The Art of Mindful Eating:
7 Simple Exercises for Greater Health, Happiness and Peace of Mind
BY LYNN ROSSY, PhD.
extensive research has shown that adopting mindful eating practices can dramatically improve many areas of health and overall happiness and enjoyment of food. photo: brook lark
The BASICS of Mindful Eating
By bringing to light the major difficulties and challenges you have with eating, the instructions in this article will transform your future experiences with food and your body. There is no great mystery or secret to unveil with mindful eating, just the simple task of bringing your attention to what’s happening in the present. When you’re on autopilot—not paying attention to what you’re doing or being fully present in your body—you’re not aware of the sensations of hunger or fullness, not aware of what you’re eating, and not tasting or enjoying your food.
However, practicing the BASICS will change the way you eat forever and for the better—training you how to eat for pleasure and health.
They will be your touchstone for the rest of your eating life.
BASICS stands for:
B—Breathe and belly check for hunger and satiety before you eat
A—Assess your food
I—Investigate your hunger throughout the meal, particularly halfway through
C—Chew your food thoroughly
S—Savor your food
Let’s talk about them one at a time as they relate to eating mindfully.
1. B—Breathe and Belly Check for Hunger and Satiety Before You Eat
First, take a few deep breaths and relax the body. As you’re doing this, check in with your belly. Are there sensations of physical hunger? How hungry are you? What are you hungry for? Is there a particular type of food you’d like to have? You might want food. You might be thirsty. You might be hungry for something entirely different from food (e.g., walking, stretching, more deep breaths, relief from stress). Listen to what your body is telling you mindfully. General mindful eating rule: eat when you’re hungry; don’t eat when you’re not hungry.
Most of us are barely breathing, which is why the first instruction is so important. Notice how you’re breathing right now. You will probably discover that you’re holding some tension in your belly.
Relax and let it go. Take a few deep breaths. Let your belly be soft and allow the breath to be deep and full. Notice how different it is to breathe this way. To change the habit of shallow breathing, it can be helpful to take a few deep breaths throughout the day. Breathing deeply is essential for your journey back to your body and will improve your understanding and recognition of hunger and satiety cues as you learn to eat mindfully. I find it a little humorous that I got a Ph.D. to go around teaching people to breathe, but it truly is a prescription for better health and well-being. And the best news is that it’s free and available at every moment.
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When you’re stressed, your body’s resources are being utilized to escape a real or imagined threat. When triggered, the fight-or-flight mechanisms in the body can override your brain’s capacity to make good decisions. As a result, you easily fall into habitual behavior that often includes reaching for food. One of the reasons you turn to food is because stress induces secretion of glucocorticoids, which increases the desire for food, and insulin, which promotes food intake. Eating actually reduces the stress response and reinforces your tendency to eat when stressed (Dallman 2010). Due to these mechanisms, stress and obesity are, not surprisingly, linked together.
In addition, when you eat when you’re stressed, your body stores more food as fat. And, my guess is, storing extra fat is not the outcome you are hoping for. Interestingly enough, the body is actually preparing you to be without food for a while, maybe while you’re hiding in a cave as you take cover from your enemies. This bodily process is part of our survival mechanism and made sense when we had to hide from lions, tiger, and bears, but now it just makes us fat and sabotages our intentions of eating mindfully!
eating mindfully will actually make the food you are eating taste better, digest better and contribute positively to your overall health and wellness. photo: francesca schellhaas photocase.com
Ever find yourself reaching for food when you get angry, frustrated, irritated, afraid, or stressed? Your body is really asking for relief from tension, and food has probably provided some temporary relief in the past. However, when food is sought out as the answer to an emotional state, you end up eating junk you don’t need and you’re still left with your original problem.
Alternatively, when you breathe deeply and you’re in a relaxed state, you’re able to metabolize your food more efficiently and stay mindful. You breathe in more oxygen and you burn food more fully. When you take a few deep breaths, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, reversing the signs of stress in the body and alleviating the desire to reach for food. Try a little deep breathing to bring your body’s natural resources to the rescue and help you stick to the BASICS of mindful eating. Over time you will begin to recognize the difference between the symptoms of stress and the physical symptoms of hunger.
As you can see, some symptoms of stress could easily be confused with hunger symptoms. However, symptoms of stress are caused by feelings and thoughts, and symptoms of hunger are caused by not having been fed for a while. Eventually you can begin to sense the difference, which is important in mindful eating. Every uncomfortable feeling that you have in your body is not hunger nor should be fixed with food. So instead of reaching for a bag of chips or a chocolate bar, take a breath and check in to see what your body is telling you. I talk much more about stress and emotional eating in my book, The Mindfulness-Based Eating Solution: Proven Strategies to End Overeating, Satisfy Your Hunger, and Savor Your Life.
Because you are accustomed to eating for many reasons besides hunger, the idea of checking in with your belly to see if you’re hungry before you eat might be a somewhat foreign idea for you. You may be out of touch with the signs of hunger or how to interpret the signals from your belly. As a result, you might be skeptical about anything your belly tells you, especially when it comes to mindful eating. Truth be told, you might be ignoring your belly for all kinds of reasons. I often hear statements like “Check in with my belly?!” “I don’t like my belly!” “How can I trust a belly that just tells me to eat all of the time?”
This is when mindfulness comes to the rescue. Take a few more deep breaths and bring the focus to your belly with nonjudgmental curiosity and kindness. This caring attention is an essential attitude to cultivate as you learn to improve your relationship with your body and practice eating mindfully.
It may take some time, but your belly can become your buddy. Start by breathing and relaxing. Bring an interested, caring attention to the present moment and tune in to the sensations in the belly mindfully. Ask yourself, “Am I hungry?”
As you learn to explore your hunger, here is a scale you can use to help you determine how hungry or full you are. Used regularly, it can teach you the language of hunger and be a huge asset in learning to eat mindfully.
