By Liz Shaw, Health and Fitness Tutor for The Training Room
Just like mindfulness, mindful eating is an expression that gets thrown around a lot, leading to many different interpretations of what it means.
To put the record straight, mindful eating is “the art of presence while you eat”. In other words, it’s about using mindfulness to reach a state of full attention to your experiences, cravings, and physical cues when eating.
Mindful eating is the absolute anecdote to what we, as a society, have become. Living our lives at 100 miles an hour, multi-tasking everywhere we go, we often grab a sandwich on the run or chug down another coffee without really noticing it. It’s a bit like when you have a shower, get out, and think, “Did I wash my hair?” or travel from A to B without any recollection of the drive itself! So busy were you contemplating your to-do list for the day, or running through other thoughts in your mind, that the shower or car journey became one big blur.
So many of us, including our clients, eat on the hoof and aren’t mindful of what we’re consuming – making it the clear missing link in healthy eating and lifestyles. If we all make the effort to become more mindful eaters, we can significantly enhance our physical, mental and social (whole-person) health. And by encouraging our clients to practice this, it can help to move them further and/or faster towards their goals. As people working in the “results business,” we know it’s the small things that can make all the difference, so let’s take a look at how your clients can implement mindful eating within their daily routines…
The method for mindful eating
Just like any form of mindfulness, mindful eating starts with opening your senses. If you were going for a mindful walk, I would encourage you to notice the smell of the blossom, the feel of the ground underneath your feet, the sounds of nature around you, the feeling of the breeze on your skin, the list goes on. That’s exactly what we should be doing with food, taking the time to really notice what we’re eating: how it feels and smells, its colours and textures. Are we getting enough of the good stuff? We’re told to “eat the rainbow” to consume a range of fruits and vegetables each day, but how often do we look at what is on our plates and notice the colour (or lack of)?
Presenting food nicely also increases the appeal to our senses and helps us to eat mindfully. We do this for our kids when we’re trying to persuade them to eat, but we don’t always bother with our own meals. The message here is to think about the journey of the food to your mouth, rather than just shoving it all in! The build-up is just as important as the show itself.
Having done the above, once the food is in your mouth, you should be able to notice all the textures and tastes, experiencing an explosion of flavour. By eating mindfully in this way, you should also find that the flavours are so much better when the food is freshly cooked and full of your five a day rather, rather than a plate of pasta or burger from McDonald’s!
Mindful eating for weight management
A large part of mindful eating is recognising when we need to eat and, importantly, stopping to do so; something we don’t tend to do enough of!
Research by private healthcare specialist, Bupa, discovered that “almost a third (31%) of employees admit they usually eat at their desk” and “two in five (43%) employees believe they have too much work to pause for a few minutes.”
The problem is, people who waltz down their food (while sending emails or flicking through their phones, for example) generally consume more calories and eat more unhealthily. In a study of 30 women, those who ate quickly consumed 10% more calories during a meal and reported significantly less fullness, compared with those who ate slowly.
When we’re not aware of what we’re eating that’s when we eat more. What we should be doing is eating at a speed that allows our bodies’ natural systems to recognise when we are full and that our hormones are working correctly. Our bodies are incredibly clever and have been designed to notice when we have had enough, but eating at speed while on the go can override these natural instincts.
With that said, mindful eating (slowing down and paying attention to our food moment by moment, bite by bite) can be an effective way to help manage weight without calorie-cutting or hopping on and off different diets.
If your clients are working from home, encourage them to move away from their laptops and eat in another room, or take a walk to a local sandwich bar. Just make sure they’re not grabbing their food and heading straight back to their desks to eat it! It could be undoing all the hard work they’ve been putting in during their PT sessions!
An alternative to portion sizes
Portion sizes, along with calorie counting, tend to take clients back to the “numbers game.” On the contrary, mindful eating takes us back to how we are supposed to operate with food and how our relationship with food is meant to be (hunter-gatherers didn’t have calculators to work out the numbers/scales to weigh their portions!)
