How and Why to Eat Mindfully

STACK Expert Kait Fortunato advocates for 'mindful eating'—cultivating full awareness when, why and what you eat.

What I focus on as a registered dietitian is not just what my clients are eating, but also why and how they are eating. Sounds pretty simple: Eat when you're hungry, stop when you're full.

This sounds ideal, but the stresses and demands of modern life have taken away our intuitiveness. Everyone, myself included, struggles with emotions and behaviors around food.

I just finished reading The Emotional Eater's Repair Manual, which talks about how society does not encourage us to take care of ourselves physically, emotionally and nutritionally.

Once you learn mindful eating and achieve a balance that works for you, weight management and healthy eating habits often fall in line. But if you have a restrictive, diet-based mindset, you can actually program yourself to overeat.

Reasons for Overeating

  1. Cultural/family messages encouraging you to ignore body signals. Messages like "clean your plate" and "no dessert until you've eaten your vegetables" may have great intentions, but they also train you to ignore your hunger cues.

  2. Chronic dieting. When you're on a diet, you don't focus on internal hunger and fullness cues. You are only concerned with external cues: what time to eat, what meal plan to follow and what everyone else is eating. Therefore, you learn nothing about how to take care of your own body.

  3. Overabundance of processed diet foods. Purchasing just "low-fat" food can set you up to overeat. A label that says something is better for you naturally encourages you to pay little attention to portion size. And if it doesn't taste like the real thing, depriving you of  the satisfaction you are looking for, you may be tempted to eat more of it.

  4. Lack of self-care. If you are stressed, food is not only a source of emotional comfort. Physiologically, your body produces the same hormones under stress (cortisol and adrenaline) that are responsible for increasing your appetite. Although you can't altogether avoid stress, taking steps to reduce it—not taking on too much, getting enough sleep, etc.—can help.

Mindful eating, in simple terms, is being present with food. It means not thinking about what you had for breakfast when it's time to eat lunch—and, on the other hand, not skimping on lunch because you have plans to go out to dinner. It's about choosing what you want to eat, portioning it as part of a complete meal and savoring each bite. Eating without distractions (like television, internet) and slowing down your eating can help.

Simple Steps for Mindful Eating

1. Determine whether you are really hungry. Ask yourself the "carrot question." Would a carrot satisfy your hunger? If the answer is yes, you are definitely hungry. If the answer is no, and you want something specific, it could be emotional hunger.

2. Choose a food that will satisfy your body and mind. Don't just pick something you think is good for you or you think you should be having; that will leave you unsatisfied.

3. Plate your meal, sit down at a table and avoid distractions. Make your plate visually appealling, pay attention to all of your senses and savor every bite. I tell my clients to take a "Food Network bite"—an exaggerated bite that a cooking show host would take at the end of a show. Check out the video above to learn from sports dietician Leslie Bonci how to build a well-balanced healthy plate.

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