December 18, 2023

Mindful Eating: Bringing Awareness to Food Choices

Have you ever put a plate of food in front of you while watching TV or holding a conversation with a friend and looked down to suddenly find that plate empty? It can be very easy to become distracted from food and begin eating mindlessly.

Mindfulness is bringing your awareness to the present moment; Mindful Eating is directing that awareness towards the food in front of you and the factors influencing your food choices. Take a moment to imagine your favorite snack food. Close your eyes and think about what you like about it. How would you describe its appearance? Its smell, texture, or taste? Increasing awareness during the eating experience helps in finding a comfortable amount of food to energize your body and contributes to building a positive relationship with food.

By practicing mindfulness at meal and snack times, you may find yourself becoming more intuitive, which means you are listening to your body and its needs. There are ten principles of intuitive eating, found here: Rather than dive into all ten at once, today we will focus on three principles to gain some background on striving for that increased awareness while we eat, and we will talk strategy for food choices to come.

Honor Your Hunger and Your Fullness

Our bodies need consistent energy every day. When energy dwindles, you may notice physical signs of hunger, such as stomach growling, headache, irritability, lack of focus, or weakness. Ignoring these signals may be unintentional when food isn’t available right away, but oftentimes there is pressure to wait until a scheduled mealtime or to abide by the structure of a diet plan. Ultimately, allowing hunger to grow taps into a biological drive to eat more than needed when food does become available. Recognizing when hunger signals start to take effect can lead to better control of food choices and more stable energy throughout the day.

Eating to fullness is another valuable skill. It requires taking your time and listening to the body’s signals that you are no longer hungry. Consider a scale from 1-10, where the lower end is extremely to painfully hungry, while the 9-10 range is very to painfully full. Recognizing the middle of the scale, 5, neither hungry nor full, and 6, mildly full, may be helpful in identifying a stopping point until your hunger returns later in the day. (See here for more: Ideally, the aim is to be comfortable at all times; not starving and not stuffed.

Make Peace with Food

It is very common to take a black and white approach to food. One food is “good” while the other is “bad.” While placing these labels may not appear problematic, this practice often leads to patterns of restrictive eating down the road. Generally, categorizing and demonizing certain foods are learned behaviors, and it can take a lot of effort to reframe how individual foods or food groups are viewed.

Consider the cycle of depriving yourself of foods labeled “bad”. For many, when foods are forbidden, “giving in” to them tends to lead to overeating and feelings of guilt. Truthfully, no foods are inherently good or bad. They simply provide different benefits.

This is not to say that it is in your best interest to begin eating solely off the “bad” menu, but rather, to consider that all foods can fit into a balanced and healthy lifestyle. Making peace with food is recognizing the benefits of all food options and allowing yourself the variety, free of guilt.

Discover the Satisfaction Factor

How often do you consider why it is that you are choosing to eat? Many influences on food choices are not obvious until we begin to question them. Factors such as the external environment, what we find appealing in our food, and even our present emotions can play a role. For instance, how would you have described the environment around you the last time you ate a meal? Was it crowded and loud? Were you multitasking at your desk?

Foods may become particularly appealing under different circumstances. Recognizing what cues guide your personal choices can lead to greater fulfillment from those choices. Think about how once a food is offered, either from a friend or on a menu or billboard, its appearance or presentation may make us want it more. How it smells, tastes, feels, and sounds – Did that crunch make you want to take another bite? Like the senses, big emotions, both positive and negative, may alter the appeal of food. Does high stress change how you eat? Are there certain foods you reach for during celebrations?

The eating experience is multifactorial, and the satisfaction factor boils down to this: Your food choices help to satisfy both your palate and your hunger. How enjoyable was your meal? Has your snack made you comfortably full?

Strategies to Practice Mindful Eating

Taking steps to become more mindful of food choices encourages us to focus not only on what we eat, but how we eat. Building this skillset leads to making more intentional choices and helps to reject mindless eating that may lead to food guilt and uncomfortable overfullness.

Question Your Food Choice

Take a pause and ask yourself why a food is appealing. Hint: answers of, “this food is good for my health” and “this food will be tasty” are equally valid.

Reduce Distractions When Eating

Try to bring your focus to the food in front of you. Turning off the TV and putting down the phone may keep attention undivided and allow you to get more enjoyment out of your food.

Eat Beforehand

You don’t always know exactly what time you’ll be sitting down for a meal. If you go in just a little hungry, as opposed to ravenous, you get to think more clearly and make comfortable choices for your body.

Practice Saying “NO!”

Do you know a food pusher? Oftentimes, especially at holiday gatherings, there can be pressure to eat more. If offered more food, check in with yourself and give an honest answer. – “No, thank you. I don’t want to overdo it.” (And if you notice you are still hungry, try “Yes please!”)

Split Up Large Portions

Rather than feel pressured to overeat, consider sharing large portions with others. Large portion all to yourself? Know that you may stop when you are full and save the second half for later.

Check In After You Eat

Consider how the food impacted your energy, mood, and hunger. Where does each sit on a scale of 1 to 5? Ask yourself what you would do differently next time you were hungry, if anything.

Give Yourself Grace

Directing awareness to the eating experience is a skill that can take time and practice. Remember that you have the power to make satisfying food choices that you feel good about!