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How mindful eating can transform your physical and mental health

MINDFUL EATING
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Better than any deprivation-focused diet, this method focuses on self-care and kindness.

With a fast-paced lifestyle, a tight agenda and a long to-do list, we can sometimes miss out on the basic yet totally important details in life. Eating can become just an automatic activity, an action we must execute in order to have energy and go on with our daily routine. However, eating is much more than that, and putting little attention into what and how we eat can leave us unsatisfied, and can even lead to health issues.

Ask your self the following: What was the last thing I ate? What did it really taste like? What was its smell and texture? If you can’t really recall, then ask yourself what was the last meal you really enjoyed, one that you really remember to this day the taste, the colors, and what every bite made you feel? You were probably mindful eating back then and didn’t even know it. So, why not make every day a meal to remember?

To regain awareness of how and what we eat, five years ago the board of directors for the Center of Mindful Eating selected the last Thursday in the month in January as International Mindful Eating Day (this year it will be celebrated on January 24). Megrette Fletcher, co-founder of the Center, explained that this day was selected to counter the avalanche of diet-culture influenced messaging that can bury a person in guilt, shame and blame. She explained that the date was selected with the assumption that most New Year attempts at weight loss and dieting had failed, and that many people would be receptive to mindful eating, which focuses on self-care and self-kindness.

“Mindful Eating isn’t a diet or a restrictive eating program, but a practice to be present, aware and compassionate when engaging in activities surrounding food and eating,” Megrette points out. The success of the project was such that they decided to extend this event into a month long celebration, and in 2019 World Mindful Eating Month was created. This year’s theme is “Stepping into Mindful Eating,” and individuals that choose to participate by joining the closed Facebook group they will have a chance to explore how to start a mindful eating practice through activities crafted by teachers and experts from around the world.

But, what exactly is mindful eating? As you can imagine, this philosophy is based on the art of mindfulness, which brings full attention to the present moment, therefore, placing complete awareness to the experience of eating. When practicing mindful eating we become aware of our thoughts, choices, motivations, feelings and physical sensations surrounding the eating cycle, from the planning of what to prepare, to the moment after we’ve had our meal.

Mindfulness has been shown to transform habitual ways of thinking and acting. The benefits of mindfulness are extensive and include increased focus, improved memory, less stress and more,” explains Megrette. “For me personally, mindful eating has made me a kinder person and maybe a bit wiser. Over time this bite-sized practice helped me see a world bigger than my own thoughts. This experience has filled me with a sense of freedom, contentment, and joy.”

Megrette, who is also a dietitian and diabetes educator, doesn’t believe in dieting, or that someone should punish themselves with exercise, or tell themselves that they are bad when they enjoy food, or feel that it is healthy to restrict eating, which is why she recommends mindful eating as an alternative to have a healthier relationship with food. “We all have some habits that aren’t really serving us anymore. The hype about dieting and weight loss is misleading… restriction, and punishment won’t help you be healthier,” she explains.

Here’s how to get started on mindful eating, one bite at a time …

Get involved from the beginning

Prepare a shopping list in advance and write it down when you are not feeling hungry. Take into consideration the health value of the food you’ll buy, its origins, your personal likes, and the meals you will prepare with them. Sticking to the shopping list will be easier if you have a plan, and will prevent impulses.

Set a schedule

Having a time designated to each meal will allow you to come to the table with appetite, but not too hungry. The idea behind mindful eating is not to fill the void, but to appreciate food in moderation.

Be aware of portions

How much food you serve on your plate is key, because sometimes we eat more than what we need because we already served it. Choose a smaller plate so visually you won’t feel like you are limiting yourself.

Wait before you eat

Before you start eating take a moment to contemplate your plate, the table, and the people you are sharing the meal with. Be aware of the colors, the aromas, and the sounds around you. Feel gratitude for the plate in front of you, for the people involved in making this meal happen, for the company you have, and for your own effort in preparing the plate you are about to savor.

Take your time

Take small bites and taste each one completely. Chew thoroughly so you can fully taste it, figure out all the flavors, feel the texture with your tongue, and experience the bite you just took. It’ll take approximately 20 to 40 times to chew each bite. Place your utensils on the table between bites so you won’t rush into the next one. Remember it takes 20 minutes for the body to realize it’s full.

Eliminate distractions

Turn off the TV, and put aside your cellphone, computer, or other devise. Dedicate that time to eating, and to the people you eat with.

Ask yourself questions

Mindful eating is about satisfying physical hunger, so before you are going to eat something ask yourself why are you doing it, is because you are feeling hungry, or because you are feeling stressed or anxious, or because something nearby smells really good?

Listen to your body

Don’t ignore the signals your body sends. If you feel satisfied don’t eat more; eat only until you are full. The same happens in the opposite direction; if you sense hunger you should eat, because if you don’t when you finally sit down to have a meal you’ll most likely eat much more to fill the void.

Let go

Guilt and anxiety are two sentiments linked a lot to food, and mindful eating is not about any of that. Guilt happens when you didn’t listen to your body, or when you ate for the wrong reasons. Anxiety happens when you are not aware of what you are feeling, and therefore let off steam through food. Being aware and present will help you differentiate emotions, and make better choices.

Set realistic goals

Start with one meal, and take your time until you feel comfortable to add more meals to this practice. One meal per day would be ideal, but if it seems complicated at the time start with one meal a week.

Additional benefits

Mindful eating is a great ally to prevent weight gain, and to cope with eating issues such as binge eating. For example, a study published in 2018 showed that a greater amount of mindfulness practice can lead to increased behavioral flexibility, which, in turn, might help overcome compulsive eating. Another study found in the Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine showed a decline in binge eating as well as state of anxiety and depressive symptoms after practicing mindfulness on eating.

The Journal of Treatment & Prevention collected evidence that supports the value of mindfulness in decreasing binge episodes, improving sense of self-control with regard to eating, and diminishing depressive symptoms.

Obesity can also be controlled through mindful eating. In comparison to regular dieting, which tends to have a success rate of around 15 percent, mindful eating helps you distinguish among emotional or external hunger, food cravings, and physical hunger; it helps you be aware of food-related triggers, and gives you the freedom to choose your response to them.

Mindful eating can be practiced personally. However, some people find it easier to have a mindful eating trainer to really dive into this practice. You can find a list of professionals here.

Read more: How to use mindfulness to fight temptation

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