Hunger and Satisfaction Scale
1. Starved! I don’t care what or how much I eat!
2. Very hungry! I feel unfocused and irritable.
3. Hungry—I feel a physical sense of hunger.
4. Slightly hungry
5. Not hungry, but not yet satisfied
6. Satisfied with the meal
7. Starting to get a feeling of fullness
8. A little too full, feeling uncomfortable
9. Way too full! I couldn’t eat another bite.
10. Stuffed! I feel sick!
Each time before you eat, mindfully ask yourself: “Am I hungry? What’s my hunger level?” The first step to reclaiming the world of normal eating is to honor your biological hunger. Your body needs to consistently know that it will have access to food. If you are starved (number 1), you definitely have waited too long to eat and might eat everything in the house or the grocery store! Sometimes people call this being “hangry!” When you are very hungry (number 2), you feel irritable and unfocused, and your body and brain are exhibiting signs of not having food for too long. The best time to eat is mindfully when you have signs of physical hunger in the form of hunger pangs and stomach growling (number 3).
If you wait until you feel physical hunger before you eat, you will still feel slightly hungry (number 4) at the beginning of your meal or snack. As you continue to eat mindfully, the hunger will dissipate but you won’t feel satisfied (number 5). The place where you do feel satisfied (number 6) is an ideal place to stop eating. At this point your biological hunger needs have been met.
By the time you start feeling a sensation of fullness (number 7), if you eat any more it will probably be too much. When you start to feel uncomfortable (number 8), way too full (number 9), and stuffed (number 10), you can be sure that you are eating way past the point of physical need.
Not being hungry before you eat and being too full when you finish eating are signs that you are engaging in mindless, unconscious eating or eating to fulfill emotional needs. Use this scale to help you better understand and regulate your behavior with food.
Checking in mindfully with your belly will give you important information about hunger and fullness. As you begin to eat more mindfully, you will notice that eating past the point of biological need is not that pleasant or desirable. The more you acknowledge the discomfort you feel in the body when you eat too much, the more likely you will choose not to feel this way.
Don’t be discouraged if you haven’t yet discovered how to mindfully eat based on your body’s messages. Listening, understanding, and honoring your hunger and satiety cues are some of the more challenging aspects of mindful eating, particularly if you haven’t been paying attention to your body for a long time. This is perfectly normal at the beginning of your path of mindful eating. For instance, you might have difficulty noticing the signs of hunger, never feel hungry, or feel hungry all of the time. Let’s look at a these issues in more detail.
Do you have difficulty feeling hunger or never feel hungry? There are a number of reasons this happens. And, when you don’t recognize hunger, you might also be neglecting the body’s other needs (e.g., sleep, movement, water).
+ Drinking a lot of diet soda, coffee, and tea can silence hunger. These calorie-free beverages provide a temporary sense of fullness in the stomach and numb the hunger signs.
+ A long history of dieting can dampen the hunger cues. Dieters who deny their hunger for a long period of time can subsequently learn to tune out the signals of their growling bellies until the signals finally become hard to recognize.
+ Eating according to the time on the clock (e.g., breakfast at 7:00 a.m., lunch at noon, and dinner at 7:00 p.m.) can increase your reliance on an external structure instead of your internal signals and dampen your ability to hear and feel your hunger. Even if you have to eat at a particular time, check in to gauge your hunger level and mindfully eat an amount that satisfies the level of need.
+ Living a busy, nonstop life can result in a habit of ignoring or suppressing hunger as you focus on being engaged in activity all of the time.
+ Spending a lot of time in your head and not in your body can also shut off the body’s messages. When you are lost in thought, it is difficult to be mindfully aware of the voice for hunger.
Do you feel hungry all of the time? Explore the following explanations to see which ones might be contributing to your growling belly.
+ Eating food with little staying power will make you feel hungry sooner than later. Most notably, simple carbohydrates (e.g., refined breads, pastas, and sugary foods) are absorbed quickly into the blood, causing a quick increase in blood sugar and a surge of insulin. Insulin prompts cells to absorb blood sugar for energy or storage, and levels in the bloodstream begin to fall. Your body will think it has run out of fuel and you will feel hungry again as you begin to crave more carbohydrates.
+ Not drinking enough water can be a culprit. The lack of hydration can mimic signs of hunger because hunger and thirst signals are controlled in the same part of your brain. Try drinking about sixty-four ounces of water a day to stay hydrated.
+ Thinking about food a lot can set off cravings. The thought about food and the desire that arises from that thought are not the same as hunger.
Certain psychological, physical, and environmental conditions can make it difficult to accurately assess your biological hunger—making you feel more or less hungry. If you are depressed or anxious or stressed, you might feel overly hungry or not hungry at all. Some medications can mask the signs of hunger (e.g., medications that cause nausea, ADHD drugs, some diabetes medicines) or increase the feelings of hunger (e.g., some antidepressants and diabetes medicines). Lastly, just the smell of delicious food can get those salivary glands working overtime and induce the urge to eat even when you’re not really hungry.
Although my general recommendation is to mindfully eat when you’re hungry and not eat when you’re not hungry, there are a few important exceptions. Consider the following suggestions for becoming a better friend to your body.
Having physical energy is dependent on fuel from what you eat.
It is the foundation for health in every area of your life. In order to keep your body running smoothly, it is often recommended that you eat something mindfully every four or five hours. Use this as a guide when you are first learning to listen to your body’s cues. You don’t have to eat a lot. A few nuts, a piece of fruit, or a slice of cheese might be just what your body needs to stay happy until the next meal. Stay tuned for the slight signs of hunger because at first you might miss them.
Some people tell me they never eat breakfast, insisting that eating breakfast, even mindfully, makes them hungrier during the rest of the day.
However, skipping breakfast in an effort to lose weight doesn’t work.
Research indicates that you tend to eat more food, not less, at your next meal or you succumb to eating fatty, sugary snacks. In addition, eating breakfast mindfully has been associated with better concentration, increased alertness and energy, and a decrease in stomachaches and headaches (Wahlstrom and Begalle 1999). Eating smaller, more frequent meals and mindfully eating earlier in the day has actually been correlated with eating less over the course of the day and lower body mass index (de Castro 2004; Song et al. 2005). Skipping any meal, but especially breakfast, can actually make weight control more difficult.
Hungry or not, eat your breakfast mindfully—even if it’s a piece of fruit, some yogurt or oatmeal, a handful of trail mix, or an energy bar.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and is a way of recalibrating the body by jumpstarting your metabolism after not eating for the period of time you were asleep. By the end of ten weeks, all of my breakfast skeptics have transformed into breakfast believers and say that it makes them feel better and eat less.
