by Kerry Potter, MS, RD
I wrote an article several months ago on Sunwarrior News on Intuitive Eating. As a follow up to that, I want to continue this discussion. I recently enrolled in an 8-week self-paced mindful eating program not only to reap the benefits for myself, but also to help my clientele on their own nutritional journey.
As a holistic dietitian who believes food is a vital part in health and disease management, I always get individuals who seek me out wanting to know my opinion on the newest nutrition book. I always make an effort to read research articles and the latest books and discuss the outcomes with my colleagues. However, I will never be tied down to one specific nutrition philosophy. I stand firm with my belief that because everyone has slightly different genes and live in different environments, some individuals will thrive on one type of diet while others might feel best on another.
But there are two things I will always agree on in regard to diet. First is the importance of a high amount of vegetables and fruit in the diet. The other thing I will always stand my ground on is that it is imperative not to get your calories from drinks (soda, juice, sweet tea, Gatorade, alcohol, etc.) on a consistent basis.
Regardless of what direction you take your own dietary habits, I believe that everyone should incorporate mindfulness into their daily lives, especially when it comes to eating. These latest and greatest books to solving your diseases and ailments focus on what and when to eat. But very rarely do nutrition and diet books focus on why a person chooses to eat. We may wonder how a person can eat enough to be one hundred, two hundred, or three hundred pounds overweight. A good question to ask that person is, “Are you connected with your body?” It is easy to overeat or under eat when you are not connected with your body. Many people are disengaged and disconnected from their body. They ignore the physical signs of hunger and fullness and use food to meet many other needs. If you are not eating for physical hunger, what reasons are you eating for?
What mindfulness does is stop us from reacting out of habit and teach us to pause, be in the moment and create a different habit. Pausing and meditation gives us the awareness that a habit may exist and gives us the choice to either continue doing the things that we do, or to change course. With food especially, mindfulness can prevent us from reacting to triggers. Furthermore, with bringing mindfulness to our eating habits, we can relearn to trust our bodies as the expert on what we need to fuel them. We can also learn to satisfy other needs (sleep, boredom, loneliness, anxiety, and stress) in positive and constructive ways.
I use mindful eating as a tool with my nutrition clients as well as myself to address their relationship with food, what role food plays in their life, and what is driving their eating cycle at any given time.
So what are some ways we can bring mindfulness into our lives when eating to create a more positive environment and relationship with food? The first thing to do is be able to differentiate between physical hunger and head hunger. There are many examples of head hunger. In her book “Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat,” Dr. Michelle May defines head hunger as that little voice in your head that tells you to eat even when your body doesn’t need food or fuel. Head hunger can be triggered by physical, environmental, and emotional triggers. An easy way to describe physical hunger is it builds gradually, develops below the head, goes away when full, and eating leads to feeling of satisfaction. Do you ever notice that head hunger persists despite fullness and can later lead to guilt and shame? An example of a physical trigger for head hunger might be thirst or fatigue. An emotional trigger might be stress, and an environmental trigger might be watching TV. If you pair eating with an activity often enough, eventually the activity itself triggers the urge to eat. So next time you sit down to eat, see if you can differentiate between the two types of hunger.
The second mindful eating activity that I have all my patients practice is “the Power of the Pause during Eating.” Even if we’re not an expert in meditation, this simple activity can help us check in at that exact moment on how we are feeling and what we are thinking, how this is directly affecting what we are eating. I usually turn off the lights; have everyone empty their hands and either rest them in their lap or beside them. The class is to sight up right and make sure they are not slouching. Although not necessary, it’s best to close your eyes to prevent distraction.
Step 1: Take a few deep, calming breaths. On each breathe, concentrate on inhaling deeply from the pit of your stomach and letting the air fill up all of your body to the tip of your head. On your exhale, let the fresh, pure air trickle down your body through each individual cell. Allow any tension to be released from your hands, shoulders, feet, and so forth.
Step 2: The breath is a bridge between the mind and the body and will allow you to connect with yourself more fully. Notice any emotions you are feeling in this moment. Are you physically hungry? Or are you noticing other sensations or feelings arising?
Step 3: Reflect on how acting in a more thoughtful way will make you feel later today. When you learn to recognize and meet your true needs, the urges to eat for reasons other than physical hunger begin to fade.
Try this activity before, during, and after meals and see what it can reveal!
For more mindful eating activities, visit The Center for Mindful Eating.
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