By Sarah Roth, RDN, LD
Mindful eating is one of the biggest topics I talk to my clients about – and after I explain what mindful eating is and does for the body I often then hear, “Do people actually know this stuff?!” and the answer is: Probably not.
If you feel like you struggle with being present for meals, if you struggle to even define what hunger and fullness actually feels like in your body, know that you are not alone. In our diet-centric culture, mindful eating doesn’t really have a space (even though some diets are really good at convincing you it’s mindful — I see you Noom), because one cannot be mindful if they’re calorically starved, and one also cannot be mindful when you’ve hit your breaking point of hunger and find yourself eating out of the pantry on autopilot.
When you go too long without eating (i.e. more than 6 hours) your blood sugar levels start getting too low to allow your body to function at maximum efficiency. Your metabolism will start to slow, your brain starts feeling foggy and you lose the ability to laser focus into your tasks. You might become irritable and hangry and start feeling intense cravings for carb-dense foods. It’s normal for your body to crave sugar in this state, and maybe the cravings feel so strong it makes you wonder if you’re addicted to sugar! Instead of getting down on yourself and your lack of “will power” to resist carbs, really start being curious about these cravings. Has it been more than 5-6 hours since my last meal? Have I eaten a good balance of food today? What does my body truely need right now – food? sleep? movement? creative space? family time? The more you tune in to your body the easier it is to tell what it needs; your body does a really good job of telling you what it needs if you take the time to listen.
Consider this: When you go on a road trip, you tend to eat out for most meals, fueling up on fast food and restaurants, and snacking on gas station novelties. When you get home after a 15-hour drive and being out of town for two weeks do you immediately think Oh man, a double bacon cheeseburger with a large fry sounds sooo good! Mmm, probably not. Likely your body is craving something fresh and light like a big brightly colored salad or a delicious fruit and cheese platter!
Learning to eat mindfully and be attune to your body can be a slow process, and can often feel like your food intake gets even more out of control before it gets easier. Below are five steps at becoming a more mindful eater. While this is not a comprehensive list of all the best practices of mindful eating, this is a simplified version that I’ve found feels pretty approachable at that start of your mindful eating journey.
Start with breakfast within an hour of waking up to kickstart your metabolism. I know how busy mornings can get, and it might be easy to suppress your hunger – maybe you’ve skipped breakfast for so long you don’t even feel hungry in the morning! It’s important to get back into the routine of starting your mornings with breakfast, as this wakes up the digestive system and helps improve your energy throughout the day! After breakfast, at least think about eating something every 3-4 hours. Maybe this looks like setting a timer every 3-4 hours to remind yourself to check in with your hunger, especially if you are prone to getting zoned in on a task and forget to eat or take a drink of water!
Before each meal or snack, close your eyes, place your hands over your stomach, and take a couple of deep breaths to check in with your hunger levels. Pay attention to how your stomach is physically feeling: does it feel completely empty? Half-full? Is it growling, or making swishy-swashy noises? Use a hunger and fullness scale, like this one below, and try to rate where you are falling on that scale.
Once you determine where you are on the hunger/fullness scale, now try to listen to what your body is needing from you in your next snack or meal. If you’re sitting around a 3.5 or lower, your body is likely going to need a full meal. Don’t forget to tune into your taste buds: what flavors and textures are you craving? Trying to seek satisfaction not only in the volume your body needs, but also in what tastes you’re looking for is going to help you leave a meal fully satisfied and satiated, which helps prevent episodes of overeating and late night pantry raids in the long run!
About halfway through your snack or meal, set your eating utensil down and take another mindful breath or two to determine how much more food you feel your stomach is going to need to feel full. Is it a couple more bites? Is it the rest of your plate? Are you maybe going to need an extra portion of something? Try to envision how much more food you’re likely going to need to feel satisfied – this will really help build attunement and trust of your body and it’s cues!
Once you’ve eaten the amount you envisioned your body would need to feel satisfied, check out of your meal on the hunger/fullness scale. Your sweet spot is going to be anywhere between 6-8, but it’s okay if you go above an 8 in these beginning stages – you’re learning! Give yourself permission to try again. If you’re having trouble discerning the difference between a 6 and a 7, or if all you can really feel is a 2 and a 9 and nothing in between, that’s ok, too! It’s very normal to only feel the extremes if you’ve never really given this much attention to your body before.
And there you have it! Five easy steps to mindful eating. I want to reiterate that this process can take awhile, and also that there’s really no way to do this wrong. Simply put, the more attention you can give to your body, the more attune you will get to the nuances. Some people find they may need extra support to help you in this process, and if that’s you I do hope you’ll feel comfortable reaching out for help!