When you know you won’t be able to eat for many hours and will feel starved before you have access to food again, you would be well advised to mindfully eat a little something even if you aren’t hungry. Tribole and Resch (1995) call this “practical hunger.” For example, imagine you are going to a movie that starts at 7:00 p.m., and an hour earlier you aren’t hungry. Mindfully eating a light meal or snack beforehand is a sensible solution and will keep you from feeling starved later.
Breathing deeply and checking in with your belly will change not only how you eat in a more mindful direction, but also how you relate to yourself and your life. You will begin to discover hunger at more and more subtle levels as you work with this simple but profound practice. Be patient and kind with yourself as you learn how to listen and reestablish your connection to the body through mindful eating. After you determine if you are hungry, you will want to inquire what you’re hungry for. Understanding what the body wants and needs might be immediately evident, or you might need to go on a deeper investigation. The next step in the BASICS will help.
2. A—Assess Your Food
What does it look like? Notice the colors of the food. Does it look appealing? What does it smell like? Where does it come from? Is it a food you can recognize (e.g., natural and unprocessed), or is it so highly processed you don’t know what it is? Is this the food you really want? You don’t have to take a lot of time with this. A brief pause to assess your food can give you lots of information about it. As you take your first bite and continue to eat mindfully, reassess your food to see whether your first impressions were correct and whether you really want to keep eating.
After breathing and checking in with your belly to see if you’re even hungry, the next step in the practice of mindful eating is to assess what you’re planning on eating. Do you assess your food before you eat or do you throw it into your mouth without pausing to reflect on what it is? Mindless eating happens very quickly, and before you know it you are eating something just because it’s there. Now is a good time to take another look at what you’re eating—as if for the first time.
When you assess your food, your senses of sight and smell will help you ascertain a lot about the food you’re about to eat. Even before you taste it, you might feel your mouth beginning to water.
You can actually get a sense of how healthy the food is by tuning in mindfully to the way it looks, smells, and feels in your hand. See if you can sense your body wanting it or not. Imagine this for a moment: what would it feel like to hold an apple or grape in your hand? What would it feel like to hold a cupcake or a bag of French fries? What impressions do different types of food leave you with? Of course when you do this for real, you will be able to feel the texture, smell the odors, and sense the reactions in the body.
If you are used to eating highly processed food, it will be more difficult to use your senses to clearly guide you. First, food housed in hermetically sealed packages is hard to smell, hard to touch, and hard to sense. Second, primitive neurochemical reward centers in the brain are triggered by food (even memories of food) laced with sugar, far, and salt and mimic responses found in people addicted to alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes. As you practice assessing your food mindfully before you eat, notice whether you can sense the difference between signs that your body desires a particular food for its health or taste and signs that you have developed a biological craving for it. I like to call the first “body hunger” and the other “brain hunger.” For example, you might feel your body saying yes to a fresh apple or grapes because the body desires the nutrients found in them, but you might also hear a yes to a doughnut or a bag of French fries because you have developed a craving for them due to their high sugar and fat content.
Assessing your food mindfully does not include an evaluation of calories, carbohydrates, fats, salts, or recommended daily allowances. As you are learning to become a mindful eater, a focus on these aspects of your food distracts you from learning about your food through direct experience. Author, journalist, and food activist Michael Pollan (2004) writes, “we’ve learned to choose our food by the numbers… relying more heavily on our reading and computational skills than upon our senses.” People who “eat by numbers” seem constantly concerned with the products they eat and often guide their eating by the latest fad, diet claim, or medical guru. Although the important scientific recommendations available to us should not be discounted, many people have begun to rely solely on this information and block out their own well of mindful wisdom inside their bodies.
Which sounds more appealing to you?
A ripe, red, fresh tomato
33 calories (3 from fat), 9 milligrams of sodium, 7 grams of carbohydrates (2 grams of dietary fiber and 5 grams of sugar), 2 grams of protein, 30% Vitamin A, 39% Vitamin C, 2% Calcium, 3% Iron
My guess is that most of you would prefer eating a ripe, red, fresh tomato (preferably warmed by the sun and straight off the vine).
Assessing your food mindfully puts you in touch with the direct experience of the food itself, not a scientific calculation.
As she worked on learning to assess her food, Holly discovered that “healthier and more natural foods are actually more appealing to my senses than processed convenience foods.” When she stopped to listen to her body mindfully, she noticed that it did not respond very well to nights of eating pizza rolls and drinking the soda she loves. However, the night she made broiled chicken with green beans, a salad, and watermelon, her body responded quite differently. “As I scanned this plate of food, I was amazed to find that all of my senses were thoroughly engaged. It was beautifully colorful, and the watermelon smelled delicious and my mouth watered. The salad was crunchy and colorful and excited my taste and sight. The chicken filled my stomach with warmth and sustenance. The green beans were sweet and reminded me of the home-cooked meals of my childhood.” You will become more sensitive to the body’s desire for or rejection of food by assessing it before and while you eat mindfully. After seeing and smelling your food, your mindful attention to the taste of food and its effect on your body will begin to direct you to keep eating or not.
As you learn to assess your food mindfully, don’t be surprised if you find yourself making different food choices than in the past.
3. S—Slow down
Slowing down while you are practicing mindful eating helps you be aware of when you’re getting full and when the body’s physical hunger is satisfied. Slowing down can help you enjoy your food more fully. Simple methods to help you slow down and practice mindful eating include putting down your fork or spoon between bites, pausing and taking a breath between bites, and chewing your food completely. If you are eating with others, try talking and listening without having your eating utensil constantly in hand and notice how it changes the pace of the meal.
There are many benefits to slowing down while you eat. In a 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, thirty healthy women were studied on two separate occasions in which they ate at two different rates of speed. When they consumed their meals slowly, they ate significantly fewer calories and drank significantly more water than when they ate at a faster rate. Additionally, they were less likely to feel satiated when they ate quickly (Andrade, Greene, and Melanson 2008).
Slowing down and bringing your attention to the food you’re eating will help you get the very most out of your mindful eating experience.
Of course, one of the best payoffs for slowing down is how it increases your ability to taste and savor your food. We’ll talk more about “Savor” at the end of the BASICS, but you can start by learning to take your time when you eat.
For many of us, slowing down will not be an easy practice to learn. How many times have you scarfed down an entire meal and didn’t even know what you consumed or how it tasted? Rena said she remembered the night in college when she and her roommate walked down five flights of stairs to the cafeteria, ate dinner, and walked back to their room in less than five minutes. You might not have ever eaten quite that fast, but you get the point.
