If you’ve ever sat and scrolled through your Facebook feed while eating, or scarfed down a meal between meetings, then this article is for you.
We all know just how important a high-quality diet is, and that what we eat affects our health. But there is one nutritional component that is often overlooked: mindful eating. What seems like a minute component of health, is actually a crucial piece of wellness.
As a society, we are conditioned to have poor eating habits. Many people struggle with overeating, undereating, emotional eating, eating on-the-go, and all-around mindless eating. Eating is meant to be a sensory experience, and yet so many don’t even realize what they’ve just eaten. Unfortunately, if you’re guilty of mindless eating, you’re potentially causing harm to your health (1, 2).
Forget about food for a moment and consider the gut’s biology. We know now that digestion goes beyond the physiology of the digestive tract. Digestive secretions work appropriately when the body is in a parasympathetic state, or ‘rest and digest.’ They stop working efficiently when the body is in a sympathetic state, or ‘fight or flight.’ So, if you’re constantly eating in a mindless way, then digestive secretions do not work as they are meant to. When that happens, you will not properly digest or absorb nutrients, which then leads to health issues (3).
Additionally, it takes about twenty minutes for the body to release a hormone called cholecystokinin (CCK), which registers how full you are. If you eat too quickly, then you’re apt to overeat since CCK hasn’t had time to kick in. Ultimately this can lead to bloating, weight gain and other health issues. The problem with rushed eating is that not enough time has been given to the cephalic phase (the sensory component of eating), which is crucial for healthy digestion. This is where thoughts, textures, and smells all trigger the release of digestive enzymes and other juices (4).
The goal of mindful eating is to listen to hunger cues, and also to be present during the meal. The average American chews each bite of food only a handful of times, and often with several gulps of water to chase it down. Not only does that hinder the cephalic phase, but also carbohydrate digestion, which affects the flavors of food. Carbohydrate digestion begins in the mouth with chewing, so you may notice that the more that you chew carbohydrate foods, the sweeter they taste. While some claim that it’s best to chew your food 200 times, I encourage clients to chew until food is applesauce texture, to reduce the work of the stomach and small intestines and enjoy the tastes of the food (4).
So, what exactly does mindful eating include, beyond chewing well? I’ve broken it down into 5 steps:
1) Become aware of how you eat. It doesn’t always need to be at a table, but it shouldn’t be while you are driving, paying your bills, or running around between meetings. Sit down somewhere, relax, and enjoy your meal.
2) It also means learning your hunger cues, versus emotional eating or eating out of boredom. Determine whether you are eating because you truly need the nutrition, or if you’re eating just because it’s a habit.
3) Learn to enjoy food (and possibly even cooking). Use your five senses while preparing your meals, and then savor them. When you’re eating, appreciate the nutrients you are putting in your body and be thankful for the benefits you’re gaining.
4) Create a relationship with eating. Recognize that food is nourishment, and that some foods are healthier than others, but also don’t beat yourself up when you make a not-so-wise choice. Food is not black or white, there’s a lot of gray in between.
5) And finally, stop when you are satisfied. Often we overeat because there is more food on our plate, but in reality, you should stop when you’re no longer hungry, not wait until you’re full.
Mastering mindful eating is easy, though changing habits may not be, as many of us fall back into our old patterns. I encourage you to spend some time identifying where you are struggling around mindful eating and take the appropriate steps to slowly start improving upon your relationship with food.
A simple activity to get started with mindful eating:
One of my favorite activities is to get a little square of dark chocolate and place it on your tongue. Instead of chewing it, let it sit on your tongue and begin melting. Notice the texture, the flavors, and the increased sweetness as it breaks down. A similar activity would be to chew a few almonds or walnuts, until there’s nothing left to chew. These are great activities to show just how delicious food can be when we remember to stop and savor it.
Kira Whitham holds a Master’s in Health and Nutrition Education from Hawthorn University, as well as additional training through the School of Applied Functional Medicine, The Metabolic Healing Institute, and IFM. She combines the principles of holistic nutrition and functional medicine to help people bring their bodies back to their intended state of wellness. She is a firm believer in the healing power of food and works hard to help her clients improve their relationship with food while gaining an understanding of what nourishes and depletes the body.
1. Dallas, Mary Elizabeth. “The Health Risks Posed by Mindless Munching.” WebMD, WebMD, 6 Apr. 2016, https://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20160406/the-health-risks-posed-by-mindless-munching.
2. Albers, Susan. Eating Mindfully: How to End Mindless Eating and Enjoy a Balanced Relationship with Food. New Harbinger Publications, 2012.
3. Konturek, Peter C, et al. “Stress and the Gut: Pathophysiology, Clinical Consequences, Diagnostic Approach and Treatment Options.” Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology: an Official Journal of the Polish Physiological Society, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2011, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22314561.
4. Liska, DeAnn, and Jeffrey Bland. Clinical Nutrition: a Functional Approach. Institute for Functional Medicine, 2004.