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Mindful Eating: Nourishing the Body and Mind

September is National Yoga Month, celebrating a form of exercise that nurtures the spirit, mind, and body. This focus on mindfulness and being in touch with ourselves can transcend to nutrition. Here, we look at how “mindful eating” can improve the way we eat and how we nourish our bodies.

What is “mindful eating”?

Mindfulness is being in the moment with a complete awareness of what you are doing, thinking, or feeling. According to expert Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, mindfulness is a way of “befriending ourselves and our experience.”

Mindful eating, sometimes referred to as “Intuitive Eating,” happens when we consume food while being aware of our hunger and without passing judgment on the act of eating or the very food itself. There is an awareness of hunger and of being full, which gives us more enjoyment as we eat.

Mindful eating involves using all the senses to explore, savor, and taste, so that we choose food that is pleasing to the palate and nourishing to the body. It works on the premise that the less distracted we are during mealtimes, the better our overall health and wellbeing.

On the flip side, “mindless eating” is distracted eating. It raises our stress levels and causes us to overeat and not enjoy our food. If you’ve ever wondered if you’re eating mindlessly, a good test is to recall what you ate for lunch yesterday. Can you recall the details? What was it? How did it taste? Who were you with?

How to eat in the moment

One of the simplest ways to get more enjoyment out of eating – and not overeating – is to deliberately slow down. Our digestive system sends “satiety” signals to our brain when we’ve had enough to eat. After we begin eating, these signals take about 20 minutes to be activated. If we’re always rushing through our meals and snacks, we won’t get these cues!

In addition, food often seems to lose flavor after the first bite. However, if you slow down and pause between bites, you will discover that each bite retains that “first bite” flavor. Your body also has a chance to register a sense of satisfaction with just the right amount of food.

To help you mindfully eat, try these simple practices:

  • Set a place to eat. You’ll need a table and chair, preferably not in the kitchen and not in front of the TV. Keep the setting simple and pleasant. Treat yourself like a guest. No books or technology!
  • Dish up your plate in the kitchen, leaving the serving bowls or pots in the kitchen, and bring your plate to the table. Then sit down and take three deep breaths. See and smell the food on your plate.
  • Take a small first bite and deliberately eat it slowly, with full attention to the flavor and texture. Avoid “layering” – this means do not take in additional bites of food while you still have food in your mouth.
  • Put down the fork or spoon between bites, and don’t pick it back up until the food in your mouth is savored and swallowed. Check in with the sensations in your stomach a few times during the meal to see how full it is feeling.

Being intentional and more aware of what – and how – you eat can help you focus on the nourishment you are bringing to your spirit, mind, and body. During National Yoga Month and year-round, this can help you achieve better overall wellness.

For a mindful eating program designed just for you, talk to a YMCA nutritionist.

Nutrition expertise at the YMCA

Pamela Cook, RDN, helps members at the Littleton Family YMCA live healthy. Pamela is here to provide nutrition counseling, lead classes in healthy cooking and meal planning, and share helpful nutrition tips that can improve your overall health. If you’re struggling to meet your fitness goals, or you just want to start eating better, learn more about the Y’s nutrition programs, and look for regular YMCA emails on Healthy Eating at the Y.