Eat to Thrive Podcast #11: Mindful Eating
Want to celebrate the upcoming festive season without all that food guilt? Tired of all the talk around "good" and "bad" foods? Then take a dive into Mindful Eating...
Are you seeing Christmas decorations and hearing festive music in the malls?
Are you looking forward to Christmas, but dreading having to be around tables full of celebratory food?
Are you already planning your "New Year, New You" diet and exercise regime?
If you're sick of hearing "you shouldn't eat that" in your own head, and frustrated at how food guilt can ruin what should be time enjoyed with family and friends, then maybe give mindful eating a go...
Before we launch into mindful eating, let's have a look at mindfulness.
The concept of mindfulness has gained in popularity of late, and aspects of mindfulness can be found in many practices, including yoga, tai chi and meditation. But it can also be incorporated into daily activities such as going for a walk outside, sitting on the bus, listening to music, eating, even just breathing! There are also loads of mindfulness and meditation apps available for your smart phone, and there are a few free ones that come recommended.
What are the general principles of mindfulness?
The Center for Mindful Eating is a non-profit organisation established in 2006, and its contributors include non-diet Registered Dietitians, Clinical Psychologists, professional educators, scientists and counsellors. Their articles and advice are backed by research, and they have some great resources on their website. This includes information on mindfulness in general, summarised into three major principles:
Deliberately paying attention in the moment, without any judgement
Being aware of your thoughts, emotions and the physical sensations you are experiencing in that moment (internal considerations)
Being aware of what’s happening around you (external considerations)
By observing and practicing these principles, you create the opportunity to observe and change certain habitual patterns in your life, in terms of automatic thoughts, emotions, and patterns of behaviour that are negatively impacting your physical and emotional health. Principles of mindfulness can even be combined with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy
to really help those with negative thoughts and behaviours, kind of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy on steroids! You can read about this approach here.
What about Mindful Eating?
Mindful eating is a practice that encourages us to be fully aware and present specifically when we eat. Now if that sounds a little hippy-dippy for you, ask yourself this: how often have you eaten something while on the computer, on your phone, or watching TV, and not really been aware of how much you have eaten? Or just how nice it tasted? You’re not alone. I had a lovely client whose favourite item of confectionary was scorched almonds – she loved them! But she was getting through quite a few boxes each week, and felt out of control around them. We talked about how she ate the scorched almonds, and she told me she would sit down at her computer to do the admin work for her business, open a box, and proceed to grab almonds and eat them while she worked. Often she would find herself rummaging for the last almond in the box, only to find she had eaten it already! She then realised she’d not even really tasted or enjoyed them, or even been that aware she was eating them. That’s a perfect illustration of mindless eating – essentially eating on autopilot. It’s so easy to do, we all do it, I do it while I’m working on my computer if I have any chocolate nearby! But it’s a huge first step to realise it’s happening, because then you can take steps to do things a little differently.
So how do we apply mindfulness principles to eating – how can we eat mindfully?
Before I delve into this next bit, I feel it’s necessary to acknowledge that there will be some of you that will be unable to fully or even partially implement the following guidelines, for various reasons. You may have limited food choices due to your financial circumstances or living situation, you may be recovering from physical or psychological trauma, you may be recovering from an eating disorder, you may be dealing with other incredibly challenging personal issues – any number of factors. Also, the following mindful eating guidelines are just that (a guide) and are not intended to replace the advice of your health professional.
1. Increase your awareness of the nourishing aspect of food, and the effect various foods can have on your body.
Food supplies our body with the nutrients it needs to do all we expect of it: work, play, fight off infections, repair damage, grow stronger, and if your pregnant, grow a whole new human!… so acknowledging this important function of food is crucial. Emphasising foods that supply the nutrients your body needs, while sliding the foods that have far less nutritional value into the background, requires a bit of knowledge. A great place to start is current healthy eating guidelines, where you can learn about the many beneficial nutrients found in the four food groups:
New Zealand Nutrition Foundation - vegetables and fruit
New Zealand Nutrition Foundation - food groups
2. Choosing food that is nourishing, satisfying, and supports your wellbeing.
This takes into account your knowledge of the nutritional benefits of food we’ve just talked about in point number 1, as well as your own personal food preferences, and the pleasure to be found in just eating food. If you really dislike a food, don’t eat it, and don’t judge yourself for not eating it – don’t think you should eat it because it’s trendy, or a “health food”. There are a few foods I don’t like, so I don’t eat them, and instead I eat similar foods that provide the same nutrients. I’m personally not going to eat a lot of kale, but there are many other brassicas that I love. By the same token, it’s also important to acknowledge that some foods contribute to wellbeing in other ways, aside from strictly nutritional value. Now, in diet culture these foods go by many names: treat foods, naughty foods, guilty pleasures, unhealthy foods, and all that rubbish. Stop giving food a moral value, stop calling foods “good” or “bad”. All that does is give those so called “bad” foods power over you. You’ll avoid them, eat around them, then in all likelihood eat a whole lot of them later and feel like crap, so you’ll start avoiding them all over again. There’s room for all foods in your own personal eating pattern. But if you try your best to tune in to what your body needs to feel and be its best, you’ll appreciate that eating donuts all day won’t support your wellbeing, and will likely leave you feeling pretty rubbish. Now eating donuts every now and again, if they are something you really like, is a totally fine thing to do, as part of an overall nourishing eating pattern.
Be at peace with the donut.
