6 Guidelines for Mindful Eating

The holiday season in the US is a season of feasting.  We simultaneously feel entitled to eat more cookies in December than we ate during the entire year while also feeling guilty for our overindulgence, which inevitably leads to the surge of gym memberships come January.  

This complex winter holiday pattern isn’t solely a cultural manifestation.  We are dealing with inherited biological urges to store fat in the winter and survive in a feast or famine mode.  We attack these biological imprints with a multi-billion dollar dieting and fitness industry.  But Jan Chozen Bays, author of Mindful Eating, attacks our biological conditioning with utter awareness. 

Mindful eating offers a refreshing perspective that our approach to health and fitness does not need to come from any fancy or bullet proof dieting program found outside of ourselves. If we approach eating with our eyes wide open, we will see that we have the power to control our own healthy eating habits. 

Mindful eating is practical in the sense that we begin to notice our habits, conditioning and emotions that trigger us to eat.  But it also transcends practicality to offer us a way of eating that is more joyful and authentic with awareness techniques that can trickle into other aspects of our lives. 

Just like anything else, it takes time to get used to paying attention to when, what and why we eat. But if you are looking for a way to feel more joy and less anxiety and guilt around food, and if you’re ready to trust yourself to be in charge of your own eating life, then let’s get started with these six guidelines for mindful eating.

1. Slow it down

The rise of the popular Instant Pot, symbolizes American dining at its core.  We don’t like to spend time cooking or , and we approach meals as something to get through as quickly as possible, preferably while multitasking.  I too have succumbed to 30-minute meals and the occasional heated up freezer food. And, when I do dedicate my time to a homemade meal, just to see it devoured in seven minutes flat, it can be a little soul crushing.  

Bays advises us to slow down.  We can start by simply taking the time to notice the food on our plate and appreciate the smells coming from our food. This is the practice of pausing.  We can pause and say grace, remembering the plants, animals and people who helped bring this food to our plates. We can pause throughout our meal checking in with our hunger and bringing our awareness back to our eating, taking the time to enjoy the tastes and textures of our food. 

There’s an intelligence to eating slowly.  First, if we eat slowly, nutrients are absorbed early, in the mouth.  Second, chemical signals of satisfaction occur earlier.  If we eat slowly we allow food time to reach the small intestine and trigger the “OK, I’m full” signal before we’ve eaten too much.  

A couple other tips to help us slow down are:

Chew more:   Chewing helps us feel fuller sooner, and it is satisfying.  Have you ever seen a nature show where the bear swallows the fish whole?  How unsatisfying, right? Bays, a physician, noticed when people were able to eat only liquid after a surgery, they always lost weight because they got bored of only swallowing their food.  Chewing is what brings us pleasure in eating. The more we chew, the more content we feel when we have finished our food.   Bays recommends trying to chew each bite 32 chews or until it’s completely lost its flavor. 

Put down the fork:  Simply putting the fork down for a moment can trigger a reminder to slow down and check in.  I notice that I feel more relaxed when I set my fork down to take a break from eating and it helps me engage in conversation at the dinner table. I always admired the Italians’ ability to eat for hours, and a big part of this longer meals equation is the art of conversation. Manners 101 is don’t talk with your mouth full, so when we put the fork down, we can talk and extend this joyful part of our day.

2. Right Amount 

I like how Bays frames mindful portion sizes around the ethical decision to eat our fair share of food versus eating more than we deserve. This is a different spin on the usual focus of eating less to lose weight that I found helpful.  When I  begin to overfill my plate, or go back for seconds, I can choose to be mindful of the number of animals that die to feed me every year, or of the toll on the environment that comes from massive livestock production, or simply my attitude of entitlement to eat large portions when people are hungry in my own community and around the world.

“I saw that mindful eating is ethical action. It is an ethical action toward our self, toward all the beings who bring us our food, and toward all those who are hungry in the rest of the world. A country that consumes more than its fair share of food is composed of people who are ignorant of the suffering that results when we are not aware of “right amount”.”

It helps me to expand the focus of eating smaller portions out of my small and petty desire to be thinner into the greater understanding that food intake is an ethical choice between greediness and moderation. Another way I can eat the right amount is by being mindful of the 7 types of hunger and understanding that my five senses need to be fed along with my stomach. 

3. Energy Equation

“Food is energy.  It is actually sunlight, which is converted into plants and then into animals.  When we eat, we are taking in the energy of the sunlight.  When we live our lives, we are releasing and spending that energy. “

I love the thought that we are eating sunshine!  

