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10 steps to mindful eating

Mindful eating is a powerful tool to gain control of your eating habits, writes Katie Byrne. It involves paying full attention to the experience of eating and drinking, both inside and outside the body. Here are her top 10 tips


Remember, it's not always about what you eat, but how you eat. Stock photo: Getty

Remember, it's not always about what you eat, but how you eat. Stock photo: Getty

Remember, it's not always about what you eat, but how you eat. Stock photo: Getty

Have you ever noticed that your mind is elsewhere during mealtimes? Maybe you hurriedly eat your lunch at your desk - firing off emails in between bites of a sandwich. Or maybe you absent-mindedly graze on leftovers while tidying the kitchen - only to realise that you've eaten the better part of a meal when there's but a few crumbs left on the plate.

In this always-on world, it's easy to fall into the trap of mindless eating. We think we'll save a few minutes if we multi-task at mealtimes, but what we don't always realise is that mindless eating leads to over-eating, digestive issues and a disconnected relationship with the body.

Numerous studies have established a link between mindless eating and over-consumption, so instead of signing up to the latest diet fad this month, why not try mindful eating instead?

Like mindfulness, mindful eating is about becoming fully engaged with the present moment experience in a non-judgmental way.

In eating terms, that means slowing down, paying more attention to the flavours and textures on your plate and silencing the internal critic that counts calories and polices portion sizes.

To quote Jan Chozen Bays, author of Mindful Eating, it's about becoming "reacquainted with the guidance of the internal nutritionist" - which knows more about your body than any diet book on the market.

Remember, it's not always about what you eat, but how you eat. With that in mind, here are 10 ways to eat more mindfully.

1 Get rid of distractions...

Whether it's watching TV or scrolling through your phone, distractions at mealtimes lead to what Dr Brian Wansink calls 'mindless eating'.

"The basic rule," writes Wansink in Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, "is that distractions of all kinds make us eat, forget how much we eat, and extend how long we eat - even when we're not hungry."

It's easy to fall into the habit of multitasking at mealtimes - especially if you often eat alone - but it's worth remembering that distracted eating leads to overeating and, according to more than one study, reduces our perception of taste.

Turn off your phone at mealtimes and you'll enjoy your food more while eating less.

2 Experiment with food...

Mindful eating is about taking the time to notice the colours, scents and tastes of different foods. When we become more aware of the sensations that arise when we eat, we in turn become more present during mealtimes.

To kick-start this practice, you could try experimenting with different ingredients or cuisines. Otherwise, consider booking in for a cheese and wine tasting or a bread-making class, where you'll learn how to slow down and notice the nuances of texture and flavour.

3 Listen to your internal cues...

At its essence, mindful eating is about eating when you're hungry and not eating when you're not hungry.

This may sound obvious but you'd be surprised by how many people tune out their internal cues around eating. They eat when the clock strikes lunchtime - even if they don't have an appetite. Likewise, they ignore mid-afternoon stomach pangs simply because they had a big lunch.

Mindful eating starts when we learn to focus on internal cues like hunger and satiety rather than external cues like meal plans and calorie counts.

4 Slow down and savour...

If you're in the habit of wolfing down your food, try to get into the practice of chewing each mouthful at least 30 times.

When we take more time to chew our food we naturally slow down, and when we slow down we become more mindful and present during mealtimes.

As an added benefit, chewing food thoroughly aids digestion and stimulates the production of gut hormones that regulate food intake.

5 Don't label food 'good' or 'bad'...

When we eat mindfully, food is neither 'good' or 'bad'. It is energy - a source of nourishment and pleasure.

When we think of food as 'bad' we tend to experience feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety during moments of indulgence. These feelings can make us disengage from the act of eating, which in turn leads to over-eating and bingeing.

6 Take breaks between eating...

Try getting into the habit of putting your fork and knife down at least three times during a meal.

This is an opportunity to focus on your in-breath and out-breath and reconnect with the present moment. Plus, it gives your digestive system a chance to produce hormones which signal a feeling of fullness to the brain.

7 Use the good crockery...

The more effort we put into a meal, the more likely we are to slow down and enjoy it.

Granted, we don't always have the time to buy exotic ingredients and follow complicated recipes, but it only takes a couple of minutes to create a table setting that makes mealtimes more of a ceremony.

Fold a linen napkin, take out the special occasion glassware and place a freshly-cut flower in a vase. When we devote extra attention to the ritual of mealtimes, we naturally begin to eat more mindfully.

8 Contemplate food provenance...

Try taking a few moments to think about where your food came from and how it arrived on your plate. Spiritual author Thich Nhat Hanh says this exercise can transform the relationship we have with food. Indeed, even the simple act of drinking tea can become a mindfulness ritual, says the Zen Master:

"When you lift your cup, you may like to breathe in the aroma. Looking deeply into your tea, you see that you are drinking fragrant plants that are the gift of Mother Earth," he writes.

"You see the labour of the tea pickers; you see the luscious tea fields and plantations in Sri Lanka, China and Vietnam. You know that you are drinking a cloud; you are drinking the rain. The tea contains the whole universe."

9 Give thanks for your food...

Ever wondered why birthday cake tastes better than any other type of confectionary? The answer, according to researchers from Harvard and the University of Minnesota, is that rituals performed before a meal make food more flavourful.

Whether it's singing 'Happy Birthday' or saying grace, the researchers found that we are more likely to savour food when we ritualise the experience around it.

The simple act of gratitude is one of the easiest rituals to incorporate before mealtimes. Just take a few moments to give thanks for the food on your plate, and notice how much better it tastes afterwards.

10 Start small to make habits...

Mindful eating sounds easy but the truth is that our lives are busy and it can be difficult to carve out time for unhurried meals.

As with everything, it's much better to start small by eating one meal with presence - and without distraction - each day.

Habits are much more likely to stick when they're relatively easy to implement - and a little bit of practice goes a long way.

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