Eating meals slowly and mindfully becomes particularly challenging when we’re under time constraints, when we eat with other people, and when we find ourselves around environmental influences such as loaded buffet tables and break rooms at work filled with goodies. If you are caring for the never-ending needs of children, it can seem impossible to take time for yourself to eat mindfully and slowly. Eating often occurs while you’re running from the kitchen to the table or from the house to the soccer field.
When you begin to pay attention to your rate of eating, you might also begin to notice how fast other people eat—particularly someone you live with. This can be quite an eye-opener. Watch as people attack and devour their food in moments. As you begin the process of mindfully slowing down, fast feels really out of sync. Perhaps you could introduce your fellow diners to the idea of slowing down and mindful eating.
If you’re a fast eater, you might be like me—doing a lot of things in a hurry. Notice yourself rushing from one activity and task and meal to another. To support the practice of slowing down when you eat, play around with slowing down when you engage in other activities. Take your time and pay mindful attention to slowly brushing your teeth, driving your car, walking, or any other activity you do on a regular basis.
I practice slowing down when I do yoga. When I stand in the mountain posture (feet hip-width apart), I take a deep breath in as I raise my arms overhead, and, as I breathe out and bring my arms to my sides, I move them as slowly as I can. I feel the weight of my arms and feel gravity pulling them down. This one unhurried movement slows down my thoughts, my breath, and the rate at which I proceed.
It is amazing how it helps me feel more calm, relaxed, and at peace and helps me eat mindfully as well.
Try it now and see how you feel. Slowing down helps you eat mindfully and savor your food and your life more fully.
How slow is slow enough for mindful eating? For starters, you might have heard it takes about twenty minutes for your brain to register fullness. That’s correct and that’s pretty bad news for most of us who have eaten a meal and long forgotten about it in twenty minutes. So, if you’re not really paying attention, you will be way too full by the time the brain fully catches on. Slowing down can result in eating less because the awareness of fullness will help you stop.
If you are one of those naturally slow eaters, congratulations!
You have this aspect of mindful eating under control. However, if you have a hunch that you are a speed eater, see if you can slow it down a notch or two. The habits you have developed around eating can be hard to break. You might not always take twenty minutes to eat your meal, but work at moving in that direction.
4. I—Investigate your hunger throughout the meal, particularly halfway through
To be a mindful eater, it is important to be aware of your distractions and to keep bringing your attention back to eating, tasting, and assessing your hunger and satiety throughout the meal. In particular, if you bring an investigative awareness to your meal when you are halfway through, you may discover you are no longer hungry even though there is still food on your plate.
You may discover you no longer find the food appealing.
Give yourself permission to stop or to continue based on how hungry you are, not on old rules like “you need to clean your plate.”
In addition to checking in with your hunger mindfully before you start eating, it is important to keep investigating your hunger throughout your meal so you can determine when to stop eating mindfully as well. Even if you find yourself rushing through your meal unaware, start embracing the idea that at least halfway through you will “STOP” and breathe.
STOP stands for:
S—Stop when you’re halfway through the meal
T—Take a breath
O—Observe the signs of satiety and taste
When you are in the “observe” step, pay attention to your belly mindfully and note where you land on the hunger and satisfaction scale. If you feel satisfied, stop eating. If you’re still hungry, continue mindfully eating. You can also ask yourself, How does the food taste? Is the food worthy of my taste buds? Or, Am I only continuing to eat because the food is still there? What you do next—continue mindfully eating or not—will be based on information from your body and your taste buds. This technique is a variation of one that has been used to help individuals successfully make appropriate responses in a wide variety of situations (Wise 2002).
Granted, this investigation of satiety and taste and using it to guide how much you eat mindfully is not as easy as it sounds. In fact, stopping eating at the point of “satisfied” rather than “full” is one of the greatest challenges for many of the people I teach. Two common questions arise:
“How do I know if I’m satisfied?” Right now you might get to “full” and completely skip over the “satisfied” feeling (which I describe as no longer feeling hungry) before you feel full. There will be a subtle cue from your body that says enough. Listen closely and mindfully.
“Why do I keep eating, even though I’m satisfied?” Even when you notice being satisfied, you might still find it difficult to stop eating. Eating past the point of biological need or satisfaction happens for all kinds of reasons—some better than others. Here are the three most common reasons people tell me they eat more than they need:
“I love food and it tastes so good that I don’t want to stop.” If this is your experience, it can be helpful to remind yourself that this is not the last time you will have good food or be able to eat [fill in the blank]. In fact, part of the problem is that food is abundant and readily available. Don’t worry. You will eat tasty food again. When you’re satisfied, pack it away for later or throw it away (more on that strategy soon).
“I have a fear of being hungry.” If you have been on diets in the past, the memory of being restricted in how much you eat can turn into obsessions about food and an aversion to feeling hungry, which is counterproductive to mindful eating. If you fall into this category, there is a way to stop being driven by the past. It starts with investigating how you feel in the present. Mindfully attend to the thoughts and effects of your past conditioning. Assure yourself that you can always have food when you want it. We will talk much more about working with thoughts and beliefs that lead to overeating, but at this point it is helpful to start a curious, kind investigation of what they are.
Not wanting to feel hungry might also stem from childhood experiences. For instance, did your mother or grandmother teach you to eat the minute you stepped into the house? Many of our parents grew up in a time when food was scarce. For them, feeling full is a sign of being okay and safe, and a sense of emptiness (hunger) is a source of anxiety and discomfort. Unknowingly, our loving caretakers might have passed on some pretty emotional and dysfunctional ways of experiencing hunger that are counter to our efforts to learn and practice mindful eating.
“I have to clean my plate because I don’t want to be wasteful.” Have you been told to clean your plate because there are starving children somewhere in the world? Do you think about how much money you’re wasting if you don’t eat all of your food? If you have either of these thoughts or both, you may be riddled with guilt about throwing food away, even if you’re not hungry any more, which is counterproductive to mindful eating. Being driven by these thoughts into overeating is an unconscious behavior that helps no one—not even a starving child somewhere in the world.
Roberta said, “This ‘don’t waste food thing’ is a big deal to me.
