To say our current world is overwhelming is an understatement for most. With over-packed schedules, work deadlines, family responsibilities, long commutes and regular day-to-day tasks, many of us are left feeling overwhelmed and out of time. When your day feels full and you barely have a minute for yourself, seemingly simple health concepts like mindful eating suddenly feel impossible. My clients often share that they don't know where to start and, when and if they do try, they worry they are failing.|
While it can seem arduous to create a space and time to allow for conscious eating that brings attention and awareness to the act of consuming food, research shows time and time again that there are so many benefits that come from applying mindful practices to mealtime.
So, what are the basics? Where do we start and how do we create an environment that allows us to become more mindful of our eating habits in a world that demands quick responses and fast action?
1. Change the Focus
Our relationship with food is extremely important; the way we view food and the reasons we consume food matters. Simply changing our focus on food and our reasons for eating can help us become more conscious eaters. Many people are often focused on weight loss and while that can be important and necessary for various health reasons, some approaches can create a negative atmosphere in relation to our consumption of food. When you are in a "weight loss" only mindset, you may find yourself eliminating macronutrients, attempting unsustainable diets or demonizing specific foods.
I encourage clients to instead focus on nourishing their bodies. When we view each meal and snack as an opportunity to nourish our bodies, to fuel our active lifestyles, to help our bodies heal and grow, and to physically feel our best each and every day, then eating becomes a positive experience and a time to do something beneficial for our physical self. We are able to focus on the abundance of nutrient-dense foods that will fuel us and help us to accomplish our many tasks, rather than allowing our thoughts to be consumed by the foods we feel we must avoid.
2. Dine When You Eat
We are all guilty of eating on the go sometimes, attempting to consume our entire lunch in a two-minute break between meetings or standing and multitasking while eating as we encourage our kids to sit nicely and eat their meals. Life happens and sometimes that may mean that structured mealtime does not. But as much as possible, it is important to sit down and slow down in order to fully experience our meals.
Research shows that it takes 20 minutes before our brains receive signals from digestive hormones indicating feelings of fullness and satisfaction. For many, though, mealtime may be much shorter than 20 minutes, meaning we unintentionally deny ourselves the opportunity to recognize fullness before scarfing down our entire meal. This becomes even more problematic when we allow mealtimes and unwinding times to intersect, an action that leads to mindless eating and, usually, an overconsumption of calories.
By creating a dining-specific space for our meals—whether that is at home or at work—we allow ourselves the opportunity to sit down, slow down and become more conscious while we eat. We are able to dedicate mealtime to actually eating; something we may rarely do. The space we create should be a place separate from the chaos of our desks, the clutter of our kitchen counters and the various technological distractions competing for our attention. When we truly give our meals the time and focus they deserve by sitting and being aware of the food in front of us, we allow ourselves the opportunity to taste, appreciate and enjoy our meals. In doing so, we can also become more in tune with our bodies' signals and learn how to recognize and respond to those feelings of hunger and fullness.
3. Discover Your Eating Schedule
I've heard it all, from eating three square meals a day (or was that six small meals?) to only eating between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., with each idea claiming to be the "right" one. But the truth is, there is no one "right" way. We are all physically different and all have different nutritional needs, meaning there is not a single correct way to consume food throughout the day. Rather, we each need to work to discover what the best eating schedule is for us at this point in our lives. It may not be the easy answer, but it is the truth.
When we feed our bodies at the appropriate times based on our own hunger cues, rather than a set timetable, we can learn to become more conscious of what types and quantities of foods our bodies require and then honor those needs. Next time you go to eat a meal or snack, ask yourself, "Am I hungry?" If the answer is yes, then ask "What does my body need right now to feel and function at its best for the rest of the day?" By taking the time to answer these two questions, we are more likely to appropriately respond to the body's needs rather than acting on an idea of how and when we think we should eat.
4. Eat Food You Like
From time to time I will hear this: "I just really don't like [insert whatever food this may be for you]." My answer is always: "You don't have to eat it!" There are so many healthy food options available to us, so if there is one specific food that you really do not enjoy eating, know that you can get your nutrients from another source. This is not to say any of us can eat deep-dish pizza every day for the rest of our lives and bypass all vegetables, but it does mean that we can incorporate a variety of foods into a healthy diet, even ones that we may have thought were off limits. As long as we are mindful of portion sizes, making healthy choices the majority of the time and working to be aware of the body's hunger and fullness cues, we really can eat the foods we enjoy and still achieve our health goals.
Eating foods you like allows you to look forward to nourishing your body day after day and can help create conscious eating in creating that desire to truly experience your food at mealtimes. It can also help us to recognize how certain foods make us physically feel, both during and after consumption, which can play a significant role in how much and how often we consume that particular item. Remember to try new foods and cooking techniques every now and then, as well—you may be surprised to find that a food you previously thought you did not enjoy, you do now or when prepared in a different way.
5. Plan to Eat
One of the most important steps of becoming a conscious eater is having a plan for when and what we are going to eat. This does not have to be complicated, overwhelming or time-consuming. Putting together a simple strategy for what and when you are going to eat can help you be more mindful about the food choices you are making and help to ensure that, when your body does signal that it is in need of nutrients, you have healthy and filling options available. Starting with a simple grocery list and a few meal and snack ideas is all it takes. If you are looking to take meal planning a step further, try preparing and portioning out snacks or prepping parts of larger meals in advance. These small steps can help eliminate some of the stress that comes with mealtime so that when it is time to eat, you can sit and enjoy your food.
As we become more conscious eaters, the more we will begin to learn about ourselves in terms of hunger and fullness cues, as well as what types and quantities of food the body needs to function fully and help us feel our best. Start small with one or two of these ideas and build from there. Each small step will help to create the opportunity to bring attention and awareness to our meals, and that, in and of itself, is conscious eating.