The primary role of food in young children’s lives is one of sustenance. Young children tend to eat when they’re hungry and push away food when they’re full. Food is a source of nourishment and joy, one of the many joyful things life has to offer.
This role can change as children grow, depending on the messages received. Some children may be told to finish everything on their plate even if they’re full, a lesson telling them they can’t waste food. Parents may restrict eating due to what they perceive is a weight problem for their children. These children may grow up feeling shame for eating, resulting in binge behaviors or eating in secret. Children may witness unhealthy habits, eating only processed foods or having a lack of structure around eating. This can result in making poor food choices throughout their lives or a lack of moderation with eating.
With all these messages given through time, it can destroy healthy definitions of what food means in a person’s life, clouding perceptions of food’s role. What was once a carefree, enjoyable experience with food eventually turns into an unhealthy cycle of overindulgence, guilt, and a loss of control.
Think about some of the messages you received growing up surrounding food. Were you forced to sit at the dinner table until you finished everything on your plate? Were you not allowed to have sweets, soda, or other snacks? Or perhaps you never learned ways to find joy other than through the act of eating? All of these experiences shape your relationship with food as an adult. Understanding these messages can help you recognize reasons behind your behavioral patterns surrounding food.
Mindful eating is one way to build a joyful relationship with food once again. The concept of mindfulness is sometimes misunderstood. It isn’t about doing one thing at a time, although it’s beneficial to practice this in the beginning as you’re learning. You can have a meal, do nothing else and still be disengaged if your mind is preoccupied with other thoughts.
Mindful eating is about being fully present with your meal and the act of eating. This doesn’t necessarily guarantee you will lose weight, although many people find they lose some weight when they practice this.
Mindful eating isn’t about dieting. It’s about developing a healthy relationship with food, a relationship that doesn’t abuse food or view it as an enemy that requires restriction. Mindfulness is a skill and with regular practice you get better at it.
Have you ever walked to the kitchen, opened the fridge, and looked for something without knowing what you’re looking for? When you catch yourself doing this, stop and take a few minutes to check in with yourself. What are you trying to satisfy?
Before eating, check in with your thoughts: What are you thinking about? Did something happen today? Check in with your emotions: what are you feeling right now? Are you worried about something? Check in with your body: what are the sensations you feel? What does your stomach feel like? Is it growling, and if so, is this due to hunger or are you just digesting food?
Here are some tips to help you practice the skill of mindful eating:
- Assess your level of hunger.
Before you start to eat, sit for a moment and assess your level of hunger. What are indicators you use to determine this? Is it physical sensations? Your emotional state? The time of day? How do you know you are truly hungry and not just following an old, negative pattern?
- Eat slowly.
Make it a point to eat slowly. Many people have a habit of racing through their meal in order to go on to their next activity. This doesn’t make the experience of eating enjoyable and it certainly doesn’t allow your body time to register that you’ve eaten too much. By eating slowly, you allow your brain enough time to determine if you have had enough food to satisfy your hunger. This also allows you time to savor your meal.
- Engage your senses in the experience of the meal.
Take a bite, put your fork down, and pay attention to how you respond to your food. What does the food look like? Look at the colors, textures, shapes on your plate. What does the food smell like? What does the food taste like? Do you notice many different flavors or only a few? What is the texture like as you chew? With each bite, do the same thing. This adds to the enjoyment of your meal when you take time to engage your senses.
- Eat in silence.
This may mean sitting at the table with no phone, tablet, or TV to distract you. This task can probably be the most difficult, so try to eat at least the first five minutes of your meal in silence. The fewer distractions you have around you, the more you can pay attention to your meal, taking time to enjoy it. You also can pay attention to the sensations you feel and recognize the signals that indicate you are satiated.
These few simple steps can help you begin working toward mindful eating and reduce the feelings of shame or guilt you’ve learned to associate with food. Practicing this regularly can bring new, healthier meanings to food, help you regain your sense of control and reestablish the joyful experience of eating.
Bays, J.C. (2009). Mindful eating: A guide to rediscovering a healthy and joyful relationship with food. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Somov, P.G. (2008). Eating the moment: 141 mindful practices to overcome eating one meal at a time. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
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