It seems self-indulgent or something to look inward and try feeling when I’ve had enough and to stop eating at that point. It is not comfortable for me to do that. But, I know that my overconsumption of calories is not going to solve world hunger. I’m obese and have been for many years, so my way of thinking about this is obviously NOT working for me.”
Whatever your reason for cleaning your plate, now is the time to rethink your strategy if you are serious about mindful eating. You can give yourself less food, you can save food for later, and you can throw food away. You might have become conditioned to not do any of this for a multitude of reasons, but it is one of the most important changes to make as you journey down this path of mindful eating. Remember, your stomach is not a wastebasket. It’s no more wasteful to throw food into your stomach that it doesn’t need than it is to throw it away. As Roberta said, this might create some discomfort at first, but it is the place to start. Unless you bring to light the beliefs that are keeping you stuck, you can’t move past them.
Eating and socializing go hand in hand. And when you’re involved in conversation, it can be difficult to remember to mindfully check in with your belly. When you don’t pay attention to your hunger throughout the meal because you’re distracted by other people, a practice of checking in at least halfway through can be quite helpful.
Let your attention move from listening to others to listening to your belly and mindful eating. Don’t get so caught up in the conversation that you forget to be aware of getting full.
Eating out at a restaurant is another time when it is particularly important to investigate your hunger throughout the meal. You are in control of what you order but not how much food is presented to you. Remember, the chef at the restaurant didn’t mindfully check in with your hunger when he decided how much to give you. And, portion sizes have dramatically increased over the past twenty years. For example, according to a National Institutes of Health (2013) report, a soda has grown from 6.5 ounces to 20 ounces, and a serving of French fries has grown from 2.4 ounces to 6.9 ounces. Plate sizes are much larger than they used to be. I notice this when I’m shopping at estate sales. Have you seen the tiny size of dinner plates from fifty years ago? To avoid falling prey to our current supersize mentality, try some new strategies. If you are eating out with someone else, share a meal instead of getting two. If you’re alone, take the extra food home for later or throw it away when you’re full. To help you stop and stay within your mindful eating boundaries, you can put your napkin over your food or ask the waiter to take the food away. If you know the portions are way too big, you can even tell the waiter to put half of the food in a takeout container before you get your meal.
Cheryl said, “I have described myself as a short woman with a man-sized appetite. Since investigating my hunger throughout the meal, I have found I have a petite appetite. I am astounded to learn I need to put less food on my plate to start the meal. Not out of deprivation, but because I’ve learned that full is not that far into the meal!”
Is it ever okay to eat past the point of satiety? Absolutely. It is reasonable to occasionally choose to mindfully eat more than you biologically need. For instance, when I go on vacation, I search for wonderful restaurants or specialty foods that I don’t get to experience at home.
I have mindfully eaten my way across many cities and countries, and when I consciously choose to eat more than I really need, I do so with absolutely no regrets or guilt.
On my birthday, my friend Ginny made me amazing homemade tamales and, while one would have left me satisfied, I ate two. Since Ginny was dying of bone cancer and nearing her final days, I knew I would not be able to share a meal like this with her again. The tamales were wonderful, and I mindfully and joyfully ate more than I really needed. I still have fond memories of that meal.
When to stop eating is determined with each meal and each circumstance. In general, stop or continue eating mindfully based on your biological hunger, not the amount of food on your plate or any other justifications you might come up with. You might feel satisfied halfway through, or you might discover that you’re eating food you no longer want. Give yourself permission to stop or to continue based on a new mindful awareness of your actual hunger or fullness.
5. C—Chew your food thoroughly
Pay attention to the multitude of sensations available to you as you mindfully chew your food. Notice the variety of tastes registered inside your mouth and whether you enjoy what you’re eating. Notice what happens to the food as you chew. How long does it take to thoroughly chew your food before you swallow it? As you continue to chew and swallow, can you sense digestion beginning to occur and hunger beginning to dissipate?
Chew each bite thoroughly before you move on to the next.
Learning to mindfully eat involves bringing your attention to the taste, smell, and sight of food and taking your time as you savor your food. However, in my experience, slowing down in order to appreciate all of these things is one of the greatest challenges we face as we learn to mindfully eat. How do you put “slow down” into practice in our fast-paced world? A simple way to support slowing down and mindfully eating is to bring your attention to chewing. Anything to which we bring our attention can become a meditation, and meditating on chewing can turn an ordinary process into an extraordinary experience.
Chewing can even make the difference between life and death.
Lino Stanchich (1989) tells the tale of his father, who had been in prison camps during World War II. While in prison, Lino’s father lived on a starvation diet of a daily bowl of soup consisting of potatoes and some other vegetable, and an occasional bit of meat. He intuitively experimented with keeping any precious food he received in his mouth for as long as possible and chewing—starting with fifty times a mouthful. He not only felt his thirst being quenched, but he also had more energy. His “magical number” of chews was 150, and the more he chewed, the more energy he had. At the end of the war, the only three men who survived of the thirty-two who were captured together were Lino’s father and two others who had joined him in his practice of chewing. His account of how he survived, literally through chewing, became lifesaving advice for Lino when he himself was detained for two years in a prison camp in Yugoslavia.
My yoga teacher lived and taught yoga at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Massachusetts. He related the story of when Lino Stanchich came to do a “power eating” program there and encouraged people to chew each bite fifty times. At Kripalu, an institution that serves hundreds of meals each day, the kitchen staff keeps close track of how much food is consumed. Over the course of a week, the staff reported a drop in food consumption by one third when people were instructed to “power eat.” Think about the consequences of reducing your food intake by one third.
Lino is not the only one telling us to chew thoroughly. Horace Fletcher, called “The Great Masticator,” was one of the original health food enthusiasts of the Victorian era and even made it into our modern lexicon. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines fletcherism as the practice of mindfully eating in small amounts and only when hungry and of chewing one’s food thoroughly (Merriam-Webster.com, s.v.“fletcherism”). Fletcher’s basic tenets were that “one should eat only when genuinely hungry and never when anxious, depressed or otherwise preoccupied; one may eat any food that appeals to the appetite; one should chew each mouthful of food thirty-two times or, ideally, until the food liquefies; one should enjoy one’s food” (Merriam-Webster, Inc. 2011). Great advice then; great advice now!
