“What is Mindful Eating?”
by Kiki Athanas
December 17, 2017
With today's mainstream surge of mindfulness, combined with everyone’s newfound love for “eating clean” - the idea of mindful eating can get a little lost in the mix.
I seem to get this question more and more often: “So, what’s mindful eating?”. Sometimes the question itself indicates the person asking it already has the wrong idea, for example, when it’s posed as: “What’s a mindful diet?”.
Personally, I don’t think answering that last question is possible - at least not with reference to any certain foods or ingredients.
But, I’ll explain why I feel that way a little later.
For now, I’m going to outline my own definition of ‘Mindful Eating’ - it’s certainly not the only “correct” definition out there, but throughout my past two years on a journey through mindfulness and work in the nutritional and health & wellness industry - I think it’s worth reading.
First things first, let’s address what mindful eating is NOT...
A reference to the actual food you eat. It’s not the what, it’s the how.
While it’s the how - it’s still not referring to set timing of meals, or following any particular regimes that have any influence from diet culture. In other words, it’s not eating small meals throughout the day to “boost your metabolism”, nor is it eating one meal a day (“OMAD”) to “boost your metabolism”.
[Yes, I just stated the exact opposite advice for the exact same benefit - if you haven’t already, you’ll eventually realize that this is a common occurrence in our world of diet culture. I encourage you to simple acknowledge that there’s always going to be some conflicting evidence out there. Allow me to paint you a little picture of today: studies show saturated fat is “bad”, then other studies show it's beneficial, and we’re making frothy coffees with it. Trust me, it’s time you let that shit go - just eat what makes YOU feel good.]
Okay, now for the somewhat anticlimactic definition… Mindful eating is being entirely present and aware of your body, mind and soul - before, during, and after meals.
Note - again, in my humble opinion - the above isn’t technically possible. Think of it as more of the eventual goal - what you hope to eventually attain. For instance, when a yoga teacher is cueing a move and it slowly starts to get more and more ridiculous. Um, NAO - my leg is not going to flip over my head and touch the ground beneath me while I balance on one finger. Still, it’s a powerful thing to think: maybe one day it will.
Same thing goes for mindful eating. Are you going to be totally in-tune with every bodily occurrence you’re experiencing, all of the brain signals you’re being sent, all while being tapped into your spiritual essence? Furthermore, are you going to kindly and fully translate all of that into all of your decisions with food, all of the time? Probably not, but you can try.
Mindful eating is truly a practice, just like how you practice mindfulness, you practice mindful eating.
It’s all about listening - and then wholly and completely acting on those messages.
I’m referring to more than just hunger and satiation (i.e. feeling full) signals - but this is usually the goal for most people. We live in a world where we’re inundated with diet rules and restrictions, and as we start to incorporate them into our approaches with food, we start to lose touch with what it is that our bodies really need moment to moment.
Or perhaps you’re on the other end of the spectrum - at a “loss” for “getting healthy” by “following a healthy diet”. If you’re struggling to nourish yourself properly, and find yourself making unhealthy choices (unhealthy for you - i.e. eating foods that you know deep down do not agree with you, and you’re suffering from less-than-ideal consequences) - it’s time you tune into this “mindful eating” thing.
Practicing mindful eating will help you regain comprehension of those feelings: “Am I hungry?” “Am I full?” You’ll be surprised at how difficult it can be at first - but also at how fast you can become a master of it, with just a bit more awareness.
I remember a conversation I had with one of the inspirational thought-leaders in this space: Sara Best, who mentioned that many of her clients experience the benefits of mindful eating almost immediately.
Start getting present with why you want to eat, when you’re eating, and how you feel before, during, and after - and you can tap into some seriously powerful feedback.
Dare I say, powerful enough to let go of damaging external influences (from media messages, certain unhealthy influences from friends and family, or whatever your circumstances have thrown at you) that we may be internalizing and “taking out” on food.
Sara Best does keep it real though (that’s why I love her!) - upfront about the fact that while the benefits can be tapped into right away, there’s sometimes a sort of “diminishing returns” so to speak. Once the initial powers of mindful eating are tapped into, now comes the next step in the work. See, becoming aware is only really the first step - often times there’s deep inner healing that needs to happen in order to truly develop a “healthy relationship” with food.
