Mindful Eating Practices, Tips, and Guidance
In early 2014, I decided to start taking better care of my mind and body. Specifically, I decided to eat a little healthier and try to move my body at bit more. In the following year or so I lost sixty pounds, found much more energy, and was able to think more clearly. I credit most of this progress in self-care to the practice of mindful eating, and it is still an important part of my life. Whether on retreat or cooking a meal at home, we can always use the act of eating as a way to bring the mind to the present moment.
Mindful eating is exactly as it sounds: the practice of being mindful while eating. But first, what is mindfulness really? Simply put, mindfulness is recognizing what is happening in our experience from moment to moment, how the mind and body are responding, and if we are moving toward more suffering or more liberation. This is of course an oversimplification, but we can use it for now to understand mindful eating.
As silly as it may seem to ask, what is the act of eating? Eating is the way we nourish our bodies, give our cells nutrients, and get our energy to continue living. The practice of mindful eating means eating in a way that supports our movement toward liberation. Eating mindfully means looking at how we eat, what we eat, when we eat, and why we eat in order to best take care of our own freedom and ease.
Mindful Eating Benefits
There are many benefits of meditation and mindfulness in general, and researchers are beginning to find some benefits of mindful eating. Although the research is still out, here are a few benefits you may see from eating more mindfully:
- Reduce overeating and binge eating behavior
- Manage weight more efficiently
- Enjoy food more deeply
- Feel more nourished and energized after a meal
- Absorb nutrients from your food better
You can check out this article for more on the benefits you may see in your life as you being practicing mindful eating.
Mindful Eating Techniques
There are many different techniques to eat mindfully. You can use some of these as a dedicated practice, setting aside specific meals to practice mindful eating. You can also incorporate them gently into your daily life and eating habits to build continuity and a regular practice.
One of my favorite mindful eating practices comes from Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village Community. Thich Nhat Hanh offers a set of Five Contemplations before Eating that offer a solid foundation of practice before beginning to eat. These are meant to be true reflections, not just something we read.
- This food is a gift of the earth, the sky, numerous living beings, and much hard and loving work.
- May we eat with mindfulness and gratitude so as to be worthy to receive this food.
- May we recognize and transform unwholesome mental formations, especially our greed, and learn to eat with moderation.
- May we keep our compassion alive by eating in such a way that reduces the suffering of living beings, stops contributing to climate change, and heals and prseves our precious planet.
- We accept this food so that we may nurture our brotherhood and sisterhood, build our Sangha, and nourish our ideal of serving all living beings.
These five reflections offer a way to connect with interdependence, mindfulness, greed, compassion, and unity. You can pause before eating any time to reflect upon these Five Contemplations. It takes just a minute or two, and you don’t need to do anything special. We often sit in silence for just a moment before beginning to eat, recognizing these five contemplations and allowing them to land in our minds and bodies.
To practice mindful eating, you can start with any item of food. I recommend trying this practice with something simple like a berry to start. This is sometimes known as the raisin meditation. However, I don’t like raisins very much! But use something you personally enjoy. Here are the steps:
- As you go through this entire practice, remain mindful of the third of the Five Contemplations. Tune into the moments of greed and desire where the mind has a strong urge just to pop the berry in and swallow it.
- Begin with the sight of the berry. Notice how it looks, including the colors, shape, and sizes. Turn it over and recognize any irregularities or changes. Really pay attention to what this item of food looks like in your hand.
- As you hold it, tune into the sense-door of feeling as well. Does the berry feel warm or cold? Is there a texture you can feel on the outside?
- Take a moment to smell the berry or other item of the food. Without judging as good or bad, simply notice the smell that is present.
- As you lift the food to your mouth, notice the arm and body moving. When you place the berry in your mouth, don’t start chewing quite yet. Tune into how the berry feels in the mouth. Notice the temperature, the subtleties of the texture, and any taste.
- Start chewing very slowly, and notice what happens. Can you sense a change in taste or the texture of the berry? Notice the juice of the berry or any seeds. Pay special attention to the changing and impermanent nature of the experience.
- Swallowing, feel the berry as it moves down your throat. Bring awareness to this experience, and anything that arises as you do so. Notice the urge that often arises to immediately eat another!
