The word mindfulness seems to be popping up everywhere lately. From mindful leadership to mindful communication and mindful parenting. But what does it mean to be mindful? And why is mindfulness important for eating?
Mindfulness can be defined simply as the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something. One can be mindful of the impending rain on the weather report and therefore be more likely to remember an umbrella.
Mindfulness can also have a deeper meaning, such as “A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.” This definition gets at the heart of mindfulness, how it is about slowing down and synchronizing body and mind. It also speaks to why mindfulness is so important when it comes to eating.
Our bodies are always in the present moment. We are putting one foot in front of the other, breathing in and out, or eating a bowl of soup. Our minds, on the other hand, are often elsewhere.
We might be walking down the street but our minds are focused on texting or talking on the phone or recalling a conversation from earlier in the day. The complex human brain can support this type of mindless activity, in which the body is doing one thing and the mind another. But more and more evidence points to the benefits of synchronizing the two. Being mindful as we walk down the street might involve noticing the uneven pavement, the slight humidity in the air, the faces of other pedestrians, or the cab careening around the corner just inches from you.
You might have heard proponents of mindful eating – or more accurately opponents of mindless eating – who warn that eating while not paying attention can lead to overindulgence. That may be true, but I think that mindful eating goes beyond the prevention of overeating.
Being mindful while eating can help us notice just how hungry we are when we begin to eat. We notice our hunger gradually dissolving as it is replaced by a sense of satiety. If we are eating a bowl of soup, mindful eating allows us to recognize the different ingredients that went into it, the exact consistency and temperature of the soup. We notice ourselves enjoying the soup or thinking how it could use more salt. If we find ourselves eating past the point of comfortable satiety, we notice that too. And we are aware of any thoughts and feelings that provokes.
Mindful eating is not just about avoiding the intake of extra calories. It is about recognizing physical sensations of hunger and satiety, eating for enjoyment AND nourishment, and noticing our thoughts, beliefs, and judgments about eating and ourselves.