How to eat

A growing body of evidence is suggesting that many of us need to re-learn how we eat. Specifically, we need to learn how to eat in a mindful way. The essence of mindfulness is paying attention to present moment without judgement or criticism. In order to do this meaningfully, you often have to take a thought or an action which has become so commonplace that you hardly notice it anymore and imagine you are experiencing it for the first time. Sometimes this is called deautomization, because it involves unravelling an unconscious, automatic response.

For example, tying your shoelaces, brushing your teeth, taking a sip of coffee, thinking through your day, getting into the car or onto a bus - these are all likely to be so familiar that they are in some ways automatic and are carried out without any need to pay purposeful attention. In fact, it's necessary that we automatise everyday experience, because to approach everything as though it were completely novel would be completely overwhelming.

But there are also problems with this process. Firstly, it can mean that we allow lots of our lived experience to slip past unnoticed, and that's just a shame as our lives are a relatively short gift and we need to make the most of them. Secondly, it can mean that we slip into dysfunctional behaviours or thoughts, without even noticing what we're doing in real time.

It's usually the second of these problems that leads to people seeking out mindfulness-based interventions, because they help to highlight and undo the automatic responses we have fallen into. That, in turn, can lead to greater cognitive, emotional and behavioural flexibility, because you can't make choices about an action that you carry out automatically.

What do you find when you unravelling automatic eating?

What you find is that drivers which motivate us to eat fall into three groups:

  1. Physical - internal cues, feeling hungry and a growling stomach

  2. Emotional - eating due to depression, boredom, or other emotional states

  3. Environmental - triggered by something in the immediate surrounding, such as the smell of fresh bread as you walk past a bakery

Just being aware of these different drivers of eating behaviour is the first step in mindful eating.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who focus more on the physical - who eat in response to hunger and satiety signals - are more likely to have lower BMI. So one of the things mindful eating training can do is help people to become more aware of these internal cues. But, if it's to be successful, mindful eating must also help people become aware of the emotional and environmental cues which drive eating. This may be especially important for certain groups of people as there there are cultural / sex differences in these motivations. For example, women in the USA are more likely to eat for emotional reasons, while women in Japan are more likely to eat for physical or environmental reasons.

Before you eat

So, mindful eating might involve paying attention to a desire to eat and, rather than going into automatic gear, you would learn to:

  • Pay attention to the physical - what is your body telling you? Is it hungry? Is it thirsty? Is it tired? Are the muscles tense or relaxed? If there is hunger there, exactly what kind of food is your body craving? Try to get hold of exactly what it's craving and then savour every moment of eating that thing, without guilt.

  • Pay attention to the emotional - is it really food that you are desiring? Would a phone conversation with a friend, or reading a book, or a walk, or even doing almost nothing, satisfy the desire you're feeling more effectively than food?

  • Pay attention to the environment - are you eating something because you have been taught you must 'clean your plate'? or because you've been told that this food is 'good for you'? or even because you've been told that this food is bad for you and it's become a guilty pleasure? Can you reduce the portion size to make it less likely that you will feel pressured to eat everything on your plate regardless of feeling full?

Most importantly of all, mindfulness teaches that these considerations should be undertaken without guilt and judgement, without angst. Not easy, but learn-able.

While you eat

Once you have made the decision to eat something, then the fun really begins. This is the point at which you examine the food as if it is the first time you have ever seen such things. You engage all your senses to truly appreciate the food - the taste, the appearance, the sounds, smells, and textures, as well as the preparation of this food by the cook (which might be you!) but also all the producers - the farmers and deliverers, the packagers and shelf-stackers. To get all this in, you have to eat slowly and with purpose - you have to look, and chew, and listen, and - most of all - enjoy.