3 Steps to Eating Mindfully:Which One Are You Neglecting?

My hungry husband at Faneuil Hall, Boston

The other day I found myself standing at the kitchen counter, wolfing down some leftovers. I was in a rush to finish packing for a weekend trip, and I was in one of those “multi-tasking” modes. You know, if you can figure out how to do two things at once, try doing three. So there I stood, with the small TV that is stuck in our kitchen wall closely watching the path of Ermine (or was it Hermine?), the hurricane that was maybe going to hit us as we had our yearly outing with good friends in their boat down the Connecticut River. A hurricane would be bad. So I was standing there shoveling this yummy salad down my throat,and it suddenly struck me that I was not even tasting it. And I LOVED this creation, which was a random modification of a kale goat cheese salad I make often (if you ever go to Bricco’s Restaurant, their kale salad is the one I tried to copy…..I got pretty close!). It is a delicious blend of chopped kale, fried chick peas, garlic, red onion, olive oil, balsamic glaze and crispy bacon bits. Anyway, I kind of combined this salad with another bean salad recipe I make with black beans, corn, carrots, etc. and boy, was it good. I should have enjoyed it, but instead, I was just rushing it into my belly so I could move on.

 

Ye, I was in a rush, but promised myself when I got back from the weekend trip, I needed to write about this. If felt important to me because mindful eating, and working on having a healthy relationship with food is one of the messages I hope to send. This means enjoying eating. Shoving food down to get it over with is the opposite of mindfulness. I understand not everyone looks at food and eating as something to be enjoyed, and I chat with people every single day who look at food as “the enemy”. It kind of makes me sad, as cooking and creating healthy but yummy dishes is something I greatly enjoy. I just love sharing what I cook with family and friends, and maybe that is part of my Italian heritage, but being a dietitian definitely affects my cooking, too (“how can I make my mom’s sausage and eggplant but not give my husband heartburn?”).

Ermine missed us, and we sailed down the river easily, and as I joyfully floated one day on a gigantic blow up duck (don’t knock it till you try it) I had time to reflect on how I would describe this eating experience and what bothered me by it. It dawned on me that eating involves three simple (yet not always easy) steps. Each step is important to understand if your goal is to eat somewhat healthy and feel good. Especially if you want to have a healthy-ish relationship to food and eating, and most importantly if you are an emotional or binge eater.

Here is what I came up with:

Step 1. You need to have food available to eat. Now before you say “duh…”, let me ask you this: what are you making for dinner tonight? What are you having for lunch at work this week? What snacks can you have, right now, this minute if you get hungry? Like I said, I love to cook, I know a bit about nutrition, and yet, it is after 12:00 noon and I have yet to figure out dinner, although I have successfully defrosted what looks like 2 gigantic boneless chicken breasts. As for lunches for work, it will have to be leftovers. I am not at all in the mood for grocery shopping. Snacks, well, shriveled grapes and frozen fudge….and the bottom of a chip bag.

The point is, having food available is pretty important because it really does affect what you are going to eat. For those with binge eating issues it can be critical. FYI there are 2 kinds of “binge” eaters. The first kind is the “subjective” binge eater who thinks eating a full sandwich and a cookie is a binge (these are the dieters or even those with disordered eating who don’t allow themselves to eat what most of us might consider a normal meal). The second type is an “objective” binge eater which is someone who truly eats an amount of food most people would consider a large amount, such as the whole box of cookies on top of several sandwiches. Lots of guilt follows an eating episode no matter which type. Many binge eaters have certain “trigger” foods, in other words, when these foods are in the house they can’t resist eating “the whole thing”. Not consuming enough food also can trigger binge eating. It is pretty smart to know yourself, and creating a food “environment” that works best for you.

Besides triggering binge eating, eating healthy and feeling good is next to impossible if you don’t have access to healthy food. I know of some people who just would rather not bother. Maybe they are single or live alone, or maybe the kids moved out and so they don’t cook. Eating macaroni and cheese every night with Pop Tarts for breakfast and take out for lunch eventually will affect your health. Having a bowl of jelly beans on your desk may not be the best idea if you are a mindless nibbler, especially if the dentist is not your favorite person. Yes, paying attention to your food environment definitely affects what you eat and your health. What foods do YOU have available….at home and at work?

