By: Julia Yuskavage, MS, RDN
Can you relate to the experience of feeling like you are on “autopilot” in life at times, such as going through the motions of an activity without putting much intentional thought into it? Some might describe this state of being as “mindless”. I would venture to say that almost everyone has felt like this at some point in time. For example, at times mindlessness may be related to a pursuit of busyness and productivity; other times, it may be for protective reasons. I have heard patients describe some eating experiences as mindless, in that they may complete a meal before they really notice that they have even begun. Perhaps you have experienced eating until feeling uncomfortably full due to being unaware. On the other hand, perhaps you have experienced the opposite and have neglected to eat at times.
Let’s look at one definition of the word mindful:
attentive, aware, or careful: mindful of one's responsibilities.
noting or relating to the psychological technique of mindfulness: mindful observation of one's experiences. (1)
Some describe mindfulness as noticing, observing, or simply paying attention on purpose, doing so in the present moment, and doing so without judgement. At first glance, mindfulness might seem like a fairly simple concept to grasp and put into practice. However, mindfulness is a skill that requires practice to master, like many other things in life. Mindfulness can be applied to just about anything in life, and if applied to eating processes, one may gain more awareness and insight into one’s eating habits than ever thought possible.
You might be wondering what some of the benefits of mindful eating are. Mindfulness can increase your awareness of thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations related to food and eating. Over time, increased awareness can lead to the opportunity to form new experiences regarding eating, rather than automatically reacting out of habit and/or impulse.
How can someone apply aspects of mindfulness to eating?
Observe your internal and external experiences while eating, without automatically reacting to them. For example, you might observe that your environment while eating entails a television that has its volume turned up high or that you eat more quickly and your heart beats more rapidly when watching the news on television at a loud volume. You might also notice that the pace of your eating changes if the television is off and soft music is playing in the background instead; perhaps you feel more relaxed and less anxious with this change in environment. Changes in your surroundings can influence your eating experience, and having awareness of this can lead to a more satisfying and pleasant experience.
Notice what it is about a meal that speaks to each of your five senses. Is the meal hot? Has the food been sitting out and cooling off? Does the temperature outside seem to influence your desire to eat a hot or cold meal? Does the meal contain crunchy or smooth textured foods? Does the food require a lot of chewing or is it soft in nature? What smells do you notice wafting from the food? Are the foods brightly colored and varied in color, or are they similar colors? Do you taste sweetness, saltiness, tanginess, sourness, or a combination? Noticing what appeals and what does not appeal to each of your senses can help you tune in to what really satisfies you, rather than making food choices based on what you hear that you “should” or “should not” eat from external sources.
Watch your thoughts related to food choices as they come and go, as if they were clouds passing through the sky. For instance, perhaps you encounter a thought such as “this food is bad and unhealthy”. Try to acknowledge your responses to food without applying labels to them, accepting them for what they are and nothing more. You might think to yourself, “I am having a thought that this food is bad”, and visualize the thought floating on a puffy, white cloud through a blue sky. This can help to create space between your perception of a food and the food itself, and lessen judgments and moral convictions that are attached to the food.
Pay attention to physical sensations, such as signs of hunger and fullness, or notice the absence of such sensations. Maybe you sense emptiness in your stomach or low energy levels throughout your body. Perhaps you notice that you do not eat until late at night and think of eating only when you are feeling very hungry. This practice can help deepen your mind-body connection as it relates to listening to and nourishing your body.
Notice your feelings that arise before, during, and after eating, as if they were leaves floating down a stream. Perhaps you experience a feeling of joy when eating a particular dessert that your grandmother made for you as a child. Maybe you notice feelings of guilt and fear after eating a bacon cheeseburger. You might say to yourself, “there is guilt” or “there is fear” and watch as it floats by on a crisp autumn leaf. Doing so can help take away power and negative associations that certain foods have for you.
Taking a mindful approach to eating can be very different from the approach that many people currently have. If you would like to shift your awareness and perspective on your current eating processes, mindful eating practices can open that door for you.