Thinking About Food

By practicing mindful eating, you can learn to enjoy food with all your senses — and consume less of it



girl eating an applePhotograph by Lana K, courtesy of Shutterstock

In our fast-paced society, it’s all too easy to rush through meals without fully enjoying them. Many of us skip breakfast and race through our lunch break. At the end of the day, we may find ourselves mindlessly munching on snacks, distracted by a favorite TV show.

Well, it’s time to stop and smell the cinnamon buns.

Mindful eating, a practice currently being touted by some nutritionists, teaches us how to slow down and engage all of our senses while noshing. This includes savoring the sight of a meal, smelling its aroma, tasting the blend of flavors — even acknowledging the sounds it makes when we’re chewing. When eating mindfully, we are more focused on the present moment, and become more aware of what we eat and why we are eating it.

The process has roots in the Buddhist philosophy of mindfulness — a lifestyle based on active awareness of your mind, body, and surroundings — and can help with an array of health problems. Taking in food at a slower pace aids in digestion and weight issues (loss or gain, depending on what you might need). Becoming more conscious of what you’re consuming assists with both portion control and in breaking bad habits, such as eating due to boredom or nervousness.

“Because eating slower allows the brain to register when the body has had enough, people who practice this tend to take in only what they need, not overeat, stress eat, or binge,” says Ilyse Simon, a nutrition therapist in Kingston. The technique teaches your mind how to listen to your body — and figure out what it truly wants.

Here’s how it works: First, look at the food — take in its presentation, colors, and shapes. Notice its scent before you take a small bite. Listen to the bite — does it snap or crumble? Pick out the flavors while chewing — salty, sweet, bitter, sour. Focus your thoughts on those flavors; if your mind wanders to other things, try to bring it back to the present moment. Take the next bite only after you’ve swallowed everything in your mouth.

Keep in mind, however, that the concept of mindful eating isn’t just about these five senses. To be fully in the moment, you must be comfortable in your environment as well. Simon suggests making the space where you eat conducive to your tastes, and somewhere that you want to be. “First, sit down at a table and shut off the TV,” she advises. “Then light some candles, open a window, whatever makes you feel good.” Avoiding television and other distractions will help you to fully focus on your meal. “When you read, read. When you eat, eat. Don’t read and eat,” she says.

Mindful eating isn’t a trendy weight-loss diet, and it has nothing to do with deprivation of food. “If you want a piece of pizza, and you know you’ll feel good physically and mentally after eating a slice, have one,” Simon suggests. Eating mindfully can help you enjoy these foods in moderation.

For some people, Simon says, cravings could be caused by emotional factors. There’s the possibility that a person craving chocolate could really just be upset and looking for a bit of comfort. Simon recommends asking yourself: Am I hungry — or just bored, stressed, angry, or sad? If you’re not truly hungry, try to refocus your energy on an activity you enjoy, such as painting, running, or reading. Junk food cravings can sometimes be quelled by substituting sweet fruits; try a fresh fruit salad with ingredients from a nearby farm stand instead of a sugar-loaded cupcake.

Since this way of eating might be a major lifestyle change for some, it could take a little while to get used to. Like meditation or any other mental practice that’s new, mindful eating involves breaking some old habits — a process that can be difficult to do. “It might take some time,” Simon admits, “but it’s wonderful once you get the hang of it.”

Food for Thought

The Center for Mindful Eating, a nonprofit organization based in New Hampshire, describes the following main ideas of eating mindfully on their Web site, www.tcme.org:

Mindful eating is:

  • Allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food preparation and  consumption by respecting your own inner wisdom
  • Choosing to eat food that is both pleasing to you and nourishing to your body by using all your senses to explore, savor, and taste
  • Acknowledging responses to food (likes, neutral, or dislikes) without judgment
  • Learning to be aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decision to begin eating and to stop eating
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