3. Listen to your body and tune in to your hunger and fullness cues.
Sometimes we eat by the clock, whether we are hungry or not. Now I understand that many people will have specific times in their day for lunch breaks and tea breaks, so may not have a choice around timing. But we can all benefit by pausing and taking the time to check in with our hunger level, because that gives us an opportunity to gauge how much food we need to eat to satisfy that hunger. Some days we will be hungrier than other days - maybe we are more active, or are braining particularly hard - so we will need to eat a bit more food, other days not so much. Also, ignoring our hunger is akin to telling our body “what do you know? I’m going to pretend that my tummy isn’t growling up a storm, and just eat a small amount of food”. We all know that this kind of restriction inevitably backfires – you end up so hungry later in the day that you make quick and desperate food choices in order to avoid chewing your own arm off! Often these choices aren’t the ones that best nourish your body. Tuning in to hunger and fullness cues also gives you the chance to ask yourself if you are really hungry, or if you are eating for some other reason. For example, you might be thirsty, you may be eating out of boredom, or as a response to an uncomfortable emotion, or because you are stressed. If you are not hungry, ask yourself “what do I really need?”
4. Be fully present in the act of eating food, and use all of your senses when doing so.
The previous point was all about hunger and fullness, what about satisfaction? Is that the same thing, or something different again? Involving all of your senses while eating will enhance the eating experience, and increase your satisfaction. Smell the food, look at the colour, appreciate the texture as you bite into it, take time to chew the food. To do this, you will need to avoid doing anything else while you are eating – no watching the TV, scrolling through your Facebook feed, driving the car. This is where the donut comes back in – take your sweet time (pun intended) eating that donut, and really savour it. There’s actually a really cool meditation exercise with a raisin you can do! Sounds funny, but it’s a cool exercise to get you into the groove of using all your senses when eating, and it only takes 5 minutes – go try it!
Here is a link to a great article on the hunger/fullness/satisfaction equation by a Registered Dietitian, for a bit of further reading.
How important are these mindful eating principles during the festive season? How am I going to get through this time with my sanity and health intact?
You need to reject diet culture for a start.
Completely reject the notion that you should do everything you can to avoid or restrict certain foods (and I’m thinking at this time of the year that will likely include those little Christmas mince pies...) because doing so only creates a stronger desire to eat them. Give yourself unconditional permission to eat whatever you like, and these foods lose a significant amount of their power over you. I had another lovely client whose favourite thing was fancy cheeses – she loved them, but felt like she shouldn’t eat them, because she knew they were high in fat. Consequently, whenever there was a cheese platter at a social event, she would eat a lot of cheese, then feel really guilty afterwards. Once she gave herself permission to eat all foods, she didn’t feel like eating nearly as much of it - the cheese just didn’t have the same hold over her.
Secondly, it doesn’t hurt to have some snappy comebacks when people start making diet-culture-ish comments about food at social events...
Registered Dietitian Vincci Tsui has some great ideas for how to deal with such comments around food, along with a free e-book you can download to help you navigate the holiday season with self-compassion and a serious side-helping of food satisfaction.
And if you're feeling even more annoyed with the food police (and a bit braver), activitst Ragen Chastain has some seriously good slap-backs!
If you give yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods, then implement the Mindful Eating principles we’ve discussed, you are:
More likely to choose predominantly nourishing foods but also enjoy some of those delicious festive foods WITHOUT ANY GUILT. Because who needs that, right?
Less likely to eat so much that you feel uncomfortably over-full, as you are paying attention to your fullness cues.
More likely to gain significantly more satisfaction from the experience of eating by using all of your senses and being fully present in the moment.
And most importantly, more likely to make it through the festive season with more of a focus on spending quality time with loved ones and sharing kai, than worried about the fact that you ate a second Christmas mince pie!
If this all sounds a bit scary and is creating some anxiety for you right now, that is an entirely understandable reaction.
We are so used to the constant messages of:
"Eat this, it’s healthy/clean/paleo/gluten free/refined sugar-free/low carb", or whatever is the latest trend...
"Don’t eat that it will make you fat, it’s a bad food". Food is only bad if it’s gone off, and you should only feel guilty about eating a food if you’ve stolen it…
And the big one: take up less space in the world.
This is dressed up in many ways, but the thrust of it is your worth as a person is so often measured by how much space you take up, by your body weight. Honestly, that is the least interesting thing about anyone.
If the Mindful Eating approach is something you want to explore to help you navigate the holiday season, which is closely followed by the “New Year, New You “ diet culture extravaganza that is January, here are some other links for you to explore:
University of California, Berkeley - Mindfulness
Megrette Fletcher - Mindful Eating
There’s also a link to a wonderful book by local author Tansy Boggon, called Joyful Eating - How to break free of diets and make peace with your body. It’s available on her website.
Now if this approach tickles your fancy and you want to dive a bit further, you can have a look at Intuitive Eating, which is on a much deeper level again. It incorporates the principles of mindful eating, while also including principles that apply to physical activity, rejecting diet culture, and body respect. Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch are the two Registered Dietitians who coined the term and wrote the book on Intuitive Eating, now into its 4th edition. Take a look around their website for more info.
Dietitian Rebecca Scritchfield's Body Kindness website is also a great place to have a look around - she also has a podcast, and for episode 132 she interviewed Evelyn and Elyse about Intuitive Eating!
There was also a good article in Glamour Magazine on having a healthy relationship with food, and why you really don't need to go on another diet in January.
I hope that you’ve found some helpful information to get you through the silly season less affected by unnecessary guilt around your food choices.
Go and celebrate with your whanau and friends, enjoy the wonderful bounty a kiwi Christmas has to offer, and most of all, be kind to yourself.
Ka kite anō.