By Lisa Paradiso, RD, LD

One of my favorite questions to ask myself when I poke my head into the fridge or when I grab a snack out of the cupboard is… am I even hungry? If the answer is no, I try to put it down and walk away. As humans we eat for so many reasons.  We not only eat for physical hunger, but also out of boredom, stress, happy or sad emotions, for celebrations, for mourning, because food is available, or because food looks good.

If you are eating out of physical hunger, a healthy snack of veggies or proteins should satisfy the stomach, but if there are underlying causes for the desire to eat, chicken and broccoli just won’t cut it! This is because your brain is looking for something to release a reward response in the form of the neurotransmitter dopamine. The brain receives this reward when you eat foods high in fat and sugar because these foods help the body to build an energy reserve in the form of fat mass which is ultimately what your body wants to do. In order to feed the brain a reward response that is not in the form of food we have to identify and resolve the underlying problem. If it is stress, try some deep breathing. If it is boredom, try reading a book or doing a puzzle so your brain and hands stay busy.

What does mindful eating mean?

Eating mindfully means you are listening to your body and responding to physical hunger ques with nourishing food instead of responding to stress or emotional ques with unhealthy foods. In order to eat intuitively you need to build a close relationship with your body and dig deep into your thoughts so you can accurately answer the question – why am I eating?

How do I eat mindfully?

Eating mindfully means eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full. This can be challenging if you engulf your meal, make a plate that has large portions of food on it, or are eating in an unpleasant environment.

Some principles of eating mindfully include:

  1. Go slowly! It is important to slowly eat your food so your body has time to recognize fullness and can actually enjoy the process. Engage all of your senses and make eating an enjoyable part of the day. Chew slowly so you can taste every morsel that is going into your belly. Look at your food and feel the textures on your tongue from a yummy piece of fruit or a vegetable. Feel the crunch when you bite into a stalk of celery. All of this engages the body and connects us to our meal, helping to satisfy the stomach and the brain each time we eat.
  2. Keep your body well fed – ensure you are eating something small every 2-3 hours to keep your stomach from ever becoming starving. If you let yourself get too hungry, all intentions of moderate, conscious eating fly out the window and your brain makes it very difficult to choose healthful options. An added bonus- eating frequently helps to keep the metabolism high, ensuring efficient burning of excess energy before it is stored as fat.
  3. Stop when you are full – pause mid-meal and ask yourself – am I still hungry? You might find that it takes less food to satisfy hunger than it used to. We often eat so fast that our brain and stomach don’t have time to communicate with each other and recognize fullness. When you over-eat, fullness is a very uncomfortable feeling, but eating to a comfortable fullness means that your stomach has stretched just enough to allow receptors in the stomach lining to send a signal to the brain that it is stretched to an adequate amount. Over-eating can lead to feeling sluggish, uncomfortable, and cause you to want to lay down.
  4. Create an inviting atmosphere – eating with friends and family or in a warm relaxing environment alone helps us to feel satisfied more easily. The experience of eating should be enjoyable. Avoid eating in front of a screen or in the car as it can be distracting and cause you to eat beyond fullness. Try eating at a table with good company or while listening to your favorite music.
  5. Cope with emotions and stress in a positive way – Find ways to comfort, nurture, distract, and resolve stress and emotions without using food. Anxiety, loneliness, boredom, and anger are emotions we all experience throughout life. Each has its own trigger, and each has its own appeasement. Food won’t fix any of these feelings. It may provide short term comfort or a distraction, but food won’t solve the problem. If anything, eating for an emotional hunger will only make you feel guilty in the long run. You’ll ultimately have to deal with the source of the emotion, as well as any guilt or discomfort from over-eating. Try finding an activity such as walking outside, playing a board game, taking a bath, or talking to a friend instead of relying on snacks.
  6. Focus on overall health – recognize that sugar and high fat foods do not provide your body with nutrition. Your body requires a balance of proteins, healthy carbohydrates, and unsaturated fats to function at its best and optimize your health. Knowing that you are fueling your body by eating lots of vegetables, good quality proteins, and foods packed with vitamins and minerals may help encourage a better-quality diet long term.