Regardless, there’s no getting around that mindful eating is a transformational thing, and arguably the first and most important step in learning how to eat in a way that truly serves you.
I recently spoke with a friend who opened up about her own journey with food, which, like many people - especially women - involved years of brutal yoyo dieting. Finally, she experienced a shift, and it’s something I see no other way of describing as her mastery of mindful eating. Here’s what she said:
“I stopped giving my power to food.”
She stopped “hating” food. It was a shift in mindset from seeing food as a this negative thing in her life - that she had endlessly tried to control, monitor, and greatly influence in order to achieve some consequential goal: lose weight, boost energy, etc.
Instead, she learned to love food again. We come into this world innately knowing how and what to eat. In today’s beautiful but also complicated world, we tend to lose that innate ability. My dear friend regained that back, and we both agree: it’s all thanks to mindful eating.
Oh, and guess what? She lost weight.
I’m not saying that mindful eating will help you lose weight. I am saying that practicing it will help you get back to your set point - the weight range in which your particular body is programmed to function at its best.If you were "naturally" thinner than you are now, then mindful eating will likely help get you back there. If you’re suffering from disordered eating and constantly restricting in order to stay slim, mindful eating might lead to weight gain.
That last part might not sound 'appealing' - especially if you happen to fall victim of the diet culture messages we’re consequently bombarded with, but it’s important to remember that mindful eating will take you to a place of inner peace.
Just like mindfulness meditation, mindful eating is all about regaining control of who you are, and becoming wholly and completely present in that body.
It’s also generally the “healthiest” state you are capable of achieving.
Oh, and it’s incredibly simple. While it can be challenging to change our habits and mindsets - especially at the start, the practices themselves are simple and just require some diligent practicing. Moreover, once you start getting into the swing of things, it’s effortless!
Actually, I’ll go right ahead and say it: mindful eating = total food freedom.
So, an “effortless” way to become your most present, healthiest self? Are you onboard yet?
If you’d like a little more help on exactly how to start, my favourite Naturopathic Doctor, Salna Smith, from Kale and Coffee, has some great tips that she shared in a Meal Garden post a little while back:
1) Rid Yourself of Distractions.
Turn off the TV, radio and put your phone on silent. Either enjoy the silence or have family time (= conversation) around the table. Make this your new norm for a week and see how you feel after meals.
2) Appreciate Your Food
Mindful eating isn’t about developing a superhuman power of concentration but more so about developing a deep appreciation of food. Where it came from, how it is prepared and just enjoying the food you are eating. This can be practiced when eating anything from a salad to pizza. Really enjoy your food. When we do this we tend to eat slower and savor each bite, which optimizes digestion, we stress less, and our energy improves.
3) Eat Slower
This can feel like torcher for many people. To chew 20 times before swallowing while putting the fork down between bites. Argh. My suggestion: be gentle with yourself. Remind yourself that meals are not a race. Try introducing chopsticks as your utensil to slow things down a bit and reframe ‘eat slower’ into ‘enjoy and savor– this will bring you back to the present moment so you can truly taste your food which will inevitably allow you to slow down.
4) Don’t Forget to Breathe
I often suggest a few deep belly breaths (diaphragmatic breathing) before meals and after. Take a deep breath into your belly so your belly button rises. Try not to move your shoulders. Do this 3x’s before you begin to eat and at the end of your meal. This allows for a moment of calm and encourages blood flow to the digestive system allowing for a quiet mind and optimal digestion.
5) Plate your Food
Seems silly to state but being a society of ‘busy’, we often eat out of bags. Putting your food on a plate, however small the portion, allows you to see what you’re eating so you can appreciate it (see tip 2), which brings awareness to your meal. This habit is one that turns eating into a pleasurable experience and helps refocus on the food itself.
So as we get ready to step into another new year, I invite you to take on a new mindset towards food - one that, as Tara Miller, Intuitive Eating Counsellor and owner of Health Hut, would say: “just feels right”.