your attention back to your body. Focus your attention on your hip area and abdomen. Do not judge, just be kind and curious about what you are sensing. Focus your attention on your chest and shoulders. Notice the movement in your body as you breathe. Focus your attention on your arms. Simply notice the sensations as you become aware of them. Focus your attention on your hands. Notice if you feel any discomfort, but now is not the time to fix it—just notice it. Focus your attention on your face and head. Notice what you can feel throughout your neck, throat, mouth, nose, eyes, face, and scalp. Now expand your awareness to your full body. Let sensations come into awareness and accept them. Focus your attention on your breath for three more breathes. Do not change it, just notice the sensations. When you’re ready, slowly open your eyes, wiggle your fingers and toes, and bring your attention back to your surroundings.
Watching Our Thoughts, Feelings, Physical Sensations, and Urges is a tool to help us be aware of what our minds need. Again, this is something that can be a brief practice or a longer one depending on the time available or the length of time it takes to reach the desired state of objective, kind awareness. To practice Watching, sit comfortably and notice your thoughts. Do not evaluate them or try to change them. Just notice what is there. See if you can imagine your thoughts coming and going, like clouds floating across the sky. Notice your emotions. Try to give them names. Emotions are not good or bad, they are merely messengers letting us know that something is going on that needs a response. Now is not the time to change them. Simply accept them or even welcome them into your awareness. Emotions can tell us what we need but are not getting. Notice any physical sensations. Do not try to give them meaning, just describe them objectively, with a kind curiosity. Notice any behavioral urges or desires to take a particular action. Do not judge the urge, it is only an impulse. Just be aware of the urge and watch the intensity rise and fall.
Being aware of our needs can help us identify what will truly meet those needs so that we can soothe ourselves without food. There are lots of ways we can help ourselves feel better, but food often is used when there are other options that might better meet those needs or might meet those needs without feeling guilt about overindulging in food. For example, food can be a source of pleasure. Research suggests that we get the most pleasure out of the first three bites of a food. We can ask ourselves how that finding applies to our eating habits. Perhaps when we want to eat a food that is enjoyable but not high in nutritional value we will choose to savor a few bites rather than eating more and feeling guilty about it afterward.
Food can be a source of comfort. Food can bring back memories and the emotions associated with them. If we reflect on memories and emotions are linked to our favorite foods we may be able to identify other ways to enjoy those memories. For example, reminiscing, looking at photos, talking about the memories, participating in non-food traditions, or talking with people who are part of those memories might be a way to enjoy the memories without the food.
Food can be used to change moods. Some foods may boost levels of feel-good chemicals in the brain. However, some foods result only in temporary good feeling as opposed to highly nutritious foods that can improve mood over the long term. We can use other activities to change our moods such as hobbies, exercise, or socializing. Creating a list of pleasurable activities and posting it somewhere prominent or carrying it with us can be a great reminder to use these activities when we experience unpleasant emotions.
Practicing a mindfulness technique, such as the ones above, before eating can help us identify what is behind the desire to eat. It might be hunger, but it also might be thirst, fatigue, boredom, anxiety, depression, or another unpleasant mood. If you are feeling a physical or emotional discomfort, address that first and then look again to see if you are still feeling a desire to eat. If you are not experiencing hunger, consider distracting yourself with a pleasant activity or socializing. Another option is to soothe yourself with your senses—look at photos that make you happy or beautiful scenery, smell some flowers or essential oils, listen to music you enjoy, wear comfortable clothes, give yourself a brief massage, or whatever else appeals to your senses.
Regularly practicing taking one mindful bite can begin to change our experience of food. When we eat mindfully we fully experience food, sometimes noticing features of the food we otherwise missed. We also are less likely to overindulge because we are being aware of the signals from our bodies. To practice taking a mindful bite, observe the food in detail with all your senses. What do you see, hear, feel, and smell before you even put it in your mouth? What thoughts, emotions, sensations, or urges do you notice? Take one bite, but do not chew yet. What do you taste? How do your sensations and urges change as you put the food in your mouth? Chew once. How does this sound and feel? How does it change the taste and smell? What new thoughts, emotions, sensations, and urges arise? Slowly chew the bite. Notice the movement of your tongue, jaws, and mouth. Notice the urge to swallow. When you swallow see if you can feel the food as it goes down your throat to your stomach. What new experiences or insight did taking a bite of food this way introduce? Can you bring this kind of awareness to eating another bite? How does the experience change with each bite?
Taken together, these practices can change our thoughts, emotions, and habits relating to food so we can make choices that foster long-term wellbeing. Mindfulness and healthy food choices are lifetime practice that can continue to be broadened and deepened. Here are some more resources to continue to develop healthy habits.
- 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food by Susan Albers
- The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs by Stephen S. Ilardi
- The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual: A Practical Mind-Body-Spirit Guide for Putting an End to Overeating and Dieting by Julie M. Simon
- Full Catastrophe Living (Revised Edition): Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Palouse Mindfulness: Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Online Course https://palousemindfulness.com/