How to set up a daily mindful eating practice | Anna Oliver

In my previous post I described why Mindful Eating teaches you to change your eating patterns step by step by tapping into your innate abilities to reconnect you with your bellies, taste buds, emotions, and treating yourself with compassion and kindness.

Many people who struggle with food react mindlessly to their unrecognised or unexamined triggers, thoughts, and feelings. In other words, they re-act-repeating past actions again and again-feeling powerless to change. Mindfulness increases your awareness of these patterns without judgment and creates space between your triggers and your actions.

Here’s a mindful-eating technique to use when you want a snack. It could be late afternoon, when you’re tired, hungry, and perhaps have had a stressful day, or anytime you end up eating mindlessly. Use this approach at a snack time that occurs regularly and when you are alone, so you can fully focus on your experiences. Don’t worry too much if there are sounds that are out of your control; you can build these into the exercise.

1. Stop for a moment and bring your awareness to your breath. Slow down by taking two or three deeper breaths, just to allow the body and mind to settle. You can close your eyes if you want. Tune your awareness into what is leading you to want to eat. Are you physically hungry? How hungry? How do you know that? Or are you just stressed—or bored—or perhaps you just got home and saw a packet of biscuits left out on the counter? There might be several triggers to your urge. Simply notice what they are. If you are physically hungry, give yourself full permission to have a snack.

By asking yourself the question, “Am I hungry?”, you are able to observe your thoughts and choose how you will respond. Instead of reacting mindlessly, mindfulness gives you response-ability. That is how mindful eating empowers you to finally break old automatic or habitual chain reactions and discover options that work better for you.

2. Choose your snack mindfully. Consider what is calling you. What would be satisfying? What would you enjoy? Do you want something sweet, something crispy, something savoury? Are the biscuits still calling you? Or do you really want some gourmet chocolate? What would be a wise choice for satisfaction and for health?  Let go of the ‘food police’ mentality.  You might find that a small amount of gourmet chocolate is far more satisfying than half a packet of biscuits.

3. Use outer wisdom to consider how much to eat. Consider your natural physical hunger signals. What are they?  How strong are they at that moment?  How do you know?  Or perhaps you’re confusing physical hunger with an impulse to eat because the food is there, or because you’re bored or anxious about something.  How much you would feel comfortable with?

Consider the nutritional and ‘energy’ value (aka ‘calories’) of foods you regularly eat (and in the amounts you prefer).  Instead of being afraid and anxious about checking on ‘calories’, cultivate a self-accepting curiosity.  You might be surprised – foods you thought of as ‘fattening’ may be fine in small amounts, whereas some of those ‘healthier’ foods may add up quickly – like the bowl of granola, or that small bag of trail mix which actually contains “3 servings”.

Become mindful of when your stomach is full at just the right level – that may be less if you’re about to go exercise, or more at a family celebration. And learn to tune into ‘body satiety’ – that feedback from your body that it’s taking in enough nutrients, but this may take some time while food is being digested, so it’s not as useful for knowing when to stop eating.

4. Combine with inner wisdom. Savour the food, eating it slowly and without doing anything else. What is the taste, the texture, the temperature?  Pay attention to the signals your mouth and taste buds are sending you. You’ll be surprised how satisfied you maybe from a smaller amount of food, both because you are fully paying attention and because you are giving yourself permission to enjoy this small amount of food.  In addition to the physical senses, notice how the mind responds to the food. For example, is the food met with pleasure or displeasure in your mind? Is there acceptance of the food as it is, or maybe some resistance to certain aspects of it? Perhaps it’s too hot, too cold, too sweet or too sour. Notice how the mind rushes to judge the food and to make comparisons with previous meals or other possibilities.

Once you’ve taken a few mouthfuls, you may find that the mind starts to get bored of the exercise and will wander off into thinking about something else. This is quite normal and nothing to worry about. So, in just the same way as before, as soon as you realise it’s wandered off, gently bring your attention back to the process of eating, and the different tastes, smells, textures, sights and sounds.

As you continue to eat your snack in this way, you can start to notice whether there’s a strong habitual urge to eat more quickly. Or maybe there are feelings of unease about what you’re eating. If it’s an especially big snack, you may even notice the desire to consume gradually decreasing as the stomach becomes full and you become more aware of these sensations. As much as possible, simply observe these different thoughts and feelings (acting on them when appropriate) and, if you can, notice how the breath appears. The breath may give you some indication of how comfortable or uncomfortable the process of eating is for you.

Before jumping up to get on with the next thing you have planned, try staying seated for a moment or two. This is an opportunity for you to take that sense of being present to the next part of your day. It’s an opportunity to realise that the thoughts, feelings and physical sensations that were present before eating have now moved on. In time, this awareness of change can help the mind to feel more spacious and at ease.

5. Be flexible. Be curious and self-accepting. As you become more more experienced at eating mindfully you may want to ask yourself are – When do you usually feel like eating? When do you often think about eating? When do you decide to eat? How do you normally eat?  Why do you eat?  Or in other words, what is driving your eating at any given time?

When you are ready bring these practices to other snack times, then gradually into meal times. Explore how the quality of your experiences of food and eating shift when you bring a mindful, accepting, and open awareness to them.

Understanding your personal eating pattern is a powerful first step towards solving any eating issues.