Nutrition and health are popular topics in the media, with dozens of articles published daily telling you what foods you should (and shouldn’t) eat. Much less attention is paid to discussing how we eat food.

The process of eating, and our attitudes around mealtimes, is just as important as what we put in our mouth. With long work days, busy lives, and food available everywhere we turn, much of the eating we do is done mindlessly. Think about the last time you ate in front of your computer, or while watching TV. How simple was it to eat an entire meal, or a bag of chips, without even realizing it?

Mindful eating is being conscious about what we are eating and why. It is about getting back in touch with the experience of eating, and enjoying, our food. What it is not: a diet. Eating mindfully does not place “good” or “bad” labels on foods. Instead, the goal is to base our meals and food choices on physical cues like hunger, rather than emotional triggers like stress or unhappiness.

Most of the clients I work with are so out of touch with their feelings of hunger and fullness that they can’t remember the last time they have felt hungry. They often eat not because they are hungry, but because the food is there. Mindlessly munching on bagels during a meeting, even though you already ate breakfast; grazing on snacks after dinner without actually tasting the food; skipping meals without paying attention to your hunger cues.

Sound familiar?

By breaking the habit of mindless eating, you will reconnect with your physical feelings of hunger and satiety. Becoming more aware of your hunger cues, recognizing your non-hunger eating triggers, and choosing foods for enjoyment can all help resolve the love-hate relationship that many of us have with food.

Ready to ditch the “diet” mentality and start eating with intention? Try these five simple ways to introduce mindfulness into your mealtimes.

Honor Your Hunger – and Respect Fullness

Think of hunger on a scale from 1 to 10, 1 being “I’m so hungry I’m going to pass out” and 10 as “I’m so full I’m going to be sick.” Before you eat, ask yourself where on the hunger scale you fall and eat when you are around a 3 or 4 (anywhere from “I’m slightly hungry” to “I’m hungry, and it’s time for my next meal”). Check in with yourself mid-meal, and stop eating when you get to a 6 or 7 (“I’m content and satisfied, feeling comfortably full”).

Slow Down

Take time to enjoy your food, and you’re more likely to notice when you are full, allow for better digestion, and notice flavors you might have otherwise missed. Take a bite, and then put your fork down. Talk with those around you. Chew slowly, and pay attention to the texture of the food, the flavor in your mouth, and the aromas. It can take as long as 20-30 minutes for your brain to catch up with your belly and realize you are full. Slowing down your eating will help you recognize these signals, and makes for a more meaningful meal.

Try the Carrot Test

It can be tough to tell the difference between actual physical hunger and emotional hunger. Learning to recognize non-hunger triggers for eating is an important step in mindful eating. The next time you find yourself reaching for a snack, ask yourself “Would I eat a carrot right now?”. I use carrots as an example, but fill in the blank with any food you enjoy, yet not something you crave (i.e. an apple, cucumber slices, etc.). If the answer to the question is “yes”, eat the carrots (or other food) to provide nourishment. If the answer is “no”, then you’re likely experiencing emotional hunger.

Learn to Meet Your Needs Without Food

Once you realize that your food craving is emotionally driven, find something else to meet your needs. Feeling sad or lonely? Call a friend. Bored? Take a short walk, cross something off your to-do list, or pick up a good book. Do something that will help meet your emotional need, instead of filling the void with food.

Pay Attention to How Food Affects Your Body

Take time to notice how you feel not just while you are eating, but after you eat. Observe how you feel after you eat a bagel, or grab a chocolate cookie mid-way through the day. You’ll likely notice an initial spike of energy, followed by a crash and subsequent hunger as your blood sugar drops. Compare this to when you eat a nutrient-rich snack like peanut butter with a piece of fruit, or roasted edamame. This combination of protein and complex carbs does more to satisfy hunger and stabilize your energy levels. By recognizing that a bagel or a candy bar will cause you to feel worse, it will make it easier to pick the apple and peanut butter next time.

Mindful eating isn’t just for healthy meals – it can (and should) be practiced with ice cream, cookies, chips and more. By putting the focus on how you are eating – instead of just what you’re eating – you will find yourself enjoying food more. Plus, once you incorporate mindfulness into your eating habits, you may just find yourself wanting to eat differently.

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