While many of us, at some point in our lives, feel tempted to subscribe to the newest swanky meal plan program, it’s time we took a step back and consciously considered HOW we’re eating - versus WHAT. The practice of mindful eating does exactly that. Mindful eating is less concerned with saturated vs. unsaturated fats, plant-based vs. grass-fed, paleo vs. keto etc. etc. - instead, it’s about your state of mind when it comes to eating. Think of it as your relationship to and with food, a vital source of life-giving energy that you need to thrive.
If you’ve ever felt stressed, conflicted, or just downright lost when it comes to food, and confused about how to find the “perfect diet” for you, I encourage you to rethink the obvious, and consider paying more attention to how and why you’re eating instead. It may sound simple, obvious, or even painfully unimportant, but in truth, it could very well be the answers to your digestive issues, your energy levels, your weight goals, and most importantly - your overall level of health (including emotional and mental health).
A happy mind and body deeply depends on a happy gut. Most of our neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and Acetylcholine are created during the digestive process; so if we’re not digesting our food properly (for example, due to stress), it is actually impossible to feel balanced and happy because your brain is going to be literally starved of essential nutrients.
When we’re in a state of stress, our bodies go into what’s known as “fight or flight”, which essentially means that all our blood is diverted to our extremities and brain to keep us alert and posited to “run” from our attackers. Of course, this is quite a healthy and necessary response should you be confronted by, let’s say, a bear. On the other hand, if your adrenaline is surging multiple times per day (hello inbox flooding, a demanding boss, and never-ending to-do lists) - that’s when things get challenging. In particular, for your gut, because in these times your body isn’t focused on digesting.
Hence, taking the time out to mindfully eat, does just that: it helps get your body back into “rest and digest” mode, which, intuitively, is the perfect state of body and mind to be in when consuming food. Mindful eating is truly a practice. It all comes down to listening - and then responding consciously and kindly to your body’s internal signals. Similar to the benefits of meditation, practicing mindful eating can help bring your entire body (& it’s internal systems) back into a state of balance - otherwise known as “homeostasis”.
Another similar but related practice is intuitive eating, which is an approach developed to help people heal from the side effects of chronic dieting - but it can certainly provide just about anyone and everyone with benefits, regardless of your past relationships with food. Essentially, you are an “intuitive eater” if you make food choices by honouring hunger, respecting fullness, and always enjoying the pleasure of eating. No guilt or stress allowed!
It may sound simple, but being entirely conscious of your body and hunger signals, as well as satiation cues, might actually be a far cry from what you’re currently doing (even if you don’t realize it). When was the last time you skipped breakfast to compensate for a “heavy” dinner last night? Or felt “proud” for passing up on birthday cake - even if you really wanted a slice? Intuitive eating, similar to mindful eating, is all about practicing kindness. The key is listening and respecting your needs from moment to moment, with the priority being your health and happiness.
Mindful and intuitive eating can truly be as simple as it sounds - but that doesn’t mean it can’t be difficult in the moment.
Here are a few of my favourite strategies to really help you get present at mealtimes:
- Focus - don’t multitask. Put down your phone, turn off the TV, and tune into exactly what you’re doing...eating! Enjoy the entire experience rather than trying to couple (or quadruple) it with other activities to maintain your speed-of-light schedule.
- Eat slower. Chew, chew, chew! Try chewing each bite for 15-20 times before swallowing. This helps to get your digestive juices flowing which in-turn optimizes your digestion.
- Plate your food. Rather than eating out of the big black hole that is your chip bag, try to be diligent about placing your food on a serving plate and seeing the portion with your own eyes before you dig-in. This empowers you to be more conscious of exactly what you’re lucky enough to enjoy, and helps you appreciate and express gratitude for your meals. You know what they say: seeing is believing.
Try not to consider the above as hard and fast “rules”, but rather, little hacks and further opportunities to enjoy every meal! Your mind, body, and overall health will thank you in return.