Are you truly hungry or is it emotional hunger? Mindful eating practices can help you decide.
Updated: Dec 20, 2019
Eating is supposed to be a pleasurable experience. I am always surprised by how many people walk through my door expecting to receive some miserable, restrictive instructions on how to improve their diet. My message to them: food is mean to be enjoyed... nutritious food, fried food, or anything else!
Another common theme I see in my clients is that many have an adverse relationship with food...one in which they feel that it has betrayed them and their body. Food has been tied up into a guilt or shame based activity and may even lead to binge eating and more negative feelings.
One of the key steps of developing a positive relationship with food and nourishing your body with food is to develop a mindful eating practice. This is not a diet or about giving up the food you love. It’s quite the opposite, it’s about enjoying what you eat with full awareness and pleasure. Mindful eating is one the keys to enjoying your food, nourishing your body and promoting your ideal weight. It does so by helping with proper digestion and nutrient absorption, as well as building a healthy relationship with food.
Three steps to mindful eating:
Slow down and check-in with your hunger level.
Just because it’s noon, doesn’t mean you need to eat lunch. Eat according to your hunger level, not the clock. Starting by unplugging from technology or any type of multi-tasking. Taking a few deep breaths and check in with yourself and your hunger level. Ask yourself on a scale of 1-10 how hungry am I? 1 being the least and 10 being the most. Ideally you want to fall somewhere in between 5 (slightly hungry) to 7 (having physical hunger – stomach gurgling or growling noises) when you decide to sit down and eat.
*If your hunger level is a 5 or lower, hold off on eating for the moment and skip to the Emotional Hunger Section below.
Sit and be grateful.
Take a moment to sit (undistracted and not at your desk or couch) before your meal and think about where it came from and what it took to get there on your plate. This can also mean saying a blessing for what you are about to enjoy and nourish your body with or simply acknowledge and thank the person who prepared the food. Focus on what you are eating and not what you aren’t. For those of us that are changing a habit or eating patterns it can feel like a chore to eat this and not that, but if you focus on the positives and what a treat it is for your physical body and soul to be nourished through wholesome nutritious foods it will make those shifts easier and more pleasurable. Gratitude is an easy way to feel satisfied and connected to those around us.
Additionally, when you slow down and think about what you are about to eat before you do this is the first real step in digestion. It allows your body to relax, begin to salivate, which will help to break down your food and help to better absorb as many nutrients as it can.
Eat slowly and thoughtfully.
Make sure anything you eat is on a plate. No eating out of a box or bag. Focus on your snack or meal. Savor each bite. Put down your fork in between bites to help slow down. Chew food thoroughly, you can even count 20 chews before swallowing. This will help better digest your food and realize when your stomach is full. Our brains need around 20 minutes before it registers that it’s full or has had enough food. Wait at least 15 minutes before getting up to having seconds. The aim is to be satisfied not full or stuffed.
Eating mindfully will give your mind a rest to help you feel more relaxed and focused for whatever your day has in store for you. This is why the saying goes “it’s not what you eat but what you absorb.” And when we slow down and enjoy our food we not only absorb more of the nutrients from it but also truly nourish our body, mind and soul.
Healing Emotional Hunger:
(when you are a 5 or lower on the 1-10 hunger)
Identify your feelings
If your hunger is at a 5 or lower ask yourself “what am I really feeling? Am I tired? Bored? Sad? Lonely? Excited? Celebratory? Thirsty?" I call these moments of craving, or emotional hunger, because you aren’t hungry for food though you might initially think you are. From the moment we were brought into this world our mothers started feeding us to relieve our cries, whether it was a bottle, breast, or pacifier. From that moment on we learned to associate feelings and emotions with food.
Leaning in to your emotions.
Once you identify that you are in fact, not hungry but feeling “X” it’s a great time to do explore them. The good news is that scientific studies show that cravings will pass in 2-10 minutes. This is a great time to take a walk, meditate, breathe, write in a journal, take a bath, listen to your favorite music or dance. Feelings and emotions are natural and though it may feel intense, it will pass. The hardest part is pinpointing what you are feeling, allow yourself to acknowledge that not as good or bad, then feel it.
No matter what you do, eat a meal, snack or maybe you even have the pizza or donut you were craving: be kind to yourself. This might be the most important thing here. I remind all of my clients that I am not perfect, no one is. It’s a process, a lifelong learning. And while that might seem scary, it is in fact freeing. It reminds us that we can be flexible. When we get stuck on eat this and not that or feeling like you slipped up or got off the wagon we create not only emotional stress but a physiological chain reaction in our body, starting with a rise in cortisol (the stress hormone) leading to an imbalance blood sugar and hormones, and ending for many, in cravings and a negative cycle of emotional eating, binging and negative self-worth and shame.
Though this might seem like a simple practice, it’s one that will take some time to cultivate. These are guidelines, not rules. Be kind to yourself, keep checking in and seeing what your body and soul want and need.