How often do you find yourself glued to your latest Netflix binge while digging into your dinner? Probably more than you realize—and it’s not doing you any favors. That’s because food is more than physical fuel, and nourishing our bodies by eating mindfully can make a major impact on our health.
“Food’s primary function is to give us energy, but we get so much more out of it than that,” says Alyssa Northrop, M.P.H, R.D., L.M.T. “There’s the beauty of seeing your food, the memories that are invoked from the smells, the pure enjoyment of it—and when you’re not focused, you miss all of that.”
To get the most out of each bite, you need to eat mindfully. This is especially important during times of high stress or when your routine is thrown out of whack. “No matter what else is going on in your life or in the world, it offers you the opportunity to bring joy back to something you do several times a day,” Northrop says.
While it’s not a complicated approach, it does require effort. Here, your complete guide to mindful eating.
What Is Mindful Eating?
At its essence, mindful eating is bringing awareness to meals and snacking and how your body feels from start to finish, Northrop says.
A mindful meal might go something like this: Before you dig in, you experience your food with as many senses as you can, like sight and smell. Then, you take your first bite, put your fork down, and chew with intention. While you chew, you don’t just taste; you also notice how the feel of your mouth changes as you start to secrete saliva. After swallowing, and before taking your next bite, you ask yourself: Where’s my hunger at now? If you’re still hungry you go in for another bite; and if you’re full, you stop.
By slowing down this often rushed process, you’ll feel more satisfied and in tune with your body after each meal and snack. In the long run, this can help you make wiser food choices and avoid binges, explains Northrop.
Read More: Mindfulness Tips From A Former Stress Junkie
To make these perks possible, you need to to get rid of food guilt. “Certainly we eat for reasons beyond physical hunger, and that’s okay,” Northrop notes. The more you practice mindful eating, the more you’ll be able to accept that you want that fresh-from-the-oven cookie not because you’re hungry, but because it’s going to give you a temporary sense of emotional satisfaction. While eating should not be seen as a coping tool, you don’t want to remove the pleasure of it because of guilt.
The first step in getting there, though, is identifying the mindless eating habits that are holding you back.
If you’re typically the first person to clean your plate, you can’t remember what or how much you ate throughout the day, or you’re gradually gaining weight (with seemingly no changes in diet and exercise), chances are you’re eating mindlessly, says Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N., nutritionist for The Vitamin Shoppe.
“It’s like when you drive somewhere and you reach your destination, but you don’t remember how you got there,” Northrop says. Your body goes into autopilot. You might look down at an empty dish with little to no memory of eating the food that was once there.
This can leave you pining for more—even if you’ve met or blown through your calorie needs—because, in a sense, you missed the meal entirely. Guilt can also kick in if you feel you’ve downed more than you should have.
How To Eat More Mindfully
Remember, mindful eating takes time to master—and it’s not an all-or-nothing philosophy. Northrop suggests starting with two or three mindful meals or snacks per week to get started. Once you’re ready to start your mindful eating journey, put these six tips to use.
1. Focus On Aesthetic
“Presentation helps you feel more satisfied,” Blakely says.
Take the extra minute to plate your food rather than forking it straight from tupperware or a takeout container. Go one step further by adding a garnish, like micro greens or shaved parmesan, for visual impact.
2. Have An Eating Space
Designate certain areas for eating, Blakely says. Your dining table, breakfast bar, or back patio will do. The key is that every time you eat, you sit down at one of these spots. This will keep you from mindlessly eating in the car or on the couch.
3. Don’t Multitask
No electronics, no books, no nothing. When you split your attention, you can’t focus fully on the flavors and your hunger and satiety cues, suggests Northrop.
4. Take Time To Eat
Immerse yourself in every bite, as Northrop explains above. Between each one, put down your utensils and check in with your body.
5. Ban Judgment
It’s normal to eat sometimes when you’re not hungry—say, when you want to celebrate a birthday with a piece of cake. Removing guilt from the equation can give you a sense of freedom around food, Northrop says.
6. Try The Raisin Test
If mindful eating seems too daunting, try an even smaller task: the raisin test. This mindful eating exercise has you choose a specific food (often a raisin or piece of chocolate) and practice experiencing the food in full. Follow these steps:
- Take the time to feel and truly see the food in front of you
- Notice any smell that comes from the food
- Bring the food to your mouth, and notice how your body reacts—moving to just the right position and naturally salivating with anticipation
- Place the food in your mouth, and hold in your mouth for 10 seconds. Use this as an opportunity to explore the mouthfeel
- Take time to chew without swallowing, noticing the taste and texture and how it changes
- Bring awareness to the sensation of swallowing the food
- Take time to reflect on the experience
Read More: What Is Mindful Exercise?
Remember: It’s not about being perfect 100 percent of the time. It’s about making micro-changes to your daily habits so you can be happier and healthier in the long term.
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