When clients work with me, they expect to talk about their food choices and answer questions like: How many fruits and vegetables do you eat per day? How often do you eat at restaurants in a week? Are your food choices processed or unprocessed? And so on. However, what many people don’t expect is to answer questions about how and why they eat what they eat. Questions such as:
- How long does it take you to eat a meal?
- Do you sit or stand when you eat?
- Are you engaged in another activity when you are eating?
- Why motivates you to eat a meal or snack?
The answers I receive to these questions provide a detailed look at the role food plays in a person’s life and more importantly, brings attention to some of the long-established habits that could be sabotaging health and wellness goals. And for many, addressing the underlying “why” of eating helps them to replace fad diets with real and effective behaviour change.
Mindless to Mind-FULL!
Step 1: Determine Your Eating Style
Before making any changes to the way you eat, it’s necessary to figure out your eating style. To do this, take some detailed notes in your cronometer.com account for a few days, paying attention to the following:
- How long it takes you to eat a meal or snack
- What you do when you eat
- Where you eat
- Why decided to eat
- Why you decided to stop eating
- Any important thoughts or emotions that occurred while or after you ate.
- The influence of a person, emotion, or situation on your eating choices
Once you gather this information, use the mindful eating cycle, developed by Michelle May, MD, author of the book Eat What you Love, Love What You Eat: How to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle, to determine your eating style.
According to May, there are three types of eaters:
Individuals who are instinctive, or intuitive, in their eating let hunger guide their choices. Generally, they don’t eat for emotional reasons and will make an effort to find reasonably healthy food, but also allow for indulgences (that are eaten guilt-free). Eaters whom are instinctive eat slowly, with purpose, and rely on their satiety signals to tell them when to stop eating. While they invest some of their time and energy into balancing nutrition and meeting their food needs, eating is only one of many important components in their life.
Someone who is an overeater will eat in response to triggers, which can be emotional, situational, or influenced by another person. And given the frequency at which a person in the overeating cycle can be triggered, food that is comforting and convenient tends to be consumed mindlessly throughout the day, without much consideration to hunger and fullness. Typically, a person in an overeating cycle will only stop eating when the food is gone, or when they feel overly full.
A restrictive, or restrained, eater will eat according to self-imposed or fad diet rules. Because these rules dictate when, how much, and what to eat, a restrictive eater learns to ignore their hunger and satiety cues. However, because someone in the restrictive eating cycle is in a state of deprivation (both physically and mentally), it’s common for them to think about food constantly.
While it’s possible to belong to only one of the above three eating patterns, many people tend to swing between cycles of restriction and overeating, since undereating eventually leads to overeating.
Step 2: Listen to you Hunger and Fullness Cues
If you want to see an example of someone skilled in intuitive eating, hang out with a baby. Despite being completely dependent on others for all their needs, infants are incredibly skilled at listening to their hunger and satiety cues. It’s only as infants grow that they learn to override these cues and use food for comfort or reward.
To help you get in touch with your hunger and fullness cues, it’s important to appreciate where they come from. Your stomach is the squishy organ located just under your sternum (or where your ribs split apart). If you struggle to recognize hunger and fullness cues, place a hand on your stomach every time you get the urge to eat and try to determine where on the following scale you fall:
|Uncomfortably full or “sick” (think Thanksgiving)
|Stuffed and uncomfortable
|Too full; somewhat uncomfortable
|Full, but comfortable (hunger is gone)
|Filling up – could still eat more
|Neutral – neither hungry nor full
|Slightly hungry – faint hunger signals (gnawing, empty feeling)
|Hungry but not yet uncomfortable – clear signs that your body needs food
|Very hungry; irritable or anxious – you don’t care what you eat
|Starving – feeling weak, lightheaded, dizzy; very uncomfortable
Ideally, the goal is to keep your hunger and fullness level between a 3 and a 7. If you often feel that you are at a 2 or 1, it’s likely that you are in a cycle of restrictive eating, which increases your risk for swinging into a cycle of overeating.
Step 3: Put Down the Phone and Eat with All 5 Senses
Becoming an intuitive eater takes practice and means that you are letting go of diet culture and all the “rules” you picked up along the way. Intuitive eating means taking a giant leap of faith and trusting your body to relay the correct information about when, how much, and what to eat. Now, this isn’t to say that you should completely forfeit all nutrition guidelines, rather, it’s about learning how to balance nutrition with pleasure in a way that is sustainable now and in the future. (Remember, whatever you do to lose weight or improve your health needs to be lifelong!) The following suggestions may benefit you on your journey to becoming a more mindful eater:
- Limit distractions – when we pay attention to work, Netflix, or Instagram, we are less likely to pay attention to our feelings of hunger and fullness. Also, you may not derive as much satisfaction from your meal if you eat when distracted (making it likely that you will want to eat something else for pleasure). Finally, eating with distraction is a two-way relationship in that TV watching or reading can become the trigger for eating, even if we’re not hungry.
- Eat with all five senses – while the sight, smell, and taste of food is something most of us consider at meals, we often don’t fully embrace these senses. Next time you sit down to eat, pay attention to how the food looks, smells, sounds, tastes, and how it feels as you are eating it. Using all five senses not only enhances the pleasure you derive from food, but helps you to slow down and truly savour your meal.
- Take your time – how long does it take for you to finish a meal? Fifteen minutes? Ten minutes? Have you already helped yourself to a second serving in this time? Your stomach is not able to send instantaneous feedback to your brain about how full it is; this process takes time. By slowing down, chewing your food well, and taking at least 20 minutes to finish a meal, you allow your stomach and brain to work in harmony to regulate food intake.
- Eat the right amount of food for your body – when it comes to weight loss, everyone wants fast results. However, fast does not mean effective. Rapid weight loss almost always results in rapid (and excessive) weight regain. Sustainable long-term weight loss takes time and should be done by creating a slight calorie-deficit without sacrificing satiety or pleasure. One of the best ways to prevent hunger while losing weight is to practice volumetric eating, which taps into the importance of satiating foods. (For more on volumetric eating, check out my previous blog here.)
Have a mindful eating tip that you’d like to share? Be sure to leave a comment below or join us in the forums!