Meet IzaanAli, my three-year-old. He loves his food and you can see just how much!
Healthy toddlers are naturally mindful eaters. They are aware when they are hungry and stop eating when they are full. They engage with their food and savor every bite!
But that is not the case for the majority of us...
How many of us find ourselves sitting in front of the television or computer whilst eating our meal? Before we even know it, we've completely finished. Do you remember what your last meal tasted like? Some of us may not even recall eating it.
I reckon many of us have experienced this lack of awareness or memory lapse at some point. With long days at work, busy lives, and food available everywhere we turn, eating is often done mindlessly.
We eat more! Mindless eating can lead to weight issues, ill-health, and an unhealthy relationship with our body and food. Such absent-minded eating habits prevent our brains from capturing the memory of what we ate. We continue to eat more throughout the day in search for the satisfaction-factor.
What's the solution?
Growing evidence shows that mindful eating could be the answer. Yes, mindless eating versus mindful eating. It is that simple! What's more, this practice of savoring our meals with greater awareness has benefits beyond the physical.
So, what's mindful eating?
Mindful eating is having a greater connection with your body and with your food as you enjoy the experience of eating with intent and attention. It's about leaving judgements behind, discarding the labels we may attach to our bodies and food.
Any of these ring a bell?
This is going to make me fat!
This is so bad and unhealthy!
So this mindful eating business sounds pretty great right? So why aren't more of us practicing it? Is it because we perceive it to be painstakingly time-consuming and unrealistic?
As a working parent with young children, my mindful eating practice doesn't involve sitting down for 30 minutes at every meal. Nor do I expect calm and serenity at meal times to engage with the experience of eating. There are no hard and fast rules. I have accepted the fact that happy chaos is the norm. The important element for us has been eating with intent and attention. And yes, you can achieve that even when life is chaotic!
I believe mindful eating doesn't have to be hard. As you sit and eat your next meal, consider practicing these eight tips to cultivate a more loving, nourishing relationship with your food and with your body.
- Recognize true hunger. It is important to identify if you are truly hungry or if it is an emotional desire. I often say to my patients, "If you eat to fight emotions, you can never win!" Simply said, food can't satisfy emotional hunger. Eating may feel good in the moment, but the emotions that triggered the eating will remain. True hunger is physical and usually starts in the stomach. Recognize the signs and eat when you are truly hungry.
- Less time? Less food! Portion your food based on the time you have to consume it. It's important to avoid rushing through your meal and feeling hurried. Take the time to enjoy a smaller portion mindfully.
- Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. This is preparation to calm your mind and ground yourself before eating. This is an important step in preparing you to engage with your body and your meal. This will help to centre you from a "human doing" to a "human being." Deep breathing is a powerful tool to heighten our senses and awareness at mealtimes.
- First, eat with your eyes. Notice the food on your plate. What does it look like? What are the different textures? As a family, we often try and guess every ingredient in the dish. This helps us engage with our food and keeps our attention on our meal.
- Consciously chew. Take the time to chew well, and enjoy the release of flavours from every bite. What's more, you're likely to notice when you are full. Gulping food down without chewing can trigger unpleasant symptoms, like bloating, gas and indigestion.
- Tune in with your fullness scale. Consider rating your level of fullness from zero to 10. Zero means "I'm starving" and feeling overstuffed equals a 10. Aim for a seven, and avoid being at the far end of either side of the scale.
- Silence the mind chatter. This can help train your mind and body to be compassionate, non-judgemental and to enjoy being present in the moment. If you are having difficulty controlling your thoughts, make a note of what is distracting you. Park it! You can always return to it after your meal.
- Offer gratitude. Take the time either before or after your meal to be thankful. Counting your blessings is yet another way to bring attention to the present moment. It brings positivity to your experiences and boosts physical and mental health.
Remember, mastery comes with practice. These eight tips will help set you on your journey to become a mindful eater -- even more like a toddler perhaps!
