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Discover mindful eating
At some point in our lives, most of us will struggle with our relationship with food. It can feel like a personal failing when the number on the scale tips higher than one would like.
BeWell spoke with Wellness Advisor Patty McLucas about a food dynamic different from dieting: an experience with food that includes eating because you are hungry and truly enjoying the experience. The secret to this healthier dynamic is mindfulness.
How do most people fill in the blanks of this sentence?: “I eat when ____ and/or because ____.”
I love asking this question in my Eating With Intent class because the answers are so illuminating. “I eat when stressed,” is a common answer, and so helpful because we can all relate to it. As students fill in the blanks, I list them on a white board until we end up with 20 or more answers that describe many aspects of human psychology in terms of what we reach for when we want to feel differently from how we actually feel.
What is typically missing from the answers?
As a class, we notice that “eating when hungry” is rarely listed on the board. So many factors are at play in our culture here in Silicon Valley — and in the Western world — that result in a disconnect between the body’s natural sensation of hunger and the response to feed ourselves well. In other words, food has become disconnected from its primary function, which is to fuel our bodies.
How can we reconnect our eating with our hunger?
Ultimately, the only method that works over the long term is re-sensitizing our instrument — that is, our bodies — to perceive true hunger and fullness. And we do this through learning the practice of mindfulness. We all know that babies cry when hungry and absolutely refuse food when full. If no longer hungry, a baby won’t eat even one extra mouthful — not even one bite of Aunt Hildegard’s prizewinning apple cake! So the good news is that we are all born with this capacity; however, it gets obscured by our upbringing and other conditioned habits. Mindfulness of the body helps us see that.
What role does our inner voice play in overeating?
The voice inside our head plays a big role. Most of the time, we are following our “heads” and not our “stomachs” when we eat. We eat because we’re bored, stressed, tired, because we “see food,” because “it’s time to eat,” because others are eating…. The list goes on and on.
Are we afraid of food? In other words, are we afraid of giving ourselves what we love out of fear that we won’t be able to stop?
This dynamic is definitely at play for some of us. For most of us, however, we are afraid not of food, per se, but of our hunger. We interpret the hunger signals coming from the body as uncomfortable and something bad that we need to alleviate quickly. So, the slightest hunger pang will have us reaching for whatever is there (leftover birthday cake in the break room, perhaps?). Then, when we sit down for our next meal, we aren’t truly hungry because we’re full of cake. Learning how to ride the waves of hunger — which do come and go — and sensing when to respond to true hunger with food is a skill that can be learned. We call it mindful eating practice.
Is there an inverse relationship between the abundance of food and how much we enjoy it?
Oh my, yes. Because food is plentiful and relatively inexpensive in our culture, we eat more than our bodies need. We are not focused on the sensory experience of eating this mouthful because there is always more. We tend to check out as we begin eating and just focus on the “more,” aka the future bite, instead of reveling in the pleasure of what we are experiencing now. When we learn how to slow down — even just a little bit — and really taste our food, we get so much more pleasure from eating! And then we can notice when we start to get full and stop eating before we feel stuffed.
Is there a small step we could take today down the path of mindful eating?
Yes! Choose a food, such as a piece of fruit, to eat mindfully. Reduce or eliminate any other food activities you are doing. Really examine your food visually. Notice the aroma, the textures. Take a bite and truly savor the bite that is in your mouth in the present moment. The invitation here is to become a connoisseur of your own experience, which will lead you to eat less and enjoy more. And who among us does not wish for more pleasure?
Interview conducted by Julie Croteau and edited by Lane McKenna.