Mindful Eating: Part 1
If there is one habit to adopt that will underpin all other healthy eating habits, it is this one.
And the best thing is, you can start right now. No need to clean out your fridge, buy all new ingredients or overhaul your lifestyle.
The principles of mindful eating are quite simple- eat everything consciously and slowly, really enjoy and experience the flavours, and stop eating when you feel satisfied.
Try starting with the next meal you eat after reading this, and observing how you experience the food.
what is this about?
I think we are all familiar with mindless eating. We feel hungry, sit down to eat and the next moment there is no food left on the plate. Where did that roti go? Did I actually finish the dal on my plate? We actually cannot recall eating the food we just finished.
When we eat like this, we often still feel hungry and it feels like it can’t be the end of eating time, so we seek more food- and often end up eating that on autopilot too. At that point we might actually feel pretty full, but still lack a sense of satisfaction, driving us to find something sweet to finish the meal off nicely. But half an hour later we end up feeling stuffed and uncomfortable.
We’ve all been there. I certainly have! Squeezing in lunch when we are busy at work and eating our meals in front of Netflix create the conditions in which we tend to eat this way.
This is mindless eating. It can lead to us feeling uncomfortably full whilst also unsatisfied after a meal.
We lose out on so much of the simple pleasures of enjoying a tasty meal. Even if we registered that the first bite of the food tasted delicious, we probably did not really taste the flavours throughout the meal. By not savouring and tasting our food consciously, we miss out on one of the great pleasures of life!
The two key benefits
The most important reason to eat more mindfully is that our food is more enjoyable when we eat slowly and savour every mouthful.
We can truly enjoy and celebrate the food we eat.
The other key benefit is helping us to eat the right amount to satisfy us and meet our body's needs.
It takes our stomach 20 minutes to send a signal to our brain when we are full. But how often do our meals actually last that long?
Most of us eat too fast for that signal of fullness to even reach our brain. So we might have already gone past the point of fullness, and we overeat a little bit (or a lot) at every meal.
Conversely, we might finish our portion and leave the table, without considering whether we are really satisfied.
Mindless eating, where we feel disconnected from our body and the experience of eating, can result in under-eating as well as over-eating. The point is to bring awareness to how much we need, in that moment, rather than letting our canteen's portion sizes dictate how much we eat.
Slowing right down means we notice that subtle signal that tells us we have eaten enough and can finish a meal feeling satisfied, not overstuffed nor still hungry.
The science bit
Research on this topic confirms that eating slowly helps us to increase the satisfaction of the eating experience. A study by the University of Rhode Island instructed a group of women to eat slowly on some days and encouraged them to eat fast on other days. On both occasions they were told to stop eating at the point they felt comfortably full.
When the researchers compared the difference in food consumption between the quickly eaten lunch and the slowly eaten lunch they found that when eating quickly people consumed 646 calories in 9 minutes, when eating slowly people consumed 579 calories in 29 minutes.
A key finding is that people in the fast eating group reported feeling less satisfied and reported more hunger an hour after the meal compared with the slow group.
I think this study is important because it shows eating quickly (9 minutes in this case) results in less satisfaction (despite eating more food overall). Feeling satisfied by the food we choose to eat is often overlooked but it is a really important part of the daily pleasures of life.
Eating slowly and consciously means we chew our food properly which enables us to digest it more easily- sometimes digestive issues can be eased by something as simple as chewing our food more.
As soon as we prepare to eat, we start salivating. Saliva contains enzymes that breaks food down and allows us to swallow easily.
In the meantime, the processes that happen after we swallow get started. Our stomachs start to secrete more acid (crucial for digestion). Our small intestine prepares to get to work (and it really has so many jobs to do!).
Chewing is the crucial action that signal to these processes to get started, because food is on its way. If we don’t spend enough time chewing, we send our food down too early, forcing our gastrointestinal system to deal with half broken-down food that our digestive organs are not equipped to break down. This means we don’t get all the nutritious goodness from our food.
Our digestive system is this truly amazing system, and we should want to do everything possible to enable it to do its many other important jobs (like nutrient absorption)! Our gut health is so important and impacts our skin, our energy, our hormones and our immune system. Trust me, digestive issues are no fun at all, and can be long and complicated to get over. Chewing food properly and eating slowly so as not to overload our internal digestive system is a crucial step towards maintaining our gut health.
what's holding you back?
In summary, this simple shift in how we eat can have a big positive impact on our enjoyment of our food, our energy levels and overall health
Eating in this slow and conscious way is for everyone, no matter what we are eating or when. There is nothing to lose by eating more slowly and consciously.
There are some additional benefits that come gradually. When we eat mindfully, and really think about what we are eating, we eat more intuitively. We might naturally shift to making healthier and more environmentally conscious choices about the food we eat, based on what our body needs and our heightened awareness about where foods come from. We might begin to notice that sometimes we crave fresh, nourishing ingredients and a broader variety of different types of food than when we eat on autopilot.
But for now, just eating slowly and mindfully is enough to make a big difference to our relationship with food and the daily enjoyment of eating.
It is a simple, achievable, but powerful first step.
Having said all this, actually starting to eat in a mindful way can be more challenging than you might expect. Ingrained habits and mindsets need to be overcome. Head over to Mindful Eating: Part 2 which provides actionable, practical tips on mastering the art of mindful eating.
Let me know what you think- do you find that you often eat mindlessly? Or do you eat mindfully already? I'd love to hear about your experience.