20 December 2011

6 steps to truly mindful eating

Regardless of the time of year, I often find myself inhaling my food. When I'm at home, I'm in a hurry to get on with some chore that needs doing, or a relaxing activity that I'm excited about pursuing. When I'm at work, I'm shoving food into my mouth while working at my desk, or participating in a meeting. When out to dinner with friends or my husband, I'm often so busy socializing that my plate seems to go from full to empty without me having any recollection of having eaten what was on it.

Over the past couple months, I've realized that this kind of mindless eating is the cause of many physical and emotional discomforts. For me, overeating is often a precursor to poor sleep (especially when I eat too much too late). Eating too fast causes my stomach to balloon out, and is accompanied with unpleasant sensations like indigestion, bloating, and occasionally, painful gas. Eating foods that don't sustain my body with proper energy leave me feeling empty, shaky, and tired. Not only do I end up physically miserable, but my mental and emotional states are impacted as well. Sometimes I feel fat because of the bloat, end up chastising myself for overdoing it, or just generally feel bad about failing to really enjoy my food. Also, when I really pay attention, I notice that some foods can even make me feel anxious!

During the holidays, I think mindless eating becomes even more problematic because there's so much more food around. Often, this "celebratory food" consists of cookies, cakes, and other tasty and tempting treats I often regret eating once the new year rolls around. Instead of setting arbitrary limitations about how much (or what kind of) food to eat, I decided to focus on becoming more mindful when I am eating.

This morning while eating my breakfast, I came up with a 6-step method that helped me employ more of my senses and really savor the food. I thought I would share this for anyone else who wanted to try and eat more mindfully during the holidays, or at any time during the year.

Before You Begin
Set up your environment so that it's calm and free of other distractions, so you can really focus on practicing this technique. Sit down at a real table, turn off the TV, move mobile devices like phones and tablets out of reach, and put away those books or magazines. Try doing this alone at first too--having other people around can also be distracting. Over time, you may be able to reintroduce small "multitasking" elements back in, but first you need to make these steps part of your conscious awareness.

At minimum, take a few deep breaths. You may want to set an intention for yourself about eating more mindfully, or offer up some gratitude for the sustenance that's available to you (or to the person / people responsible for its availability and preparation).

Start by looking at and really taking in what's on the plate. What are the colors and textures of the food? How is it arranged? What are your thoughts and feelings about the presentation? Does it look like a lot, or a little? How hungry do you feel at this time? How are you feeling in general?

Using the 6 Steps
Now, repeat this sequence of steps for each forkful or spoonful of food you take:
  1. See - As you put some of the food onto your fork or spoon, really look at it. How much food fits easily into the utensil? (I often find myself piling more onto the utensil than it can really handle.) Do you have a mixture of items from the plate, or did you take one item? How did you decide which item to select?
  2. Smell - As you raise the food to your lips, inhale and take it in. What does it smell like? Does it smell good, just OK, or not so good? Can you predict how it will taste based on how it smells?
  3. Bite - Put the food into your mouth. How does it feel sliding off the fork? How does this initial bite make you feel? Was the first impression what you expected?
  4. Chew and Taste - Really chew the food in your mouth until it's easy to swallow. Pay attention to how the taste changes as the temperature and consistency of the food changes with your chewing. (Some people find that counting to 20 or 30 helps them chew their food more. Because I sometimes find myself swallowing my food whole, I repeat "chew and taste" to myself like a mantra.)
  5. Swallow - Swallow only when the food has really disintegrated. Do you find yourself wanting to swallow sooner? Notice if you hold your breath here, like I sometimes do. Also notice whether you've already put more food onto your fork or spoon before swallowing the bite you were working on!
  6. Breathe - Take another deep breath. Notice any physical reactions in your body, such as your stomach rumbling. (Personally I find that toward the end of a meal, my chest gets tight because I feel like I should hurry up and finish.) Also pay attention to any feelings that come up for you. For example, does the taste of the food take you back to some other point in your life? Do you feel good about your selection?
Being Compassionate
This is intentionally a very precise, methodical way of eating and if you're like most people, you'll find it really difficult to do. Please be patient compassionate with yourself as you explore and increase your ability to eat more mindfully. Like any other meditative practice, if you find yourself drifting off, simply notice that you did (without judgement), and pick up with whatever step makes sense at the point at which you remembered.


  1. I just wanted to share an experience I had this morning. I've naturally been trying to follow my own advice, and I know how hard it is to do this. The step I have most difficulty with is probably the most important one: breathe.

    This morning (like most), I meditated and did a short yoga flow. After running for a bit at the gym, I noticed that when I sat down to breakfast, I wasn't feeling all that hungry. What's more, I was breathing full belly breaths! (As someone who's mostly a chest breather this was amazing to me, since I wasn't actively thinking about, or forcing the breath in any way.) I was able to observe and gently retain that belly breath throughout the meal, and ended up putting away the last 1/4 of my plate because I was full.

    I'm proud of myself and even more convinced than ever in the power of the breath to help me become an even better person each and every day.

    I hope that like me, you are trying to be compassionate and patient with yourself as you implement this technique. And, I'd love to hear about your experience. Remember, no success is too small to share and celebrate!

  2. Another related, potentially useful article on the topic: Mindful Eating as Food for Thought.