I didn’t find the energy equation step to be terribly helpful.  It seemed like the same old reiteration of calories in versus calories out.  Bays, however, is a physician, so for her, this common sense understanding about energy needs is critical to a mindful eating lifestyle.  She gives an example of how a young man who shovels snow all morning is entitled to more calories than a middle aged person who has been sitting around all morning. We cannot continue to eat like we are young and active our entire lives. 

She encourages ways to get more steps and activities into our daily lives, so we can enjoy a cookie or cup of hot cocoa without upsetting our energy equation.  Now there are thousands of websites, books and programs for diet and exercise strategies, so I’m not going to list her “park further away from the grocery store” tips here, but it is important to be mindful of how much sunshine you truly need to eat every day and what other reasons you might be wanting to eat that have nothing to do with hunger.

4. Mindful Substitution

Bays emphasizes the importance of actively substituting rather than forcefully resisting our cravings. In the first section of her book she discussed the seven ways we feel hunger.  It’s important to recognize why we’re craving something, and if it’s simply because we see the stale donut in the lunchroom (eye hunger), maybe we can mindfully substitute the donut for something healthier and also fulfilling.

This reminds me of some things I have read about breaking bad habits and how it’s critical to replace the habit we want to change or an addiction we want to quit with something else.  My husband was struggling with his beer-drinking habit every night.  When he decided to quit drinking so often, he switched his nightly beers to cans of sparkling water.  He was still drinking something carbonated every night, so it was easier for him to feel less deprived. 

She ties this mindful substitution to our awareness of our inner voices and the emotional desires for certain-usually sugar, fat and salt-laden, foods.  She details in her book the major influence our emotional landscape and childhood conditioning has on our eating habits and food cravings.

“When we become aware that there are many voices in our minds–some that are needy, restless, and frightened–we should honor and care for these energies and voices, not in a neurotic, self-absorbed way but in a thoughtful and deliberate way a good parent notices and cares for a young child. This doesn’t mean walking out of a tense planning conference at work in order to indulge your “inner child” with an entire Sarah Lee cheesecake eaten in a bathtub full of bubbles.  It might mean hearing the worried voice inside of feeling the first tendrils of tension in the body asking for a short break so you can sip a hot drink or suck on hard candy.”

I’ve never been good at paying attention to my body. I don’t know why I will walk into the kitchen, scouring the cabinets, an hour after eating a filling lunch.  I don’t know why I always want sugar before bed at night.  But the first step is starting to be aware of these conditioned cravings, and then to notice the feelings I’m having that may cause me to self-sooth with food.  When I start to recognize that when I am tired or bored, I want something surgery, then I am making progress.  I can honor those voices who are asking for a sugar boost, and I can mindfully substitute the DairyQueen ice cream cone for some frozen blueberries. 

5. Out of Sight Out of Mind

Bays tells a humorous story about how after  never liking donuts her whole life until eating a Krispy Kreme, she noticed a window open in her mind that told her to “go get a Krispy Kreme!”  She is a Zen meditation teacher, so was able to be objective and half- amused at this new desire for donuts. She noticed that the Krispy Kreme window opened most often when she was anxious, tired or hungry.  But because she didn’t reinforce her desire by running out to get the donut, eventually, it went away.  

Bays believes the practice of out-of-sight out-of-mind works because anything we do not reinforce will lose its strength. It is a principle of conditioning.  If we do not think, speak, or initiate action around something, the force of that thing will eventually wither.

However, to push back on this idea some, the popular Intuitive Eating movement taking place today advises us to fully indulge our desire for that Krispy Kreme.  The thinking here is that only by allowing ourselves to have that “forbidden food” can we truly break its hold on us.  Intuitive eating would say, bring on the chips, the donuts and the ice cream, and eat as much of it as you want.  Eventually, the mind will no longer desire these “naughty” foods so intensely and they will lose their appeal.

I see truth in both of these ideologies.  I agree that I won’t eat the donut or think much about it if I don’t see it, but I also agree that if I stocked my house full of donuts and ate them everyday for a while, eventually I would tire of them and they would lose their “Satan’s food” allure.    

Bays merges these two philosophies with her “chip party” method.  She says when you are really craving something, it’s okay to go ahead and indulge.  But it has to be a mindful experience.  So instead of inhaling a bag of chips on the couch while playing on our phones or watching Netflix, we would instead carefully divvy out a serving of 10-15 chips, and then we would slowly and mindfully eat our handful of chips, savoring each one, making the experience as satisfying as possible. 

