Take a moment and think about the last meal you ate. What foods were involved? What spices? What was the texture of the food in your mouth as you first began to chew it, and how did it change the longer it stayed in your mouth?
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What about the flavor? Did you notice any subtle notes blossoming on your tongue as you chewed? How did it feel and taste on the front of your tongue? On the back? Between your teeth? Exactly when did you notice you were full?
If you have no idea of the answer to these questions, you’re not alone and that may be a problem. Mindless eating, simply shoveling food into our mouths while barely tasting it, may be at the center of Americans’ struggles with weight.
According to Harvard Medical School, eating quickly without focusing on your meal can lead to overeating and weight gain. As you eat, your stomach fills up and sends signals to the brain that it’s stretching out and needs to stop. You also get hormonal signals as the food enters your small intestine. This usually takes about twenty minutes, so if you eat enough to sate your appetite in fifteen, you may overeat for the next five minutes before realizing you’re full. However, there’s something you can do beyond trying your darnedest to eat slowly. A Buddhist practice called “mindful eating,” which encourages paying close attention to every minute detail of your meal, may help you eat less while enjoying what you eat a whole lot more.
Take Note Of Your Feelings
The first step of mindful eating is to be mindful of your own feelings. Before you eat, ask yourself if you’re actually hungry. The most obvious problem here is with stress or comfort eating, knowing that you’re craving chocolate ice cream without noticing that it’s because you’re worried rather than because you’re hungry. However, habit can also fuel mindless eating. If you feel like you should have a snack because you always have a snack at three o’clock, you might reach for that granola bar without noticing that you’re still pretty full from lunch.
Remove as many distractions as possible while you eat. Turn off the TV, leave your book closed and keep your smartphone away from your plate. Sit at the table rather than eating in the car. You may even want to eat alone, if possible, so you aren’t getting distracted by gossip.
Take small bites and chew them slowly. Marvel at each unique and delicious texture in the bite you’re eating, how it feels on your tongue, between your teeth, at the sides of your mouth. Note the way the flavors play against each other. Savor the smell and admire the beauty of the food. Marvel at how much had to happen for this food to come to your table. Think about the people who farmed the tomatoes in your pizza, the sunlight and rain that allowed them to grow, the truckers who drove them from California to your local grocery store.
Keep Monitoring Your Feelings
As you eat, keep checking in on your feelings just as you did before you ate. After every bite, ask yourself if you’re still hungry. You should stop eating when you feel pleasantly sated, not hungry or stuffed. You should also take note of whether you’re craving something entirely different from what you’re eating. You may make it halfway through your French fries before realizing that you’ve had enough grease and would like something light and sweet, like an apple.
Help Yourself Slow Down
If you find yourself getting bored with mindful eating after five minutes and plowing through the rest of your meal, try some tricks to help you slow down. Set a timer for twenty minutes so you’ll know when your body should feel full; if you’re still hungry when the timer goes off, you know that you haven’t been overeating. Try using chopsticks, or holding your fork in your left hand if you’re right-handed.
If you go in with the wrong mentality, mindful eating can get very boring very fast. If you find that you’re actively dreading meals because you want to think about something other than food, start small. Eat mindfully for the first five minutes, then allow your mind to wander for another five minutes before checking in and taking note of your feelings again. Practice mindful eating for one meal a day, preferably the one where you know you’re most likely to binge, and not the others. Mindful eating should be a celebration of food, not a chore.