Sitting down with my daughter after her first day at secondary school, I fired a barrage of questions at her. “Did you make new friends? Were the teachers nice?” She, however, was ravenous and entirely focused on getting herself a sandwich. Nothing fancy you understand: just a piece of cheese wedged between two slices of bread. She looked at me pointedly and said: “Mummy, I’ll tell you all about it in a bit. I just want to enjoy eating this sandwich in quiet. Without any distractions.” So I bit my lip, held my tongue and watched my daughter as she closed her eyes, smiled blissfully and said “Mmmm” as she chewed – and I finally appreciated what it meant to eat mindfully.
Though I’d attended courses, read books and completed exercises on the subject, it took an 11-year-old child to truly show me mindful eating. You see, it’s not something that comes naturally to me; as I write this feature, I’m reminded of the old truism – that we teach what we need to learn. Like many women, I’ve developed the ostensibly (but not really) useful habit of doing several things at once: like eating my lunch while reading, working or scrolling, for instance.
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I’ve been guilty of smugly eating a fabulously healthy diet – while barely noticing it. And I know I’m not alone. Our social media feeds are awash with healthy recipes and there’s no end of focus on the quality of our food. But there’s comparatively little focus on how we eat it – and actually that makes all the difference. How many of us apply our attention to eating slowly, mindfully and with enjoyment? We live in a fast-paced grab-and-go culture where it’s all about eating on the hop – the quicker the better.
Lunch is eaten “al-desko”, glued to our computer screen, or grabbing mouthfuls with one hand on the steering wheel. We’re so used to compressing time that we’ve downgraded eating to something to be squeezed in while we’re doing something else. I see this all too frequently in the women I coach; over-stretched mums who serve everyone else their dinner and then, rather than sitting down, walk around the house with their plate, picking at it while they lay out school uniforms.
Penelope Silver, a holistic practitioner based in Cheshire, and mother of two daughters aged 11 and 13, found she did exactly that. “I used to eat running about or in the car on the way to an after-school class. I’d just shove [the food] down my throat,” she recalls.
Yet there’s a significant cost to mindless eating. When we don’t fully experience our meals, we don’t pay attention to whether we’re hungry or not – or whether we are full or not. Eating while we’re hurried, distracted or anxious means we’re trying to fuel ourselves with our sympathetic (ie fight or flight) nervous system switched on. This makes it more likely our body will store most of it as fat, and we might also bring on indigestion. Plus, the stress hormones affect our blood sugar and insulin levels, meaning that we’re far more likely to crave sugary junk afterwards.
Why mindful eating is good for us
“Since choosing to eat mindfully, I eat much more slowly and I fully engage with the food,” says Penelope. “This has helped my digestion massively – I suffer from gastritis and have to think carefully about what I eat. I’m now conscious of the different colours and textures and discuss with my daughters where the food comes from. It’s changed our whole dynamic of eating together.”
Amanda Ferguson, a teaching assistant from Lancashire whose daughter is now 22, also found that eating mindfully has had a hugely positive impact on her relationship with food. “Food used to be nothing but fuel to me,” she says. “I used to eat on the move on the way home from work or while scrolling on my phone. I never really sat down at the table. Food was always the enemy: I tried every diet going and would take laxatives and starve myself. That all changed after a seven-week mindful eating course which taught me to think about what I was eating and to pause before I ate. That pause made all the difference. I now ask myself: ‘Do I really want that?’
“I sit at the table and make sure it’s cleared of any distractions. I pause in between mouthfuls and I’m now completely focused and present when I eat. I never used to enjoy food but now I’m in heaven just having a simple, freshly prepared salad – I’ll be there, eyes closed, going “Mmmm”. I’m also talking about food much more with my partner – it’s now something positive to be celebrated. I’m so much more organised as well: in the evenings I prepare little glass pots of nutritious food to take to work the next day and feel pretty smug lining them up in the staff room.”
There’s plenty of research to back up the positive changes that Penelope and Amanda are enjoying. A study in the The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (August 2011) showed that longer chewing resulted in fewer calories being consumed and better levels of appetite-regulating hormones that tell our brain when to stop eating. Another study, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (July 2008), showed that eating more slowly decreased food intake and increased feelings of satiety in healthy women. So there’s every reason to train ourselves to eat more mindfully… but where to start changing ingrained habits? Read on to discover a few tips that I’ve found helpful…
8 ways to eat more mindfully
Set the table – and sit down at it!
Standing by the fridge or walking down the road is no way to eat. Clear space so you’re not eating amid clutter, and lay down some cutlery – give food some respect!
Take a few deep breaths first
This will relax and ground you, shifting your nervous system to a resting state, where your body can digest and extract the maximum nutrition from your meal.
You may be hunched forward over a plate – a posture which signals stress to your nervous system. Instead, consciously plant both feet flat on the floor, your backside fully on the seat and your back straight. This will place your tongue and throat directly over your shoulders, giving your food a gravity-friendly path – and you a sense of calm.
Ditch the distractions
That means no TV, radio, mobile phones, computer or magazines/books/newspapers at the table.
Take your time
Slow down. Relaxation plays a critical role in how our bodies digest our food. See if you can put your fork down between bites (it might seem excruciating at first!).
Chew chew chew
Remember that your stomach doesn’t have teeth! Chewing is one of the best ways to maintain a healthy digestive system and we’re recommended to chew each bite at least 50 times. But I’m not convinced it’s helpful to obsess about the number of chews. So here’s a more realistic aim: chew until the food is smooth, mushy and loses all texture before you swallow it.
Enjoy your food
Stop and savour the different aspects of your food: how it looks, its aroma, flavours and texture. Try to bring to mind a feeling of appreciation for your meal – and for all those who pitched in during the process of getting it to you.
Check in with yourself
Take a pause for a few minutes and check in with your body to gauge how full you are.
Main photo by Getty Images/andresr.