I have tried the “chip party”, and although it can be tedious to pay so much attention to my food, it works!  It works in the sense that I feel more satisfied and enjoy my chips more than I would have in my default, mindless, snacking mode. Therefore, I feel less inclined to keep eating.  It’s interesting to notice that we can mindlessly eat an entire bag of chips and still feel less satisfied and “full” than when we sit down to our smaller portion but full awareness eating experience. 

6. Loving Kindness and the Inner Critic

The final mindful eating step is to recognize, “who’s driving the bus”?  Bays encourages us to begin a meditation practice to create some space around our inner voices, so we can identify them more rapidly. She describes the three major voices that are all fighting to get into the driver’s seat of our eating habits, and who often sabotage our healthy eating intentions rather than supporting them:

The Inner Perfectionist

The job of the inner perfectionist is to look around for examples of perfection.  The aim is to achieve the same perceived perfection without truly understanding the truth behind the anorexic friend, the air-brushed model or the 6-hour a day gym addict. 

Inner Pusher

The job of the inner pusher is to boss you around and give you to-do lists. The pusher sets up exercise and diet regimes.  It creates goals and benchmarks to strive towards.  It loves using step counters and food diary apps to constantly go, go going. 

The Inner Critic

Of course the inner critic’s job is to make sure that you know it’s never enough. You’ll never look perfect enough.  You’ll never eat healthy enough.  You’ll never have enough self-control.  You’ll never be mindful enough. 

Bays describe the exasperating inner critic here: 

“Consistency is not in the inner critic’s job description.  Remember, its only job is to criticize,  It will criticize A and not-A equally. It will criticize you for being mindless about eating, and when you try to eat mindfully, it will criticize you for being too uptight and obsessive about eating. The inner critic is flat, one dimensional.  It’s only perspective is, “What can I criticize now.”

The damn inner critic! Mine is so good at its job!

When these three voices take turns driving the bus of our eating habits, it looks something like the perfectionist finding the ideal diet based on perfect-looking people and their eating habits.  The pusher implements the diet by categorizing all the good and bad foods on your new eating regime, downloading helpful apps, and setting up weight loss and fitness goals.  And the critic, really more of a back-seat driver, sits back and criticizes your every thought and action, reminding you of how far from perfect you are and how terrible you’re doing on your new healthy eating lifestyle.

It’s no wonder we have trouble having a good relationship with food and sticking to our healthy eating and exercise plans. 

But Bays gives all of these voices credit:  

“Actually–and at times incredibly–these inner voices are trying to help us.  Without the inner perfectionist we’d never be inspired by another person’s achievements or adopt role models.  Without the inner pusher we’d just lie around all day.  Without the inner critic we’d never notice where we’ve fallen short and need to improve.  These voices carry useful information, but when they become too powerful and neurotic their potential for destruction outweighs their intent to assist us.” 

She suggests truly hearing and honoring these voices within and engaging in an inner conversation.  For example, my inner pusher is revving up for a vacation to sunny California soon.  It is pushing me to cut calories, exercise more and get “bikini ready.”  My response is: I understand that you’re pushing me to look good in a bathing suit and that impossible standards of beauty are causing this anxiety to come forward.  I will never look like a twenty-year-old bikini model, but I can try to stay present in my eating habits, make healthy food choices, and move my body every day so my body feels fit and healthy for my trip.

Bays offers us a loving kindness practice to counter some of the negative inner voices in our heads. Instead of criticising and pushing ourselves to be better, let’s be gentle, loving and kind to ourselves.  Here are some kind affirmations to practice saying to ourselves:

“May my body be free from fear and anxiety.”

“May my body be at ease.”

“May my body be happy.”

And of course it is best to eventually expand our focus away from the small box of “me and my troubles”  and send those loving kindness messages out to others.

“May all the people of the world be at ease.  May they be happy.”

In conclusion, there’s always going to be external programs to implement and diet fads to follow.  But when we stop looking for that magic program outside of ourselves and start paying attention to why and how we eat everyday, we will begin to notice those inner voices, eat our fair share, slow down, and enjoy every bite. Mindful eating isn’t just about healthy eating, it’s also about joyful eating. It’s a way to bring our attention back to the best part of the day, meal time!

Featured image by Arun Vuppala