Sometimes I feel proud of myself for choosing a healthy dinner…but then I sabotage my evening by raiding the cupboards and fridge and eating every titbit I can find. It’s so annoying because I know I’m not actually hungry, but there’s a level of dissatisfaction where I feel the urge to munch on something. The usual culprits are things like crisps, salty olives, melty cheese and crunchy crackers. None of these things are ‘bad’, but the point is that I didn’t need to eat them. I’ve realised over time that this late night snacking is due to two things: ingrained habits and lack of mindfulness. I’ve found that trying to eat mindfully really helps to curb the gnawing need for extra treats. Of course, sometimes it’s fun to share snacks in front of a box set so I would never stop this completely, but it’s not something that I would want to do every day. I’d like to explain how I practice mindful eating so that I don’t consume more than I need to.
What is ‘eating mindfully’?
When I was a child my family used to eat in near silence. I sat around the table with my mum, dad and grandmother as well as the employees who used to work in my parent’s restaurant which was situated below our house. I’m not sure if it is a Chinese thing but my grandma always told us to not talk a lot while we were eating. This meant we focussed on our food and didn’t eat too much. We really tasted everything and we were aware of what we were putting in our bowls. As a result, we didn’t often overeat. I would describe mindful eating as noticing exactly what I am eating throughout a meal.
Now, things are very different for me! There’s always noise, bustle and distractions: magazines on the table, text messages pinging and the allure of the iPad in the corner. Even when sitting down to eat as a family, there is so much going on when young children are around that I can’t really enjoy my meal in peace. I feel that distraction is the number one reason why a lot of us don’t pay attention to what we are eating. When distracted, we don’t taste our food and we hardly chew at all before we swallow. Afterwards, our brain has barely registered that we’ve eaten. Our stomachs may be feeling quite full, but the mind isn’t satisfied: it hasn’t gotten enough of the sensations and tastes it desires. This leads to late night cupboard pilfering, which in turn doesn’t satisfy either because it is often also scoffed down in front of YouTube or Netflix. The solution to this is simple: try to eat without distractions where possible. Most of us can go 15 minutes without Facebook, right? Last week I went to a fun Korean restaurant for a barbecue and the couple next to me spent the entire duration of their meal on their respective phones. Why pay all that money and not taste the food? Why did they not spend the time talking to each other? Distraction is not only bad for mindless eating, but bad for our relationships too! Distractions are much harder to avoid during family meal times or dinners out with friends, but we can still utilise many other aspects of mindful eating, which I will be discussing below.
Use all your senses
My next tip for eating mindfully is to really use our senses to help us notice what we’re eating. All of our five senses matter: they will give us a rounded and full experience of eating which in turn will be much more satiating. We can engage them in the following ways:
Smell the food: can you detect herbs? Which herbs? Spices? Notes of vanilla perhaps?
Taste it: is it bland, savoury, piquant, sweet? Is there a bitter aftertaste? What do you notice?
How does it feel? Soft, crumbly, smooth? Is it chewy? Maybe it’s light and crisp? How does its texture change in your mouth? Is the temperature hot, tepid or icy?
Does the food have a sound? Can you hear it crunching or squelching?
How does it look? Carefully observe the colours, shapes and shadows. Is it glossy or rough? Is it pale or brightly coloured? Does it look tasty to you?
All this sensory information is important to help our brains record what we are eating and lead to a greater sense of satisfaction.
Chew it over
Chewing food well sounds so obvious but my view is that many of us aren’t paying attention to this. When I’m eating mindfully, I try to count the number of chews per mouthful. This is actually quite interesting: notice what happens when you chew ten, twenty or fifty times. It’s strange how something bulky and full of calories can literally become nothing in terms of mass! Chewing is great for the digestion, because after all, our stomachs don’t have teeth! I’ve definitely noticed less bloating and indigestion since I started chewing more. Nutrients are also absorbed more easily as the food particles are smaller. Finally, chewing more helps slow down eating times. It takes a while for the stomach to send fullness messages to the brain: this is why competitive eaters have to eat as quickly as possible so their stomachs don’t get the chance to complain too soon! By slowing down, we hear the signals at the right time.
Am I full up?
Most children are told to eat everything on their plates. I am guilty of saying this to my kids too! However, in retrospect it’s probably not the best thing to do. I know that I feel bad if I haven’t cleared my plate and will eat the very last mouthful even if I am bursting at the seams. This means that I have a tendency to always eat too much and ignore what my body is telling me. I’ve been reading Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch and I find it useful to use their hunger scale to try and rate my fullness levels before, during and after a meal on a scale of 1-10. This is where 1 = ravenous, 5 is neutral and 10 = lying on the sofa with my stomach bursting out my trousers. This system helps me to assess whether I should stop or start eating. This method also helps in the evening when I feel like snacking,- just taking a moment to contemplate my hunger levels is often enough to stop me.
Be aware of ingrained habits. For many of us in the UK, a cup of tea often goes with a biscuit. Watching TV = snacks. Sometimes, being aware of these things can make a difference. Just because other people have ‘wine o’clock’ every night it doesn’t mean that you have to! If your partner is having alcohol, it doesn’t mean that you have to in order to be sociable. Everyone gains comfort from eating, which is fine to an extent, but do it with awareness, not out of habit. The way we shop has an effect on this too; if you’re accustomed to throwing in pretzels when you’re at that supermarket aisle, notice it next time and stop. Do you really need/want them or are you shopping on autopilot? Eating mindfully begins at the store and planning ahead is key.
To sum up how to eat mindfully:
- Start off by only buying what you really need.
- Minimise distractions whilst eating
- Engage all fives senses during the meal
- Chew properly
- Assess your hunger levels throughout
I hope this has explained how I try to be aware of what I eat and how I prevent myself from nibbling late at night. I feel that eating mindfully in this way is actually very enjoyable and much more satisfying. It is not always possible to do it every time but do give it a try when you remember to. Have you got any other tips? Please let me know in the comments below!
Resch. E, Tibole. E., Intuitive Eating, New York, St Martin’s Press, 2012