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You also deserve to be happy, healthy, and comfortable in your body! "Rewarding yourself with food is a dangerous habit that is often started in childhood by well-meaning parents," says Susan Albers Psy.D., psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and author of But I Deserve this Chocolate. "Caregivers tend to reward things like good grades with ice cream and special meals. A real reward is fitting well into your pants." Also, if you reward yourself with food, you're more likely to use it as punishment too (you missed your deadline, so no dinner!). This sets a bad biological precedent, says Darryl Bushard, a sports nutrition specialist and certified weight loss coach for Lifetime Fitness. "The 'reward cascade' involves the release of serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter. So when you reward yourself with junk food, what you are doing is programming a good emotion around bad foods." More from Shape.com: 34 Amazing Low-Calorie Snacks 10 Summer Snacks Under 200 Calories 7 Foods A Nutritionist Would Never Eat Flickr photo by dichohecho
"Everyone has plenty of slip-ups throughout their lifetime," Bushard says. "It isn't a matter of whether or not you've made a mistake but rather whether you let that mistake snowball or choose to just get back on course." Remember that each bite is a choice. There is a lot of "grey area" between perfect and ruined, Albers adds. "Think of your actions to be on a continuum instead of all or nothing. Just skipping a few bites can make a big difference in the long run." Flickr photo by Social_Stratification
"Research indicates that people actually underestimate the amount they eat by about 40 percent if you are overweight and 20 percent if you are at a normal weight," Albers says. It's true that exercise does give us a little more leeway to splurge, but keep in mind that a three-mile run (at a quick pace -- 10 min/mile) will take you 30 minutes, and you'll burn about 307 calories (based on a 135-pound woman). That's about the equivalent of a grande Green Tea Frappuccino. Bushard adds that this strategy can actually hurt your workouts, saying that "by splurging (normally with sugary foods) you'll increase inflammation and slow down recovery." Flickr photo by DAV.es
Albers agrees that some chocolate has healthy properties. According to a recent study by a Yale researcher, 1 ounce of dark chocolate (at least 60 percent cacao) can have health benefits and boost your mood, she says. The problem is that we tend to eat cheap chocolate mindlessly, popping it into our mouth without much thought. "Buy the most expensive chocolate you can afford," Albers says. Bushard adds, "Choose 80 percent cacao dark chocolate or more to reap the health benefits, otherwise you are just consuming chocolate-flavored sugar." Flickr photo by Chocolate Reviews
"A study published in the journal Appetite found that foods like chocolate make us feel less stressed for only three minutes and then the feeling completely fades," Albers says. Stress eating also increases your stress in the long run. The stress hormone, cortisol, makes you crave sugary, fatty food. When you eat sugary treats, your blood sugar spikes and then drops causing you to be more irritable. "The good news is that you can reduce cortisol in natural ways without any calories whatsoever -- sipping black tea, exercise, yoga poses, self-massage and soothing music," Albers says. Flickr photo by heliosphan
"She's thin, but is she healthy?" Bushard asks. More importantly, it's dangerous to compare yourself to celebrities and friends. "You often see just a snapshot of their eating habits and not what they are eating behind closed doors," Albers says. "The bottom line is that you can't judge how healthy someone's diet is by their weight. Weight is not a perfect reflection of health. Not to mention that our intake needs are based on a complex blend of height, weight, exercise level, etc. Focus on what works for you, no one else. Be the best version of you!"