Step 2. The act of taking a bite, a forkful, a spoonful or otherwise putting that food into your mouth, chewing and swallowing. The first question is, where are you when you eat and what are you doing? Standing in the kitchen like I was while watching the weather is pretty much the exact opposite of how to eat in a mindful way. Digestion actually does begin in your mouth, so chewing fast and swallowing foods whole will interfere with this. Did you know that savoring your food (really seeing it, tasting it, enjoying it, feeling it in your mouth and chewing it thoroughly) actually has been shown to lead to “sensual satisfaction” and helps you to know you are full? In other words, taking the time to look at your food (not the TV or a book), pay attention to the flavor and texture (is it good? need to add something?) and really enjoying it helps you to be more in tune with your body. Savoring your meal or snack instead of rushing through it makes it more likely that you will eat the amount that you need. Even more important, truly taking the time (more than 2 minutes) to enjoy your food can be a part of the joy of life.

Step 3. Stopping eating. You might find it interesting to know that scientists are fascinated in studying what makes us stop eating. How and why do we “feel full”? What factors contribute to satiety? Everybody knows that eating fast usually contributes to overeating (and by this I mean getting too full, not feeling good physically because you ate too much, I don’t mean the guilt and judgement some people put on themselves because they did not follow their “diet”). We now know there are several chemical messengers that our body sends to our brain to tell us we are full and can stop. We are all different, and some people may feel full faster, but most people need time (about 20 minutes or so) for that messenger to get to the brain to signal fullness. Many factors affect this of course, such as the food we eat, how much fat, protein, fiber, etc. But one of the most fascinating things to me is the “sensory satisfaction”, or how much we actually enjoy the particular food that may affect how satisfied and full we are. Yes, some researchers have found connections. This is just one abstract about how  the sensory aspect of food and how it contributes to feelings of satisfaction and makes us stop eating. Yes, other studies have connected good tasting food with overeating, and we all know that when excessive yummy food is available most of us may eat more than we usually do. The key is finding the balance. Do you expect yourself to live on dry toast, cottage cheese and salad? Are you absolutely bored by the food you make? I have seen people become kind of obsessed with foods they normally deny themselves especially when they try to be “good” all the time…I hate that word, but people use it when they define their eating, so I want to be sure you know what I mean. Eating only and I mean only healthy food. Boring, especially if you aren’t into cooking. Instead, jazzing up your meals, even a little bit can greatly add to your satisfaction. Can you throw some avocado onto that grilled chicken wrap? add some crunchy granola to that morning yogurt? How about a little olive oil dressing in that salad? Make it taste good, and you are bound to feel more satisfied, less obsessed with food, and maybe you even may develop a new hobby…..collecting cookbooks?

Besides being sensually satisfied, tuning in to the ole tummy is also a part of learning to be an intuitive eater. I sometimes use a “hunger scale” (many dietitians do) to help people judge how full they are. It typically goes from 1 (starving) to 10 (stuffed to the gills, extremely uncomfortable). Check out a typical hunger scale HERE.  If you are a mindless eater who gobbles down meals too fast, you may find yourself with indigestion or an upset tummy after the fact. That is one sign that you could benefit from taking the time to slow down and tune in. Practice sitting quietly somewhere, or at least trying to pay attention to what your stomach has to say about a half hour after eating. Are you barely satisfied or are you feeling sick? Both extremes teach you something.

So there you have it. The thoughts I had while floating down the Connecticut river on a duck. I hope you take the time to “digest” some of this, and realize this is not a skill we learn overnight. If you have trouble, just give yourself time. The important thing is doing the reflecting. The rest comes with trial and error. There is no right or wrong, and if you want to live on mac and cheese and Pop Tarts, who knows, you may live a long and healthy life without the fiber….but if you truly do want to feel your best then do your best to work on creating a healthy but enjoyable food environment. Slow down. Tune in.

By the way, we named the duck…Ermine.

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