Mindful Eating

The idea of ‘being mindful’ and ‘practicing mindfulness’ has been getting a fair bit of airplay of late. After the year that shall not be mentioned, many of my friends, family, and clients are all wanting to be more mindful or mindfully aware as they move throughout their days. Many of them use apps to help with mindful meditations, mindful mantras, or practicing mindfulness in the everyday; but what about mindful eating?

Hard to digest?

Where does digestion start? Does it start in the gut, where enzymes are churned around with your chewed-up meal? Does it start in your mouth, where you mechanically break up your food into smaller pieces and mix it around with amylases to start dissolving it? From a physical point of view, you could say both are right. However, digestion truly starts with the mind and mindful eating.

I cannot tell you the number of times I have clients sitting opposite me telling me about their digestive complaints; bloating, burping, reflux, indigestion and undigested food. They’ve been tested for a whole bunch of things, maybe even diagnosed by a GP with IBS or acid reflux. They’ve ruled out food allergies, and may even have restricted their foods, but they still feel uncomfortable. 

During our consultation I uncover they eat their lunch whilst firing off emails to their boss. Or perhaps they’re eating breakfast in the car on the way to work whilst getting stuck in traffic and growing more frustrated as the minutes tick by. Or, if they’re lucky enough to be at home for a meal they’re scrolling through Netflix or their phone (or both!) whilst mentally planning for the next day.

Rest and digest

Digestion starts in the mind. To put it very simply, your body’s nervous system will be running on one of two systems at any given time; fight and flight, or rest and digest. When you’re in fight or flight mode, your body’s goal is to protect you from what it perceives as stress. All your blood is sent to your limbs and your heart so you can run away or fight a tiger. 

Now, realistically, stresses don’t have to be tigers or bears. Firing off an email to your boss, looking at social media that irritates or annoys you, chasing after the kids; any situation that is stressful or triggering will switch you into fight or flight mode.

Rest and digest is the opposite nervous system. Your body is calm and relaxed. It sends blood to your digestive organs so they can physically break down food, produce the chemicals it requires to digest, and allows for hormones to be made that help us to feel happy, content, and safe.

Turn me on

So how can we practice mindful eating to improve our digestion? There are many tips and tricks I use in clinic, and I’m going to share them here with you today. They are each designed to help switch your body into digestion mode, and to help you turn on the mindful eating mentality.

  1. No devices. Be it reading/writing emails, doom scrolling, or watching a show; whatever your device vice, put it away! A lot of the time if you’re watching a screen, you absentmindedly shovel food in your mouth. How many times have you been looking at your phone, gone to shovel in a forkful of food, only to look down and see it’s all gone?!? Did you even have time to enjoy it? Put the device away and focus on the task at hand.
  2. Breathe before food. Taking five deep breaths before eating (or anything for that matter) helps you slip into rest and digest mode. Serve up the food, take a seat, and breathhheeeee. The most important thing to remember is, once you’ve done your five deep breaths, don’t just dive for your phone and start scrolling!
  3. Put the fork down. There’s a reason it’s called a fork or spoon, and not a shovel! Don’t just sit there and shovel the food in. If you pop your cutlery down between mouthfuls, you’re less likely to mindlessly shovel it in, and more likely to chew your food well and eat in the moment.

More than just a moment

Mindful eating is more than just the moment immediately before, and during eating. Mindful eating also encompasses your relationship with food. Almost every client has said to me at one stage during a consult, “I eat XYZ even though I know it’s bad” or “I don’t eat XYZ because it’s a bad food”. I have always struggled with the notion that some foods are “good” and therefore there must also be “bad” foods. 

I understand this terminology may be used to explain foods that someone is allergic or sensitive to, but often it is in relation to foods which someone feels guilt or shame around eating. These negative emotions can lead to poor eating habits, mindless eating, and can lead to a negative relationship to food and eating in general. Given eating and fueling and nourishing our body is something we do every day, it’s important that we have a good relationship with it!

How’s your relationship?

As always, it’s important to know where you’re coming from, if you want to change where you’re going. Here are some things to look out for to help you decide if you have a negative relationship with food.

  • Avoiding or restrictions of foods you deem ‘bad’
  • Feelings of guilt or shame after eating
  • You have a long list of rules around the foods you will or won’t eat
  • You rely on external sources (apps, calorie counters, meal plans) to tell you when you’ve eaten enough for the day
  • You ignore cues of hunger
  • You’ve a history of trying all the fad diets or yo-yo dieting
  • You have anxiety or stress around eating in social situations, in case someone has an opinion about your choices.
  • You restrict or binge

It’s important to understand that you don’t have to have all these traits in order to have a negative relationship with food. Furthermore, it’s so valuable to know that ANYONE can have this sort of relationships, I’ve worked with athletes who have really struggled to have a healthy relationship with food and mindful eating.

Moving mindfully forward

So, if you’ve identified you have a more negative or less mindful attitude with food, how do you move forward? First up, with kindness and patience!  Our eating habits will rarely change overnight and may be even more difficult to change if you regularly eat with others like family members and housemates.

Perhaps choose one mindful eating tip to focus on for a week or a fortnight. See if you can leave your phone in another room for meals, or really work on putting your fork down. Your relationship with food is like any other relationship in your life; your partner, your children, colleagues, the gym and exercise, they all need to be worked on if they want to continue to grow stronger! So, peeps, what mindful eating task will you practice this month? Don’t forget to tag me on Instagram if your putting down the fork or disengaging the device!