Mindful eating is difficult by its very nature. Sure, if you’re aware you’re shoveling food into your face, you can consciously slow down and focus on chewing. But since you’re likely eating quickly precisely because your mind is elsewhere, how can you be aware enough to stop yourself? If you are aware, aren’t you already acting more mindfully? It’s another one of those accursed catch-22s.
The key to developing mindful eating habits is to consciously set up triggers that remind you that you’re supposed to be paying more attention to your eating behavior. For example, starting to stab a bite of food with your fork is a defined action that occurs several times throughout your meal. For me, this action is now a trigger that forces me to ask myself if there’s already food in my mouth. If there is, I am reminded to set my fork down again and focus on chewing instead. It’s amazing how well this works. In this situation, the reward I receive for following through on the habit I’ve scripted (putting down my fork) is getting to appreciate and enjoy the bite of food already in my mouth. This is actually incredibly satisfying. It’s amazing how much of our meals we miss out on by greedily stabbing for our next bite of food when we already have food in our mouths that we’re completely ignoring. A secondary reward for following through with this habit is being conscious enough to know when I’ve had enough to eat and not getting overly stuffed and feeling uncomfortable after my meal.
There are dozens of little tricks you can develop by just spending some time thinking about the actions you go through during a meal. You can then use these to program self-checks on your behavior. For instance, setting the table can remind you to fill a glass of water and drink half of it before starting your meal. Smoothing your napkin on your lap is an opportunity to take a deep breath and reflect that you are about to eat and you should remember to eat mindfully and appreciate your food. If remembering to take a mindful pause is difficult for you, as it is for me, you can use technology to send yourself a helpful ping. When first developing my mindful habits, I set up a recurring event in the Reminders application on my iPhone with notifications reminding me to “chew twenty-five times” before lunch (12:00 p.m.) and dinner (6:00 p.m.). Counting your chews is one of the most effective ways to slow down and eat less, and simply requiring yourself to reach a certain number is an effective way many people have been able to control their weight. Try it. It works.
Being mindful of your eating habits is about more than just slowing down. When we’re hungry or even just on autopilot (i.e., most of the time), we have a tendency to think we want foods that are decadent and our eyes tend to be bigger than our stomachs. When you see a kind of food you’ve liked in past, like those amazing bacon-and cheddar-filled potato skins your grandma used to make, it’s easy to focus on how tasty you remember them being and not how horrible you’ll feel if you put down half a dozen of them before your next meeting. Even worse, if you happen to be at the buffet of your hotel and not at grandma’s house, it’s easy to forget that the potato skins you’re gorging yourself on don’t actually even taste that good; they only vaguely remind you of something you once enjoyed. When you’re hungry or blinded by memories, it’s easy to forget health goals and load up on what sounds delicious. So when you are filling up your plate (or ordering something you’ll regret), it’s worth pausing and asking yourself not just how these will taste, but how they’ll make you feel later.
I’m at the point in my foodist healthstyle where, when I see a cheap, greasy doughnut or bizarrely shiny diner food, I don’t see something tasty that I wish I could eat. I’ve trained myself to see a stomachache, a foggy head, and a big pile of regret. Thanks to this habit alone—thinking about how I’ll feel rather than how the food might taste—eating cheap greasy food isn’t even tempting to me anymore. Of course, good, high-quality food that happens to be rich and heavy is still very tempting. But I know that if food is high quality, I will only feel gross if I eat too much of it, which is true of anything. Small amounts are fine and every bit as rewarding as I expect them to be, and by practicing mindful eating habits I’ve learned to stop when I’ve had enough.
The difference between the two situations is that I make a value-based decision when I eat high-quality foods, whether they are “healthy” or not, and my choices are never mindless. I am fully aware when I am choosing a food for pleasure at the expense of health, and I make certain that it’s worth it. I minimize the damage by eating slowly and mindfully, appreciating every last succulent calorie, and am far more satisfied with a few bites than if I ate an entire plate of a less indulgent substitute. For a foodist, making smart food decisions is easy and awesome.
Don’t expect to become a more mindful eater overnight. As I mentioned earlier, mindfulness can be very tough to develop and has certainly been one of the most difficult transitions for me personally. If you’re having trouble learning to eat slowly and making more intuitive food decisions, it may help to read about and practice mindfulness outside the food setting, to develop a more mindful life in general. Mindfulness and meditation have been scientifically proven to benefit their practitioners with things like stress reduction, better focus, stronger personal relationships, and greater well-being overall.
Personally, I’ve found that being more mindful has helped me get more done at work, because I’m able to spend more time writing and reading scientific journals rather than jumping back and forth between e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, and my calendar. As a result, I finish my work faster and have more time to work out, cook, and spend time with my family, and this has dramatically reduced the stress I feel in connection with these things. Though mindfulness and meditation are often associated with Buddhism, mindful practice does not need to be tied to any religion. Think of it more as the gym for your brain.