Stressful jobs, training, hectic schedules, kids, family, social engagements, you name it – there are endless factors that can interfere with feeding our body the types and amounts of food it needs to reach your goals. These stressors and the lack of conscious attention to what we put in our mouths are being shown in research over and over again to be large contributors to chronic overconsumption. With a little awareness, we can all improve our eating habits, get greater satisfaction from food, and start using food to satisfy physical hunger, rather than mental hunger. Whether you’re training for sports performance, trying to lose some body fat or simply increase your energy levels, mindful eating can benefit your body composition, stress, energy, and overall relationship with food and nutrition.
Before habits like cleaning their plates, eating all their veggies and using sweets as rewards are ingrained in them, babies effortlessly eat just what their body needs. They let us know when they are hungry and refuse more food when they’ve had enough. Our bodies are so smart! Even as adults, our bodies still tell us when we’re low on energy and it’s time to eat. If we eat slowly enough, our body will also tell us when it’s time to stop based on signals that are sent to our brain from our stomach. Mindful eating helps us stop ignoring these natural signals and instead use them to guide our eating behaviors.
Start eating more mindfully simply by using the hunger scale to get in touch with your hunger levels. Whenever you’re thinking about eating, pause and rate your hunger on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is starving - ready to eat anything and everything in sight, and 10 is Thanksgiving full - possibly physically ill you’ve eaten so much. The goal is to avoid getting too hungry or too full. Another way to think of this like the gas tank in your car. When you get below a ¼ tank, you should start looking for gas stations and know it’s time to fuel up, but when you have a full tank, there’s no need to think about gassing up for quite a while.
The point of using the hunger scale and paying attention to your body’s signals is to stop the conditioned, automatic response to put fork to mouth because “lunchtime is at noon”, I went for a run today so I need to eat more”, “others around me are eating/drinking”, or “I’m so stressed, chocolate/ice cream/(insert any comfort food here) would make me feel better”. Instead, take a few deep breaths, pause and connect with your body before acting on your impulse to eat. Rather than eating by the clock, based on your environment or some arbitrary schedule, make mealtime whenever your body tells you you’re hungry.
Most of us have tried some type of diet that encourages calorie counting, pre-determined timed meals or food restrictions. How has that worked for you? Did it help you reach your goals and maintain them for the long run? If so, great! If you’re looking for a more intuitive, long-term solution, give mindful eating a try!
Here’s how in 3 easy steps:
Step 1: Wait to eat until your body gives you the green light
- Aim to be about a 3 out of 10 on the hunger scale
- Look for signs like a grumbling, empty stomach, possible low energy, or headache
- If you’re not getting these signs from your body, check in with your stomach about 4-5 hours after your last meal to see where you are on that hunger scale.
- Tip: Unless you’re performing 90+ minutes of vigorous exercise or have specific physique goals, there is no need to supplement with extra food. A normal meal a couple hours before or after a workout (or whenever you feel physical hunger) is all you need!
Step 2: Sit down and slow down at meals
- Take the time to put your food on a plate and sit down at a table to eat rather than eating while standing or on-the-go
- Put your fork down between bites, chew your food completely before swallowing and savor the taste, texture and flavors in your food.
- Tip: Putting down the iPhone or closing the laptop helps with this!
Step 3: Check in often
- Every couple of bites, check in with your stomach and hunger levels. Are you still hungry? Do you need another bite, or is your hunger already satisfied – about a 7 or 8 on the hunger scale?
- Tip: Don’t be afraid to save leftovers for later – if you’re satisfied before you finish your whole meal, honor your body’s needs and don’t overfeed it just to clean your plate.