Practicing Mindfulness at the Table

Improve eating habits and overall health by applying the practice of mindfulness to your meals.

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Use the practice of mindfulness to slow down and enjoy the food you eat.

Photo by iStock; Xsandra

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By now, just about everyone has heard of the benefits of mindfulness. Whether through a specific meditation program or simply being more aware of the moment, mindfulness encourages us to live in the present and be less judgmental about our thoughts and feelings. Being more present and less judgmental are also qualities that can be useful in healthful eating: Shame, guilt and self-worth are a few of the complex emotions many people associate with body image and disordered eating of all kinds.

Although research on the topic of mindful eating is limited, psychologist Shawn Katterman and a team of colleagues reviewed the best research to date on its effectiveness and found it useful in a few important ways. One is in reducing binge eating, a type of disordered eating defined as eating unusually large amounts of food in a specific amount of time, such as over a two-hour period, often in a way that feels out of control. All seven of the studies on mindfulness-based interventions for binge eating found significant reductions, with researchers concluding that mindfulness may be a powerful tool regardless of diagnosis. Mindfulness also appears useful in reducing emotional eating — eating to satisfy emotional needs rather than physical hunger. And finally, although results on weight loss are mixed, it appears mindfulness can be a useful tool in weight loss, especially when combined with nutrition education, standard psychotherapy techniques or both. Note: Mindfulness should never be used as a stand-alone treatment for any type of eating disorder. If you suffer from an eating disorder, always seek professional medical guidance.

So, how do we practice mindful eating? The first step is to be fully present when we eat — focus solely on your food away from distractions such as TV or social media.

Mindful eating is not a diet or a method to cut calories. “We work with the senses and the body’s wisdom,” says Char Wilkins, a mindfulness-based psychotherapist who founded the Center for Mindful Living. “We do not support calorie-counting, deprivation, regimented exercise programs, or weight gain or loss control measures.”

Try this experiment from dietitian Megrette Fletcher, author of Discover Mindful Eating: Give your full attention to your food by taking three deep breaths. For the first breath, inhale the scent. Exhale any tension or stress. For the second breath, inhale, knowing the feeling of hunger will pass. Exhale your worries. Now smile. It’s good to remember hunger is temporary. For the third breath, inhale the present moment. Exhale thoughts of tasks, projects and deadlines. Tell yourself, “I can choose to relax and enjoy eating.” Pause. Then let your eyes feast on the food. Even if it’s just a cracker, celebrate what you will be eating.

Now, tune in to feelings such as stress, frustration or anxiety. Feelings can overwhelm the taste of food. If this is happening, pause with another deep breath. Consider the delight, curiosity, contentment and anticipation that surround eating a meal. Attempt to flavor your meal with these thoughts, making it more enjoyable.

Finally, taste the bite directly. Notice everything and anything you can about the food in your mouth. Pause and let yourself fully take in the experience. Is eating this bite pleasant, neutral or unpleasant? Ask yourself, “What can I do to make eating more enjoyable?”

“Mindfulness opens the mind to see opportunity and choice,” Fletcher says. “For many, this is the best flavor of all.”

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