For many of us, the coronavirus pandemic may be the most anxiety-provoking event in our lives to date. So, given the awfulness we’re experiencing, you may be wondering: Why in the world are we talking about eating? Here’s why…

Mindful eating involves exploring all your senses, really being aware of what’s happening in the moment. When you’re focused on now, your mind isn’t running off in all directions, worrying nonstop and imagining worst-case scenarios.

In fact, research shows mindfulness can help you counter distractions, so you enjoy your meals more. Best of all, the benefits of mindful eating can carry over into other areas of your life. It even helps with anxiety and depression.

We spoke with Jennifer Anderson, registered dietitian at Novant Health Heart and Vascular Institute in Charlotte, who explained how to reap the benefits of eating mindfully.

When emotions or boredom take over

Logan Jennifer Anderson head shot
Jennifer Anderson

To understand mindful eating, Anderson said, it can be helpful to first define mindless eating.

Some common examples: late-night snacking in front of the TV, devouring lunch on autopilot while working at your desk or going through a pint of ice cream because you’re stressed out.

“When you’re distracted,” she explained, “it’s all-too-easy to disengage and lose awareness of your food, which often leads to overeating.”

Using food to relieve stress, boredom and other strong feelings is called emotional eating. And, these days, due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis, we’re feeling all the emotions. Unfortunately, this can lead to less-than-healthy cravings and poor food decisions.

Turning to food for comfort is a normal human response, Anderson said. But, to improve our health and stay well, it’s essential to be aware of these mindless eating patterns.

How mindful eating helps

Based on the idea of mindfulness — a Buddhist concept that inspired researchers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) — the practice of mindful eating includes:

  • Tuning in to your body before, during and after a meal
  • Focusing your attention on your meal
  • Savoring every bite
  • Learning to understand and address emotional cravings
  • Recognizing external triggers (sights, smells) that cause between-meal cravings

While this is not a weight-loss plan, many who adopt the practice find they lose some weight naturally. One reason, Anderson said, is that tuning in to hunger, appreciating your food and thoroughly chewing every bite gives our bodies time to feel satisfied.

Another plus: When you really taste your food, you may enjoy the flavors so much that you reach for unhealthy seasonings like salt, sugar or butter less often.

How to practice mindful eating

The key to mindful eating is eliminating distractions. Before your meal, turn off the TV and put away your reading material and cellphone. Sit quietly and take a few deep breaths.

Then follow these five steps:

  1. Check in with yourself: How hungry are you? What emotions do you notice? If you’re not physically hungry, think of how you could address the emotions behind your craving. Tired? A nap might be more helpful than a snack. Feeling anxious? Try going for a walk or journaling.
  1. Look at your food: Take a moment to reflect on your meal. Where was it grown? Who packaged it? What steps were involved in preparing it? Notice the colors, textures and aromas.
  1. Take one bite: Notice how your arm, hand and mouth work together. Take a single bite, and hold it in your mouth. How would you describe it? Then chew your food well, paying close attention to textures and flavors.
  1. Pay attention to your body: After a few bites, stop and focus on how your body feels. Have you had enough, or do you need more? Do you enjoy this food? If you’re still hungry, continue eating, pausing like this every few bites.
  1. Stop when you’re satisfied: When you are no longer hungry, stop eating. Not sure? To clear up confusion, Anderson asks clients to rate their hunger on a 1 - 10 scale (1 = ravenous, 10 = absolutely stuffed). “By staying between four and six on the hunger scale,” she said, “we can strike a better balance between nourishing our bodies and feeling satisfied.”

Helpful tips and tricks

Eating this slowly all the time is not a realistic goal. However, Anderson offered a few more tips to help you stay mindful during any meal:

  • Put your fork down between bites. Feel the urge to scoop up another mouthful before you’ve swallowed? Noticing this urge can help you avoid mindless eating.
  • Eat with chopsticks or your nondominant hand. This will slightly disorient you, slow your eating, and keep you engaged in what you’re doing so you stay focused on the experience of eating.
  • Set a timer for 20 minutes. Making your meals stretch to fill that time allows your body to catch up and sense you’ve eaten enough.
  • Box it up. “Most restaurant foods are loaded with salt, fat and sugar, which our taste buds love” Anderson said. “This often leads us to eat too much, and makes it harder to stop when we’re satisfied.” So, next time you dine out or pick up takeout, put half your meal in a to-go box before you eat.
  • Think practice, not perfection. Like meditation or yoga, mindful eating is a practice. Start with one meal a day. When the process feels more natural, try it with your other meals and snacks.

The real beauty of this process is how self-awareness about eating can translate into other aspects of your life. Increasingly, you could find yourself savoring non-food-related experiences, like listening to music or going for a family bike ride. That ability — to truly enjoy life and be present for those around you — may be the best gift of all.

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