Free Your Mind: Mindful Eating Strategies

My family and I are self-admitted foodies. While other families go on vacations and bring back glowing descriptions of paintings and churches, we can illustrate every luscious detail of the Paella in Barcelona, the Caprese salad in Florence, or even the amazing carrot cake in Chicago. While watching shows on the Food Network, we love hearing the descriptions of specific flavors and ingredient combinations in the foods they feature. Our restaurant experiences are not just about satisfying hunger, but enjoying the specific flavors in each bite.

It might seem contrary that someone who teaches fitness for a living would advocate the enjoyment of an array of foods and flavors. But an awareness of what we eat, or something called mindful eating, is exactly why the Mindful Eating and Living (MEAL) program at the University of New Mexico Center for Life Integrative Medicine Specialty Clinic was developed by Brian Shelley, MD.

He noticed that standard mindfulness-based stress reduction programs were changing participants’ eating behaviors and wondered whether a mindfulness program focusing specifically on eating could help people who were overweight or obese and trying to lose weight.

By paying attention both to inner cues (thoughts, emotions and sensations) and to the environment, research suggests that mindful eating programs have much to offer chronically unsuccessful dieters. They deal with topics like foods that trigger binges, how to shop mindfully for food and how to deal with environmental pressures to overeat.

The program uses experiential exercises to help participants apply mindfulness to everyday eating decisions: like eating a single raisin (or other simple food) slowly, so you can fully appreciate its visual appearance, smell, texture and taste. Or, eating typical trigger foods, like potato chips, cookies, or even ice cream mindfully, to distinguish between the expectation and actual experience of enjoyment and satisfaction. I have to agree with some of the suggestions. By taking my time with a single scoop of ice cream and a small spoon, I can literally make my dessert last twice as long as wolfing down a cone, giving myself time to feel satisfied sooner and eat less.

In his book, Eating the Moment: 141 Mindful Practices to Overcome Overeating One Meal at a Time, Pavel Somov teaches original exercises to help readers learn about their palates and manage their appetites. His books eschew perfectionism and provide ways to become more aware of the food choices we make and how to make better ones. He focuses on the experience during a meal with exercises like: recognizing the effect of drinking water on hunger and fullness, or sharing a potluck meal where each participant brings one healthy item and one less healthy item, and everyone practices making food choices and leaving food on the plate.

He suggests pacing our eating by half, and resting our hands between bites of food to fully appreciate the flavors while we chew our food thoroughly. Typically when we eat, we tend to eat the entire portion. This kind of eating doesn’t factor in the delay between your stomach’s knowing you’re full and your brain’s knowing you are full. As a result, we overeat. The book also advocates practices like buying a bag of chips or cookies or candy and seeing how long you can make it last. Instead of scarfing down the whole bag at one sitting, take the single piece and savor the flavors.

Also, since eating links people, places and things of our past, he explains how it can be a great way of going down memory lane. Reminiscent eating is an opportunity to turn a simple act of eating into a meaningful experience with the added advantage of slowing down the process of eating. When you look at the food in front of you and allow yourself to free-associate about what the dish, the smell, and the taste remind you of, it turns mechanical and meaningless eating into sentimental and mindful enjoyment of your meal. Even a cooling off period can help you really appreciate the flavors in front of you.We’ve all burnt our lips on a bowl of soup, or a cup of coffee. Next time, give it a few moments to cool off. Enjoy the wait so you can really appreciate the flavors.

Although it might seem a little forced at first, taking the time to truly enjoy the food in front of you, and really tasting the flavor nuances of what you are eating could be just the key to taking control of your eating behavior!

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