Recently, researchers sought to test Fletcher’s doctrine of mindful chewing. They compared the difference in the impact of thirty-five versus ten chews per mouthful. They discovered that higher chewing counts reduced food intake despite increased chewing speed (Smit et al. 2011). Another study found that people who chewed their food forty times versus fifteen times ate fewer calories and had lower levels of the hormone ghrelin, which stimulates appetite, and higher levels of a hormone that reduces appetite (Li et al. 2011).
Why is chewing so important and powerful as a mindful eating exercise? Biologically, chewing your food activates many processes. Chewing breaks down food particles into smaller pieces upon which the digestive enzymes can act, lubricating and softening food so that it is more easily absorbed in the stomach and digested, lessening problems such as constipation and acid reflux. When food is in the mouth, the sense of taste is activated. This helps the body identify essential nutrients and harmful, potentially toxic compounds and process them accordingly. Your mouth acts like a food processor for your meal, allowing you to gain much greater nutritional value and more energy from your food. The act of mindful chewing sends messages to the brain that help you register satiety, and saliva produced through chewing promotes healthy teeth (Pedersen et al. 2002). Finally, my favorite benefit from chewing thoroughly is that it helps you slow down and savor and enjoy the taste of your food which is essential in the practice of mindful eating.
Having tried to chew my food up to one hundred times, I will not be recommending that much chewing to you. It makes my jaws ache just thinking about it. However, I am suggesting you pay much more attention to chewing than you do currently and chew each bite thoroughly before swallowing. Don’t overthink this or chew to the point where you’re making the meal a miserable experience. This practice is not meant to ruin eating for you, but rather to enhance the taste of food and your health. Use the focus on chewing as a means for slowing down and savoring—which brings us to the last of the BASICS of mindful eating.
6. S—Savor your food
Savoring your food means taking time to choose food that you really like and that would satisfy you right now—food that honors your taste buds and your body. Savoring your food happens when you are fully present for the mindful experience of eating and the pleasure that it can bring. Your attention rests on the complete range of sensations available in each bite. If you really like it, experience the joy of savoring. If you can’t savor it, why eat it?
The first part of “savor” is choosing food that you like and that would satisfy you. How do you choose the food you want to eat? Do you pause to reflect on the type of food or flavor that would satisfy you, or do you fall prey to the “see food, eat food” diet, eat when you’re distracted, and eat out of habit? Taking time to consciously choose the food you want can help you feel more satisfied when you’re done. For instance, if you have a desire for chocolate, do you let yourself mindfully eat it? Or, do you tend to graze and eat all kinds of other foods until you finally give in and have the chocolate? No amount of celery, carrot sticks, or rice cakes can satisfy your desire for chocolate, if chocolate is what you want. Why not have what you want to begin with?
Studies have demonstrated that taste is truly acquired. If you are exposed to certain kinds of food over and over again, you will begin to prefer them. If you have been accustomed to eating highly refined foods with artificial flavors or foods with high amounts of sugar, refined salts, and certain types of fats, your taste buds have been dampened and habituated to prefer this way of eating. The good news is that if you trained your taste buds to want overly processed food, you can also train them back to sanity through mindful eating.
This transformation does not need to be forced. If you can mindfully eat fast food and really love it, by all means have it and savor it. In fact, many people just starting the mindful eating journey say they prefer to eat fast food or junk food instead of fresh fruits and vegetables. The proliferation of fast food restaurants and the junk food in every vending machine support that contention.
However, I need to warn you that practicing with the concepts in this book has ruined fast food for many people. I don’t tell anyone what to eat, but I ask them to really pay attention to how it tastes.
Under the microscope of investigation, your taste buds mindfully rediscover their senses.
Rachel, a twenty-five-year-old graduate student, is one such convert. About a year into exploring mindful eating, she came to me one morning and said, “You’re going to love this story. I tried to go to Burger King and get some food last night and everything tasted awful.” Marilyn, a fifty-four-year-old woman trying to get her diabetes under control, said she was never going to give up doughnuts with maple-flavored icing. But, by the end of ten weeks, she reported having no appetite for the circle of fat with artificial flavoring and sugar on top. Personally, I was a four-can-a-day diet-soda drinker before I started practicing mindfulness, and I thought I really loved it. One month after my first meditation retreat, I was shocked at taking a sip and only tasting chemicals. My diet soda days were over.
Savoring your food is a whole-body experience, making mindful eating a holistic endeavor. When you notice the effect of food on your body, lots of information can begin to flood into your awareness.
Too much fat can make your stomach feel queasy. Overly processed food doesn’t satisfy you for long or give you energy to last throughout the day. Sugar makes you feel famished and exhausted, and regularly eating the “crystal crack” messes with your body’s ability to tell your brain you’re full. Notice the next time you eat or drink something with a high sugar content and see if you experience the sugar crash about thirty minutes later. In contrast, notice the energy and vitality your body gets from fresh fruits and vegetables. Whole foods are processed more slowly in the body and sustain you through all of the demands of your day. Savor the food you’re eating mindfully and notice how the body feels. Can you let this information guide what and how you eat?
The second part of savoring has to do with being fully present for your food and the pleasure it can bring. Bringing yourself fully into the present moment as you eat and savoring the taste can be all you need to reverse your unconscious approach to food. Let the taste of your food bring you back to the present. Be fully present and mindfully aware for the taste. If the mind wanders away, bring it back. Use taste as a way of training yourself to be present. Return to the fresh, direct experience of taste over and over again.
At a workshop, I instructed people that we would be doing a mindful eating exercise with three kinds of chocolate. “There is something for everyone—milk chocolate with hazelnuts, dark chocolate with mint, and dark chocolate with cranberries and almonds.
Come on up and get three pieces and then go back to your seat,” I said. Peggy walked up to the table and picked out her chocolate. As she walked by me I saw her throw one of the pieces in her mouth and swallow it whole. “Wait! Wait!” I said. “We’re going to eat the chocolate together as a group.” A little embarrassed, Peggy laughed and got another piece. After eating the chocolate mindfully, Peggy reported that the piece she swallowed whole had no taste at all while the pieces she mindfully savored were nuanced with a multitude of flavors and brought great delight.
It is amazing to me that simply not paying attention can block the experience of taste. But when you engage in the practice of mindful eating, you regularly discover new information about your taste preferences and whether your body wants something or not. Be prepared to be surprised at what you discover when you become fully present.