As mentioned above, being mindful allows the body’s natural mechanisms to notice satiety, removing the need to think of portion sizes per se and returning us to our (brilliant) natural way of telling whether we are full or not. It’s so much more positive to look at what we can GAIN by eating healthily, rather than at the negatives or at what we can “lose” (lose weight, cut down on calories, reduce portion sizes, etc). Therefore, mindful eating can help to reduce stress for some clients.
Even if clients are confident with portion sizes, and would like to continue managing their intake in this way, they still need to be mindful of when they feel full and when it’s time to stop eating, even if there’s food left on their plates. A recent study showed that chronic overeating – eating 1,000 extra calories a day over the course of a month – was linked to a fat-mass increase of about 3 pounds, as well as increases in blood sugar, so it’s important to recognise when enough’s enough!
Stop and ask yourself “why?”
If you are using mindful eating to assist with weight management, before you go to eat something, stop and ask yourself, “Why am I eating this?”
Are you hungry and needing to eat something? Are you thirsty (often mistaken for being hungry)? Are you bored, angry, or frustrated?
If you’re eating because you’re hungry, then go for it (of course, always being mindful). If you’re eating because you’re bored or angry about something at work or in your personal life, think about what could actually help you with that. It could be doing a yoga stretch or going out with your dog for 10 minutes. Especially if it’s an emotional need, there’s a tendency to reach for unhealthy, sugary treats, like cakes and chocolate bars, which will make you feel 100 times worse and solve nothing. As with all forms of mindfulness, mindful eating is about responding, not reacting, so feed that need in a better way. Stopping and asking “why?” is the beginning of the true science behind mindful eating and could have a massive impact on your relationship with food, the way you feel about your body, and the results you’re able to achieve through physical activity and nutrition. This is key information to pass on to clients.
Fighting back against fast food
Fast food and ready meals are usually full of MSG, a chemical that disrupts the body’s natural appetite mechanisms and satiety (the feeling of being full after a meal), causing us to consume more than we need. This is best summed up by the Pringles catchphrase, “Once you pop, you can’t stop!” Mindful eating does the complete opposite of this. By slowing down and noticing what we’re eating, we give our bodies the time to recognise when we’re full and respond.
Mindful eating and body image
How many of your clients come in looking for weight management support? And how many of them are concerned about body image? The power of mindful eating is that it allows you to reconnect with your body. It takes you away from calorie counting and calorie deficits (which do have their place), as well as body image issues, and focuses on what your actual need is to enhance your physical and mental wellbeing. Nutrition and wellness guru, Alissa Rumsey, offers some great resources to help your clients get started with mindful eating.
Mindful eating and mental health
As well as providing us with the nourishment and energy we need for our daily lives and active pursuits, the act of eating should contribute towards our mental and social health.
Ideally, we should sit and eat with friends, family or colleagues to soak up the social benefits. Researchers at the University of Oxford found that “people who eat socially are more likely to feel better about themselves and have a wider social network capable of providing social and emotional support”. If seeing others in person isn’t possible, you could video call while eating. The main thing is that eating should provide a break from everything else that is going on to give your body and mind a chance to relax, recharge and prepare for the rest of the day.
Fall in love with food again
Eating should be an enjoyable experience, but when we’re busy, it can often become a necessity rather than an event. One of the best things about mindful eating is that it allows you to reestablish your relationship with food, leading to tastier, happier meals, which, again, contributes positively towards our mental health.
The skinny on mindful eating…
In short, mindful eating is about taking that time to breathe, checking in with yourself and feeding your needs in the best way possible. As PTs, we need to leverage everything we can to drive results for our clients and enhance their lives, so why not start educating clients on the benefits of mindful eating? It could well be the missing piece to their healthy eating puzzle, helping them to better manage their weight while also doing wonders for their mental and social health. The time to get mindful is now!
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