You can dedicate a few minutes to trying this practice formally. Then, move onto a normal meal. Eating in silence and at a slow rate, really make your eating a practice in mindful awareness.
When We Eat
Mindful eating is not just about practicing while we eat. We can tune into the experience around eating. One place we can place our awareness is at the reason we’re eating. Often, we eat when we are stressed, uncomfortable, bored, etc. This is known as stress eating or emotional eating, and many of us do this. This can lead to overeating, snacking, and the craving for unhealthy foods when we aren’t even hungry.
If you have a habit of doing this, you can use your self-knowledge to help practice mindfulness in these moments. Whether you’re experiencing boredom, anxiety, or any other experience, you can pause before going to food. When you find yourself moving toward eating, pause and ask yourself why you’re eating. I often use the simple question, “Am I physically hungry right now, or am I emotionally hungry?”
Just by asking this question, you give yourself an opportunity to pause and check in. You can learn to meditate in these moments, bringing mindfulness to what is present in your mind and body. As you do this more often, it will come naturally to check in when you’re eating. This can help you approach your difficult emotional experiences with mindfulness and loving kindness, rather than just eating your feelings away.
How Much We Eat
Another way you can practice mindful eating is by bringing your awareness to how much you eat. We can eat a healthy mix of food, but if we over or under eat, we may not feel 100%. Studies show that when we are served more food, we eat more. When you serve yourself, be mindful of what you really need. Unfortunately, we often finish the food on our plate whether or not we actually need all of the food.
If you slow down while eating, you are more likely to feel satisfied after eating a smaller amount of food. According to Harvard Health, eating slowly does allow the stomach some time to process that it is full. In addition, hormonal signals are released by the intestines. These signals are amplified when we eat slowly, letting the body know we are satisfied with less food. Furthermore, hormones like leptin increases the release of dopamine in the brain, making the act of eating more pleasurable when we eat slowly.
What does all of this mean pragmatically? When you eat slowly, you are more likely to feel full faster, need less food, and feel more satisfied with your meal. Give it a shot. Really tuning into what you eat and eating mindfully, you may begin to notice that you don’t need as much food. I notice this when going on retreat quite often. As the days or weeks of retreat progress, I find myself eating less and less as I really tune into what my body needs.
Next, you can pay attention to what you’re choosing to eat. This is a natural part of mindfulness practice. Pay attention to what you’re consuming and how it is impacting your body. We sometimes go for the easy, unhealthy food. Instead, recognize that the choice to eat this may have a future effect. Some foods can make us feel sleepy, anxious, or undernourished. Before eating, really ask if this is what your body needs in this moment.
It would be irresponsible to write about mindful eating and not mention that we can also eat in a way that cares for others. As you continually tune into what you’re eating, it’s natural that you’ll start recognizing the pain and suffering that goes into making our food possible. Some people decide to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet as they tune in, while others minimize their consumption of meat. Maybe you recognize how far your food comes and that you’re supporting big companies, deciding to buy local instead. Whatever you decide to do, it’s important to keep in mind all of the other beings, human and otherwise, that are impacted by our eating habits.
You can build mindfulness around your eating habits by continuing to pay attention after you’re done eating. Notice how you feel. Did the amount of food, speed of eating, or quality of food have an effect? Notice when you feel nourished and energized and when the food leaves you feeling heavy and tired. Pay attention to your own body, and learn how to forgive yourself when you make a mistake.
Mindful Eating Resources
There are two books we really love about mindful eating, and tons of other mindful eating resources out there. The first book is Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life by Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung. In this book, the Zen monk and the Director of Health Promotion and Communication at Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Nutrition offer various insights and practices to eat more mindfully. They use Buddhist practices, modern research on nutrition, and personal experience to lay out a powerful path of mindful eating.
The other book we have enjoyed and utilized is One Bowl: A Guide to Eating for Body and Spirit by Don Gerrard. This book offers a specific plan for mindful eating. Using a single bowl to eat out of, you can dramatically bring mindfulness to the practice of eating. As you adopt this method of eating, you will find some reverence for what you choose to be in your bowl, and you will be able to mindfully tune into the portions you serve yourself!
If you are interested in working more in-depth with mindful eating, you can work one-on-one with a teacher at One Mind Dharma.
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