Intro Group Nutrition Week 2: Mindful Eating

Happy week 2, intro group! Hope your training is off to a great start! Last week, we focused on diet quality. Beginning this week, I’d like to focus on food quantity—how to know how MUCH to eat. There are a couple of approaches to this, and several factors help determine which one(s) might be best for you. We’ll work from most basic to most advanced, in a series of 3 posts. First up is mindful eating.

Why Mindful Eating?

Mindful eating involves tuning in to your body’s hunger and fullness cues. It’s a skill that anyone can learn—in fact, babies are some of the most mindful eaters! Babies tend to cry when they’re hungry and stop eating when they’re satisfied. In a perfect world, this is how we’d all eat, all of the time. However, mindful eating a skill that we tend to lose as we grow out of early childhood. There are a couple of reasons for this.

For one, we attach cultural and emotional significance to food as we age. Think about what you do to celebrate birthdays—you eat cake, right? Raise your hand if you’ve ever consoled yourself with ice cream after a bad day (you can’t see me, but I’m raising mine). Raise your hand if you have a ritual of getting nachos every time you go to a baseball game.  Our eating behaviors are shaped by much more than just hunger, more and more so as we age.

A second reason why mindful eating becomes more difficult is distraction. How many meals per week do you eat at your table, free of distraction? Now, how many do you eat while looking at a TV, a computer, a tablet, or a phone? If you’re like the majority of Americans, most of your meals fall into the second category. Eating while you’re distracted makes it much more difficult to tune in to satiety cues. In my experience, it’s also a very difficult habit to break.

We receive many, many external cues each day that make mindful eating more difficult. However, mindful eating is a skill very much worth practicing. There are several benefits to mindful eating:

-It’s effective in and of itself but can also be combined with other strategies for regulating food intake.
-It leaves room for you to enjoy your favorite foods.
-It helps you to develop a healthy relationship with food.
-It can be used anytime, at any meal, as long as you set yourself up for success (more on that later).
-It’s great for restaurant meals, holidays, and other occasions when you don’t have much control over what goes on your plate.
-If you’re a parent, it’s a great skill to model for your kids.

Tips for Mindful Eating

Sounds great, right?! So how do you practice mindful eating? Here are five tips for more mindful meals.

-Learn the difference between hunger and a craving. True physical hunger comes on gradually and can be satisfied by pretty much any food. It also brings physical symptoms, like a growling stomach. Cravings come on quickly and are often tied to one food. If you started thinking of peanut butter 15 minutes ago and now you are STARVING FOR PEANUT BUTTER—you’re probably having a craving. Unless you have physical symptoms, try to ride it out. You can always have peanut butter at your next meal!

-If you’re not certain if you’re experiencing physical hunger or a craving, think about your mood. Are you bored, lonely, angry, tired, stressed, sad, anxious…? These emotions breed food cravings. That’s not to say you can’t be hungry when you are feeling down (and if you are hungry you should probably eat)! But work on some strategies to cope with these emotions for times when it’s just a craving. Call a friend, take a walk, work out, meditate. Do something to diffuse that stress. Self-care and mindful eating go hand in hand.

-Let’s say you are truly hungry. Eat your meal at a designated eating area, free of technology. Doing so allows you to constantly monitor your satiety level, so that you can stop when you’re satisfied but not full.

-Did you know that digestion begins even before food hits your mouth? You’ve experienced this if your mouth has ever watered at the sight and smell of your favorite foods. Rather than scarfing your food, take time to enjoy it with all five senses! This will bring you greater satisfaction at meals, even if you eat less food. Take note of the appearance and aroma of your foods before your first bite. Chew slowly, and carefully observe food tastes and textures. It’s not a metcon for time, people!

-Aim to stop eating when you’re about 70% full, as opposed to stuffed. It takes time for the brain to send fullness signals to the belly. If you’re not sure, wait about 20 minutes and reassess how you’re feeling. You can always have another small portion if you’re still hungry.

Practice these skills at each meal to become a more mindful eater! And stay tuned for our next posts on food quantity, which will focus on the plate method and calorie counting.

Kim is a 26 member and coach (CF-L1, The  Brand X Method), as well as a registered dietitian nutritionist. 

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