If we learn to ‘hear’ our hunger and adopt a more mindful mindset, we can climb off the diet merry-go-round for good, discovers Kellie Gillespie-Wright. Try these mindful eating techniques to help develop a better relationship with food.
We’ve heard the experts tell us time and time again that we need to change our relationships with food. And hands up – who else is sick of dieting? Especially since studies show that most diets don’t even work in the long term, with 95% of those who lose weight regaining it within the next five years. So could the answer to our woes be to become more mindful about our eating?
Adopting mindful practices is a way to get off the dieting rollercoaster and make us more watchful about what we eat. It aims to transform our relationship with food by encouraging a more holistic point of view. Ultimately, this means we have a better chance of understanding what foods nourish us and help us stay healthy while also encouraging a deeper appreciation of every meal, every mouthful, and every ingredient.
In its simplest terms, mindful eating is about connecting head and body, being present in the moment, focusing on what we’re eating and noticing when our body is full. Just by slowing down and paying attention to the way we eat can help us to eat better and manage food cravings.
Mindful eating works by combatting the ‘mindless’ eating practices that lead us astray, like eating on the go or eating until we are about to burst, allowing us to not only make more nutritious food choices but also foster a healthier relationship between food and our body.
Nutritional consultant Emma Randall says: “Mindful eating is about having better quality eating experiences, feeling relaxed around food and not feeling that food is the enemy. Food shouldn’t be a battle ground; it’s there to be enjoyed, and it shouldn’t cause angst and guilt.”
She adds: “Mindful eating is about noticing your food, savouring the flavour and paying attention to the eating process in terms of your body’s signals, such as whether you’re actually enjoying the food, whether you actually need to be eating and when you’ve had enough to eat but it’s also about giving yourself choice and permission.”
She emphasises that, when it comes to mindful eating, no one food is ‘bad’, it’s how often you eat that food and how much of it you eat that counts, “For people who have a long history of following weightloss diet plans, their ‘diet head’ tells them that foods are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘allowed’ or ‘forbidden’; and yet, if we deny ourselves the foods we love, we only end up wanting them more.”
X-head Where are you hungry?
Emma Hackett is a wellbeing coach with a special interest in mindful eating and explains that the first step is checking in with your body and identifying your hunger. “One of the essential aspects of mindful eating is becoming curious about the sensations of hunger, developing the ability to listen to bodily signals and learning to recognise which hunger it is that’s making us eat,” she says.
“There are many reasons that compel us to eat and drink: these are known as the ‘Eight Hungers of Mindful Eating’. The most basic hunger is our body’s request for food, and if we were able to only respond to Stomach Hunger and Body Hunger, we would eat in a simple, straightforward way.
“However, because we take pleasure and delight in food, it calls to all our senses and encourages us to eat for reasons other than physical hunger. The other six hungers have the power to create the desire to eat, even if we’re not physically hungry, and include eye hunger, nose hunger, mouth hunger, mind hunger, heart hunger and thirst.”
By encouraging us to analyse our hunger and question where it’s coming from, mindful eating enables us to untangle and separate these different experiences of hunger so we can respond to them in the most appropriate way. This means eating and drinking when the body requires fuel and hydration, and nourishing ourselves in different ways when we are feeling hunger of the heart and mind.
Mindful eating: focus on the food
When we know where our hunger is coming from and have decided that food is the only answer, the next step is to ‘drop the distractions’.
How many times have we sat down with some popcorn to watch a movie and before the opening credits have ended the popcorn is finished and we can’t even remember eating it? We’re not alone, research from the University of Bristol found that people eat up to 100% more when they’re distracted than they would have otherwise.
Hackett says: “To get the most out of mindful eating it’s crucial to be fully present with the food we’re eating in any given moment. So put your phone away, switch off the TV, step away from your computer. Focus on the food in front of you and focus your mind on your mouth.”
Once we bring our attention to the entire experience of eating, we stop getting lost in the thinking mind and become less caught up in any complicated emotions we might have around food. Quite simply, we allow ourselves to be re-acquainted with the pleasure of eating.
She adds: “This is important because the mind has two distinct functions: thinking and awareness. When we are distracted by the TV or our phones, the thinking function takes priority and we’re not fully aware of the food in our mouth. We can eat an entire meal and not taste more than a bite or two, leaving us dissatisfied and wanting more.”
Another reason we may reach for an after-dinner snack during an evening on the couch is that multitasking during mealtime can hamper our brain’s ability to gauge exactly how much we ate. If we don’t remember eating neither does our ‘mind hunger’, and it thinks we still need food. The same study from Bristol showed that memories of the food we consume influence how hungry we feel later, and distractions can influence the formation of these memories, leading to greater consumption of food later on.
Engage the senses
We might think: “The problem is that I love food too much.” But if that’s the case, why do we eat while driving, reading a book, or while watching TV? The truth is we rarely appreciate our food enough to satisfy all our senses. When was the last time you tasted every bite of a meal or appreciated how it looks (eye hunger), how it smells (nose hunger) or how the different textures feel (mouth hunger)?
Hackett says: “When you sit down to eat, take a moment to really look at the food. Appreciate the colours, smell the aromas. As you eat, notice the tastes and textures. Ask yourself how the food makes you feel, and really savour the things you put into your mouth. By doing this you will discover that mindful eating is the very best flavouring!”
Take your time
The final cornerstone of mindful eating is simple, just ‘slow down’. Chew your food slowly, take time to savour the flavour and appreciate each mouthful. Put your fork down between bites and let your body catch up to your brain.
It takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to signal to your brain that it’s full, so give yourself time to digest the meal and get in tune with the feeling of fullness and satisfaction that you get from eating.
Learning to pause and check in with our stomach hunger while we are eating can help us become more aware of the difference between stomach fullness, which is a measure of volume in our stomach, and satisfaction, which is an emotional response to what it is we are eating.
Research has found that slow eating (and lots of chewing) helps trigger the release of gut hormones that aid digestion. It also releases endorphins that relieve stress, which in itself can often be a cause of overeating.
“The more we chew, the more the brain registers that food is being eaten, and we’ve got a better chance of feeling more satisfied after a meal or snack,” says Randall. “This is why fast eating is often linked to overeating, particularly if it’s mindless too, which usually happens when we’re distracted, or when we’re eating for emotional reasons, such as feeling upset, stressed or bored.”
But this new way of interacting with food takes practice, and as Randall points out, “There will always be external triggers to eating (such as the sight and smell of food), but by slowing down and thinking first, we can make much more mindful food choices, and can end up feeling a lot better for it too.”
She adds: “If you feel you’ve made a ‘bad’ food choice, move on, don’t let things snowball, and ask yourself how you can make a better choice at the next eating opportunity. Perfect eating doesn’t exist, so it’s about making the best food choices we can in the circumstances we find ourselves, and not beating ourselves up if it doesn’t go according to plan.”
And always remember, food is just food – it’s our relationship to it that matters.