For the last several years I have been teaching mindful eating to kids as young as four years old. This is one of my favorite exercises to teach, perhaps because the kids enjoy it so much. I also find it a critical skill for today’s on-the-go youth who have lunch hours crammed into a 20-minute frenzy before the race out to recess. Lately, I’ve noticed my own need to pay a little more attention when it comes to mealtime as well.
From the Harvard School of Public Health to the California campus of Google mindful eating is at the forefront of healthy living.
In the eyes of experts, what seems like the simplest of acts – eating slowly and genuinely savoring each bite – could be the remedy for a fast-paced country in which an endless parade of new diets never seems to slow a stampede toward childhood and adult obesity.
Mindful eating is not a diet, or about giving up your favorite foods. It’s about experiencing food more intensely – especially the pleasure of it. To practice mindful eating we use mindfulness, or being present, to cope with modern eating issues.
Intuitively, it makes sense that mindful eating is helpful. It slows us down, makes us more aware of the food we buy, portion sizes, and helps us get out of negative, automatic food habits like inhaling our meals while we check emails, surf the net, and respond to text messages.
Research suggests that the hormone Leptin interacts with other hormones to signal to our brain that we are full. Leptin also interacts with the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain to produce a feeling of pleasure after eating. When we eat too quickly we don’t give this intricate hormonal cross-talk system enough time to work, we keep eating because we have not allowed our brain time to receive the signals that we are full. In addition, when we are distracted while eating we are less sensitive to Leptin and can easily disregard it’s signal. This lack of awareness also allows us to keep eating long after our bodies are satisfied, adding extra unnecessary calories.
Whether you overeat or are overly restrictive with what you eat, it’s likely that you have lost track of true sensations of hunger and fullness. This break between your body and mind needs to be healed.
Mindfulness can help repair the relationship between your body and mind in three ways:
- Mindful eating plugs you back into your body’s cues so you know when to stop and start eating. This can be such a difficult task if your sense of hunger and fullness has been skewed or warped by large restaurant portions, fad diets or comfort eating.
- Being mindful brings about better management of emotions. Sometimes people restrict or overeat as a way to cope with negative feelings. Eating and not eating can distract you from your worries. There are times when we simply crave comfort food. When you have healthier ways of coping, such as mindful breathing and letting go of anxiety, you no longer manage your emotions through your food choices. You can tolerate your emotions, as uncomfortable as they may be, without pushing them away or stuffing them down with food.
- Mindfulness changes the way you think. Rather than reacting to food-related thoughts that urge you to overeat, overly restrict your diet, or emotionally eat, you respond to them. You can notice these thoughts without acting on them.
Here are five simple steps to get the whole family eating mindfully!
- Schedule time to eat. Remember when we used to take lunch hours? So often in today’s hectic world we find ourselves eating in the car, at our computers, or in a meeting. Scheduling time to eat allows your brain to pay attention to your food choices.
- Observe and smell your food. Take a few seconds to mindfully observe your food before you eat it. This simple act cues your mind to pay attention to what you are about to eat.
- Taste it! Sounds obvious, but how often do you find yourself half-way through a meal without even having tasted your food? Be intentional about noticing the flavors, textures, and temperature of each bite.
- Put the fork down! Put the fork down between each bite. This is a simple trick that slows the eating process. It takes our stomach time to signal our brain that we are full, and often we fill that time by eating a whole bunch more food that our body does not need.
- Try it with your kids. With obesity rates going through the roof, and our kids growing up in a culture where faster means better- even when it come to eating- we need to be intentional about teaching kids to slow down, taste their food, and make mindful choices about what they want to eat. Start with a mindful snack or eat mindfully for the first minute of every meal.
Forget about Bringing Apples to School. If You’re a Teacher- Bring an Orange!
If you’re a teacher, you might be thinking that the idea of being able to eat mindfully at school sounds pretty laughable. Even just a few minutes of mindful attention at mealtimes can help. Bring a nice plate from home to store in your classroom, put the papers away that were going to grade, turn off your email and just take a few minutes to give mindful attention to your taste buds. Practice gratitude by thinking about all of the people who brought your meal together, from the trucks who delivered the vegetables from a farm to the people who stock the shelves of your grocery store. Forget apples – bring an orange for your snack – research from the Integrative Medicine Program at the Mayo Clinic shows that just the smell of citrus can reduce stress and anxiety!