You have at least three times a day when you can have a pleasant, mindful experience with food. Not that every meal will be a gourmet experience, but even simple foods can be delightful to the senses when you stop to pay attention. Savor your food. Enjoy the way it feels in your mouth and in your body. The whole experience can be delicious and delightful and free of guilt. Savoring mindfully, your relationship with food and your body begins to improve and your trust in your inner wisdom begins to grow.
Mindful Eating Exercises
Now is the time to take all of the BASICS of mindful eating and apply them to when you eat. The following instructions for mindfully eating a raisin and having a mindful meal or snack will get you started. While the mindful eating exercises might seem a little formal or silly at first, try to put yourself into the mindset of discovery, exploration, and nonjudgment. Apply the attitudinal quality of mindfulness called “a beginner’s mind.” Having a beginner’s mind—being able to see or taste something with curiosity and novelty—is necessary when learning something new. You could even pretend that this is the first time you’ve ever eaten.
The first mindful eating exercise below, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn (2013), is quite famous among people who teach mindfulness. It’s sometimes called the “raisin meditation.” I highly recommend doing the raisin meditation first and then applying what you learn as you follow the instructions for mindfully eating a meal or snack. At first you will want to do these mindful eating exercises alone so you can focus your attention entirely on mindful eating. In other words, turn off your cellphone and computer, put down your reading material, and eliminate any other distractions. After eating a few meals this way, you will find it easier to do in the company of others.
7. Exercise: Mindfully Eat Some Raisins
For this mindful eating exercise you will need three raisins as well as paper and a pen to write down your experiences. You will explore the raisins through all of your senses—through the sense of sight, touch, smell, hearing, and taste. You can download an audio recording of this exercise at lynnrossy.com.
Start by placing all three raisins in the palm of your hand. Start to get a sense of the raisins, your thoughts about the raisins, and your thoughts about this exercise. As best you can, let everything go except your direct experience of the raisins.
Using the sense of sight, notice what they look like. Take your time and explore the raisins in detail as if you have never seen a raisin before. Don’t be afraid to move them around in your hand. You might notice their irregular shape and size, their wrinkles, and how they shine in the light. How are they alike?
How are they different? Take a few moments to examine the raisins with the sense of sight; and write down what you notice.
Next, move to the sense of touch. What do they feel like in the palm of your hand? Pick one up and notice what it feels like.
What do those wrinkles feel like when you put a raisin in between your fingers? Notice the texture—is it squishy or sticky?
Notice, through touch, what there is to be discovered, and write it down.
Now we’ll move to the sense of smell. Pick up one of the raisins or bring the entire hand with all three raisins to your nose. What do you notice about the smell? You might have never smelled a raisin before. Sometimes people report that it smells “earthy” or like licorice or wine. See if one raisin smells more pungent than another. Write down what you notice.
Next we’ll move to the sense of hearing. That might sound a little strange, but have you ever tried to hear a raisin? Try to be as open-minded as possible about your experience. Little children love doing things that are unfamiliar and different, yet as we grow older, notice how we tend to be “too old” to do something like this. Move the raisin back and forth between your fingers and see what you discover. Write down what you notice.
Finally we will move to the sense of taste. Ah! The sense you’ve been waiting for. But, before you put one in your mouth, take a moment to decide which one you want to taste first. Is it the big one? The little one? Notice what kind of preferences arise as you look at the raisins. Mindfully choose the first raisin you want to taste and place it between your fingers. Notice how easy it is for your fingers to reach your mouth. You could even close your eyes and that raisin would find your mouth.
But wait! Don’t chew just yet. Simply place the raisin on your tongue and notice what the raisin feels like before you start to chew it. Move it around with your tongue; be aware of the increase in saliva oozing into the mouth in preparation for digestion. Notice the desire to chew. Notice any other thoughts you might be having about this exercise and just let them go. Come back to the direct sensation of the raisin in the mouth. And, when you’re ready, beginning to chew.
Notice what it feels like to take that first bite. Slowly chewing the raisin and noticing what happens. Notice the taste, where different tastes are registered in the mouth, and how taste changes over time. Notice how the tongue gets involved in chewing the raisin. Chewing thoroughly before you swallow; and, after you swallow, notice what sensations are still evident in the mouth. Notice any desire to move on to the next raisin.
Write down your experience of mindful eating and tasting the first raisin before moving on to the next.
Repeat the mindful eating exercise with the next two raisins, one at a time.
Don’t assume that every raisin will be the same. Stay open to the idea that they might be quite different from one another. Be fully present for the taste of each raisin.
What did you notice?
Write down any observations you had about the mindful eating exercise. What did you notice about the raisins? How is this different from the way you normally eat? What was the experience like for you? You didn’t have to like it or not like it. There is no right or wrong answer.
Don’t let the fact that you don’t have raisins in the house or that you absolutely hate raisins stop you from doing the mindful eating exercise. The idea is to take three small pieces of food and bring your entire attention to assessing them, chewing them, tasting them, and swallowing them. Explore with different kinds of food—three dried cherries, three small bites of chocolate, three pieces of cantaloupe, or three blueberries.
Hopefully you wrote down your reflections as you did the mindful eating exercise. Maybe they sound like some of these. Janet said, “I’ve never really tasted a raisin before or noticed the sweetness and flavor of one single raisin.” Susan didn’t like raisins but said, “It made me realize how fast I usually eat. I don’t know why I eat so fast, but I always have. Maybe it’s because I don’t want people to watch me eat.” Sally said, “The first thing I noticed was how much resistance I had to the exercise. I just wanted to get it over and get on with it. I didn’t want to write down my reactions. I already had the second one in my mouth before I was finished with the first. This was very enlightening.” Margaret said, “I thought I knew everything there was about slowing down and savoring my food, but I’ve never explored food like I did with those three raisins. It makes me very excited to see how I do when I apply that to eating a meal.” Although this mindful eating exercise has been around for many years, recently researchers have examined the effect of mindfully eating a raisin on the degree of enjoyment people have when eating other foods.
Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups: a mindful raisin-eating group, a non-mindful raisin-eating group, and a no raisin group. Compared to the latter two groups, participants in the mindful raisin-eating group indicated significantly higher levels of enjoyment of other foods after doing the raisin exercise (Hong, Lishner, and Han 2014).
