Mindfulness is no longer a mystical concept. Numerous books, websites and dedicated apps promote the practice as a potential antidote to many modern-day ailments. Nutritionist and mindfulness expert, Nancy Siragusa tells us how we can all eat more mindfully, and how it can help our health...
Mindful eating is all about paying attention to the way we eat. Research has shown eating mindfully improves digestion, regulates our appetite and helps us enjoy our food much more. It’s even dubbed the antidote to dieting, as tuning into what we eat can be enough to help us make better choices and avoid overeating.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the practise of present moment awareness based on ancient wisdom like Buddhism. In recent years,meditation experts such as Jon Kabat-Zin, and Andy Puddicombe of Headspace, have helped the world see that it’s not just a spiritual practise, it is grounded in science and is relevant and helpful to all of us.
Practising mindful eating simply means being present when we eat - paying attention to it and being aware of it. As a mindfulness teacher and registered nutritionist, this is my favourite thing to teach clients. It’s a powerful and easy way to learn how to be mindful, as it’s fun, helps us eat well and is easy to practise as we already eat several times a day! Just tune in and enjoy.
How to do it
Here’s how to practise eating mindfully at each stage of the process, and the benefits you can expect.
Start by practising one step on one snack for a few days, then try the next one. Eventually you can combine all five steps on a whole meal, and experience being fully mindful whilst you eat.
They say it takes 21 days to form a habit so keep at it and it’ll come more naturally. Ultimately, it will give you a sense of understanding, appreciation and respect for food that will make it an easy habit to continue.
Step 1: When hunger strikes
When you are hungry, become aware of your body and notice a couple of breaths. What is your body telling you? Spend a couple of moments noticing the sensations that give you that message. No need to change them, just become aware of them and explore the feeling.
Benefits: When you listen, your body will tell you if it is actually hungry and what it’s hungry for. Learning to accept and therefore tolerate hunger stops us from knee-jerk eating food that we don’t really need.
Step 2: Choosing what to eat
Look or think about the choices, becoming aware of what’s on offer. Notice all the factors at play – the different foods, what they’re made of, how they are prepared, how they smell, the cost. Notice the choice is yours, and what thoughts or feelings arise from each option, without trying to change them.
Benefits: To stop and notice the foods on offer opens our eyes to the choices we make. It allows us to make informed choices that nourish us – whether that’s by making a wholesome choice or one that’s indulgent!
Step 3: Preparing your food
Take the time to be mindful as you prepare to eat. It might be as you are peeling back the paper as you walk along, sitting at your desk lifting the lid, or beginning to peel, chop and fry. It doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re eating – just notice the textures, sounds, smells and what everything looks like as your food is in front of you.
Benefits: We eat with our eyes too, and paying attention to the food you're preparing stimulates and focuses your body, ready for eating. It helps the body to prepare for what it’s about to do, so you’ll find your digestion and appetite signals working much more efficiently. If your mouth waters – you know you’re on track!
Step 4: Eating
Arguably, the most fun bit. Start by having a good look at what you’re about to eat. Take note of the textures, shapes and colours, then, notice any smells and sounds. When you take a bite, notice the temperature, the texture and all the different tastes. Be aware of how the food feels on your fork or in your hand, then how it feels in your mouth. Notice your mouth chewing away, and your breathing as you go.
Benefits: Being mindful when we are eating food allows the body to respond properly to what it’s doing. If you eat whilst worrying about your next meeting, the body is in stress mode and digestion is compromised. Eating mindfully also allows for the proper signals to be sent to the brain when we’re full, preventing us overeating.
Step 5 – After you’ve finished
When you’ve finished eating (or are having a break), become aware of your body. Again, noticing the breath is a helpful way to engage with yourself. Notice the feelings of fullness, or emptiness, any movement in your body or any tastes that linger.
Benefits: Becoming aware of feelings after we’ve eaten allows the body to return to a resting state, which aids digestion. Much of our appetite comes from how full we’re accustomed to feeling, so bringing our attention to this can help interrupt habitual overeating.
Are you going to try to eat mindfully? Let us know how these steps worked for you when you give it a go!
Nancy Siragusa is a qualified psychotherapist and registered nutritionist specialising in CBT, hypnotherapy and mindfulness for stress reduction and relaxation. She works with individuals and runs workshops for businesses in London.