"Life can be even shorter if you aren't eating healthy foods," Albers says. "Remember that obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death after smoking. If you find yourself falling for this line, consider whether you are depriving yourself too much. Balance healthy foods with small portions of yummy snacks. You're right -- life is too short to give up good foods. Instead, savor small portions of the treats you love." Delicious food can be in the eyes, er, tastebuds of the beholder, Bushard says. "Fresh, healthy foods taste much better than junk if you take just a little time to learn what those foods are and how to prepare them." Flickr photo by jamieanne
Diet drinks have been linked to obesity and a higher risk of stroke, and the artificial sweeteners in them can increase sugar cravings and actually warp your taste buds, Albers says. These artificial sweeteners are sometimes 300-600 times sweeter than the sugar we find in natural foods. "The good news is that our taste buds are very malleable. They can change in short periods of time. If you feel 'addicted' to any food, it's likely that it's partly the chemical properties but also the psychological effects you're getting from the food. Try stepping away from diet coke for two weeks. Notice what happens emotionally and physically." Albers suggests. "You might be hooked on the caffeine and the super sweet taste. Giving it up briefly can make you crave it less in the long run." Brushard offers alternatives: "Drink coffee or green tea if you need a caffeine boost or try sparkling water if it's the carbonation you enjoy so much." Flickr photo by ozmafan
"So you mean a smart girl?" Bushard laughs, pointing out that you can set a good example. "Take pride in the choices you make and stand up for your health!" Also, women have to be careful of matching men bite for bite, Albers adds. Research indicates that we tend to unconsciously match the way our eating partner eats, but your boyfriend and guy friends have higher caloric needs. "Salad is a great option. Beef it up with a high-quality protein, steak, chicken, garbanzo beans, etc. It's likely that you are more judgmental of what you eat than he is," Albers says. Flickr photo by Mr. T in DC
"Do you want it to go to waste or to your waist? Imagine carrying around a trash bag full of the extra bites you've saved," Albers says. No one wants to throw away perfectly good food, so focus on preventing waste as you are cooking and ordering rather than after the fact. "Cook just enough food for everyone to have a portion -- no extra. Or box up the leftovers for lunch the next day. Think strategically," Albers says. Flickr photo by tuchodi
"It's true that you can feel very uncomfortable during your period. What you are likely seeking during your period is comfort and soothing. Use a hot water bottle, wear comfy clothes, relax, take a hot bath. In the long run, this will be much more soothing and comforting to your body than feeding it extra calories," Albers says. "Plus, overeating can add to bloating rather than reduce it." Bushard is a proponent of food as medicine. "Eating cruciferous veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and kale will encourage estrone (the bad sex hormone) detoxification and help alleviate cravings and your discomfort."
Albers points out the huge flaw in this thinking: "Research indicates that we are 57 percent more likely to be overweight if our friends are overweight. We are highly impacted by our friends and the people that we eat with." So even if you feel like you're eating a lot less than those around you, it can still be a skewed sample. Ask your doctor for a recommendation on what is a healthy weight for you. Flickr photo by somegeekintn
This one can apply to a wide range of healthy foods gone horribly wrong (vegetable tempura, spinach and artichoke dip and even many salads). "Even the healthiest foods can be turned into something unhealthy by the way we prepare it," Albers says. "If you are craving pizza, go for the veggie or the whole-wheat version. But be honest with yourself. If pizza is what you love and crave, that is okay. Just eat mindful portions. Recent research indicates that 'accepting' rather than pushing away cravings helps to reduce them. It sounds counterintuitive but fighting with yourself leads to poorer decisions." Flickr photo by aSIMULAtor
Albers dismisses this claim, saying that while many fat-free products make us feel better about eating them, a study out of Cornell found that we fall for what is known as the 'health halo.' When we think a food is 'healthier,' we tend to eat more of it and ultimately end up taking in more calories than we would from foods perceived as less healthy. "This study makes a good case for being even more careful of your portion sizes when you believe the food is 'healthy.' Check the back of the package to make sure it is truly nutritious, not just a marketing ploy." Bushard adds, "Don't be afraid of fat! We need to consume more good fats. These fats are crucial to keep our metabolism healthy." Flickr photo by Cubosh
"Convenience food can be one of our biggest downfalls. First step is a kitchen makeover; clear out all processed foods. Foods that can last months in our cabinets have so many preservatives they'd probably also survive a nuclear holocaust! Do you want that in your body?" Bushard asks. To avoid mindless overeating, focus on this mantra from Albers: "Eat food with purpose, on purpose. In other words, pinpoint what function this food has -- filling hunger, looks fun to eat, is part of a healthy meal." More from Shape.com: 34 Amazing Low-Calorie Snacks 10 Summer Snacks Under 200 Calories 7 Foods A Nutritionist Would Never Eat Flickr photo by Toms Bauģis
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