Now is your chance to take what you’ve learned from the raisin exercise and the BASICS of mindful eating and apply it to your eating at other times. The next time you eat a meal or snack, use the mindful eating exercise below to guide you. This exercise borrows aspects of a mindful eating exercise used in MEAL (Mindful Eating and Living Program) and shared with me by Brian M. Shelley (Dalen et al. 2010).
8. Exercise: A Mindful Meal or Snack
Pick a time when you would normally eat a meal or a snack. You will be using all of the BASICS in order to determine hunger, choose and assess your food, slowly eat and savor, and stop when you are satisfied. As best you can, approach this mindful eating exercise with mindful openness and curiosity. You can download an audio recording of this exercise at lynnrossy.com.
Before eating, bring awareness to your body and your breathing. Let your belly be soft and full. Take three full deep breaths.
Let the breath relax you and help you settle into the present moment. Start by checking in to see how hungry you are. Use the Hunger and Satisfaction Scale to gauge your current state of hunger or fullness. Explore what hunger feels like in the belly, noticing its pleasant and unpleasant qualities. Notice the sensations that occur in the mouth and in the belly with the mere thought of eating.
If you haven’t chosen food to eat yet, check in to see what would taste good right now. Can you get a sense of what the body would like to eat or what tastes would be pleasing to you?
Once you have your food in front of you, take some time to assess it. What does it look like? What is the color and shape?
Where did it come from? How nourishing do you think it is?
What does it smell like? Acknowledge the importance of food for your body’s health.
When you eat, can you take your time? You can slow down by chewing your food thoroughly and by putting down your fork or spoon between bites. Watch any distractions or thoughts, let them come and go. Keep coming back to the sensations involved in eating and tasting.
As you eat, notice whether you are enjoying the food or not.
Focus on the sensations of taste—sweet, sour, salty, pungent.
Keep coming back to the taste of your food. If you notice you aren’t enjoying it, can you stop eating? If you enjoy it, how present are you for the pleasure of the experience? Savor your food.
Throughout the meal, noticing how your hunger level moves toward feeling satisfied. Particularly halfway through, stop and assess where your hunger level is again. If you’re hungry, continue to eat. But, if you notice a sense of satisfaction, stop.
Notice if it is difficult to stop at this point and inquire as to why.
Give yourself permission to stop, even if there is some food left on the plate. If you normally would eat more, notice what it feels like to stop before complete fullness, exploring the pleasant and unpleasant aspects of this. Remind yourself that you can always have more later.
What thoughts and emotions are present as you eat and as you decide to stop? What beliefs and stories do you tell yourself about food and eating?
Be present for the last bite as fully as you were for the first bite. And if you eat more than enough, or feel too full, knowing that you have not blown it, but that you are simply now aware of this fullness. It takes time to learn new ways of eating and stopping. Every time that you eat is a time to practice again.
Practice bringing kindness to yourself and curiosity to the practice of mindful eating.
What did you notice?
Which of the BASICS is the most difficult for you? Which is the easiest? How is this different from the way you normally eat? How will it change the way you eat in the future? Mindfully eating meals and snacks with the BASICS as your guide can help you begin to uncover your mindless eating habits. Awareness of your current habits is the first step toward changing them.
Practicing With The BASICS
You can choose one of the BASICS to work with or work with them all at once. Follow them as best you can and as often as you can, knowing that there will be times when it will be next to impossible to eat this way. Write down the mindful eating BASICS and put them on your computer, on your mirror, on the dining room table, or in the car; tattoo them on your hand (just kidding!) or put them wherever else you might see them on a regular basis. You might have never given these a second thought before, and finding ways to cue yourself to remember them can be helpful.
Eating mindfully requires the ability to focus, maintain your attention, and keep bringing your attention back to eating when you notice that your mind has wandered. Every meal might not get your full attention, but try to eat one meal or one snack mindfully every day. Even eating a few bites mindfully can help break the habit of mindless eating. Every time you eat can be a new discovery. Your consistent practice will reap benefits over time.
Learning how to become a mindful eater is a process—complete with its ups and downs. Rather than focusing on weight loss, the focus will be on how you feel and how food tastes, smells, and appeals to the senses. When you keep bringing your focus to your internal signals in a relaxed manner with kindness and compassion, you will learn many things about yourself and the food you eat. Your internal wisdom will guide you in the direction of health and well-being.
+ Becoming a mindful eater requires checking in with a part of your body you may have been avoiding for a while—your belly!
+ Stress/emotional distress and physical hunger are often experienced in a similar way, and it can take some time to become adept at telling the difference between them.
+ Food high in sugar, fat, or salt can set off biological cravings and can alter your taste buds—so they require careful attention as you begin to eat mindfully.
+ Slowing down to pay attention to your food and its taste is a challenge in a culture operating on overdrive.
+ You have spent a lifetime developing habits, ideas, and thoughts about food and eating. Understanding and changing them will take time and patience.
The Good News:
+ The BASICS of mindful eating are a complete set of guidelines to help you become conscious about what, when, why, and how you eat.
+ Breathing, something we do in every moment, is one of your best tools for understanding your hunger and your body. Take a deep breath now and feel the love!
+ Your belly is your buddy and you can learn to trust its guidance.
+ If you have trained your taste buds to want overly processed food, you can also train them back to sanity.
+ Your body has a natural response to food that can guide you to greater health.
What You Can Do Now:
+ Regularly practice with the mindful eating BASICS—using one at a time or all at once. If one is particularly challenging, practice with it for an extended period of time.
+ Mindfully Eat Some Raisins: Use this exercise to help you learn how to use all of your senses when eating. You may want to experiment with different types of foods using the same instructions.
+ A Mindful Meal or Snack: Do this exercise with as many of your meals as possible. Even eating a few bites mindfully during every meal can help break the habit of mindless eating.
This article on mindful eating is excerpted with permission from The Mindfulness-Based Eating Solution: Proven Strategies to End Overeating, Satisfy Your Hunger, and Savor Your Life by Lynn Rossy, Ph.D. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. copyright © 2016 Lynn Rossy
About The Author
Lynn Rossy, Ph.D, is a licensed clinical psychologist at the University of Missouri’s wellness program for faculty and staff. She developed Eat for Life, a mindfulness-based intuitive eating program that successfully helps people overcome eating issues, improve body image, and enhance weight loss. She is on the board of directors of The Center for Mindful Eating. Visit her website LynnRossy.com.