As a strong advocate for intuitive eating, especially for women reaching or in middle-age, I’m often asked if mindful eating practices can help us become more intuitive eaters. Instinctively my answer is yes because in many ways one can not be achieved without the other. If you’re anything like me though, you’ll need to understand why and to look at the science and psychology behind the methods. So, allow me to explain why mindful eating (or eating with awareness) is something we should all be practising.
Forgetting to be mindful
Knowing that too much caffeine is bad for my mood, blood sugar balance and sleep, I ration my coffee. The most difficult days to do this are days spent mostly at my desk. Work just seems to flow better with my hand wrapped around a warm cup of coffee. However, on these days I’ll sometimes consider making another cup midday and realise I’ve already had the two that I allow myself per day. What a waste, I think, I didn’t even make the most of drinking them. I forgot to take the time to really savour the flavour and enjoy the whole ritual.
In this multitasking modern world of high-production and instant gratification, it’s not always easy to slow down and take pleasure in the small things. Yet, the French have been doing so for years.
Do the French Practise Mindful Eating?
It’s been a debate of scientists, dietitians and western women that’s raged since the 1980s. How is it that the french can enjoy such a high-fat diet, whilst staying slim and maintaining comparatively low rates of heart disease and related health problems? Often referred to as the ‘French Paradox’, the food the French most indulge in are often the very foods diet creators tell us to run away screaming from. So how is it that the French don’t have the high rates of obesity that we have in the UK and US? The theory goes that it’s not about what we eat but how we eat.
The two-hour lunch is not a luxury to the French, it’s a baseline – and it certainly gets my vote! In the western world, it’s easily assumed that this means more food but that’s often not the case. Rather, the French take more time over their food. Smaller portions are evened out with multiple courses and proper breaks in between. Eating the French way is a social experience.
For years, the world of dieting has claimed that cutting out or severely reducing the intake of certain food groups will result in drastic weight loss. And it often does – for as long as it’s possible to follow the diet, which isn’t long because it’s not sustainable. We have food groups because our bodies are designed to take nourishment from all of them. Let’s be honest – we know these diets are a load of rubbish! Yet, we are often enticed by them because they offer a solution that seems so simple.
Consider though – is it easier to deprive yourself of foods you love or is it easier to eat what you want, just slower? That’s what the French appear to do and it’s been working for a fair few decades now.
In fact, if we look at the countries where health is high and obesity rates low, they all eat across multiple food groups. Common themes are a lack of processed foods, a focus on whole foods and high consumption of fruit and vegetables. Above all, they take time over food and they don’t stress about it.
Why should we practice mindful eating?
I do believe that without a mindfulness practice it’s much harder to become an intuitive eater. Why? Mindfulness teaches us the skills to be present to our thoughts, feelings and body sensations. Through the practice of meditation, we become more mindful and therefore more able to live in the present moment. See, feel and sense what is present at this very moment.
Understanding the reasons WHY we eat what we eat can only be discovered by asking the question in the first place then sensing the body, inhabiting the body and understanding what is driving us to eat when it’s not physical hunger.
Sometimes we eat because we’re hungry, other times we eat because we’re sad, lonely, angry, frustrated or stressed.
Other times we eat because it looks or smells nice, none of which is a bad thing until it starts affecting our physical and mental wellbeing. Yet, this is the point where food becomes a quick fix for handling difficult thoughts, feelings and emotions.
Most people live in a perpetual state of auto-pilot, paying little to no attention to their inner world or inner state of being. So after a long hard day, the body may be hungry, tired and your brain exhausted but in auto-pilot, we may not always recognise that. Thinking about the day, planning for later, we’re unaware of what is present for us at this moment.
In this state it’s easy for our buttons to be pushed and to get irritated, angered or frustrated. We don’t like these feelings and if food has always been your ‘go-to’ to get rid of sticky thoughts and feelings, then that is probably what you’ll turn to.
Through practising mindfulness you learn the skills needed to de-centre from the internal storm, observe what is really going on for you and find an anchor to steady yourself. From there you have a choice in what your next steps will be.
When you pay attention, you may recognise your real hunger – the hunger of the heart (which may have nothing to do with food) – and choose more wisely what you really need to soothe your troubled soul and aching body.
Why does mindful eating work?
When we slow down and savour the experience, we may notice that we need less.
Let’s look for a moment at lifestyle – Many of us work ourselves to the point of exhaustion for 46 weeks of the year. Then we take a 6 weeks holiday, spread across the year, to recover. Some of us, though, choose to work fewer hours. We ensure to practise daily self-care, whether that’s yoga, time spent with loved ones, meditation or taking time out to enjoy a hobby. Often these practises increase our productivity because the human mind is like a machine – it needs the right fuel to run well, but unlike a machine, it needs time to rest and recover also.
Creating healthy daily practises often avoids the inevitable burnout that happens when we are running on fumes. In the same way, eating in a mindful way gives us the small frequent satisfaction we need to feel fulfilled.
When we are giving our bodies and minds what they need, we negate the likeliness of overindulging. Rather, we learn to eat until we are no longer hungry, not until we are full. Because, if we’re honest, being over full isn’t a great feeling. Full is heavy and burdensome.
A note of caution here: mindful and intuitive eating is NOT another fancy way of calorie control or another diet. It’s about paying attention with eating with awareness; mind, body and heart!
Ok, so how does one practice mindful eating?
It may be helpful to consider this from Ticht Nacht Hahn ‘when you eat, eat. When you read, read’. Many of us are addicted to multitasking. We are eating whilst at our desks or scrolling through social media or watching television. With so many other intrusions pulling our focus it’s no wonder we don’t hear our bodies tell us we’re full and often overeat and find ourselves feeling uncomfortable and sluggish after food.
We’re also diverting our pleasure so although we may overfill our bodies, we have not satisfied our taste buds because we are not truly living in the present.
To truly experience food it’s good to slow down and make eating a ritual. There’s a reason that food is so often the centre of celebrations. It is something we can all enjoy and experience together. Yet, we must learn to respect food in the same way day-to-day and even when eating alone. It is a service we are providing to our bodies, an act of love. So slow down, chew properly and really enjoy every bite, until your body tells you it’s had enough. Not only will you begin to eat more mindfully, but you’ll be making digestion a lot easier for your body.
Another important aspect of mindfulness and intuitive eating is cultivating patience, non-judgement, compassion, trust and gratitude. Towards yourself but also towards the process and to the many hands that worked hard to grow or produce this food. You can read more about these attitudes of mindfulness here https://simplysune.com/blog/why-mindfulness-in-menopause/
This is of course easier said than done, but that’s why we call it a practice!
If you need help with your relationship with food and have a desire to eat in peace and lose weight without dieting, get in touch, schedule a call here https://calendly.com/simplysune/simplyflourish and let’s chat. I would love to help you!
Isn’t mindful eating just another way to obsess over food?
The last thing we want to do, especially if you are female and nearing middle age, is begin or perpetuate obsession with food intake. Not only is diet culture toxic for mental health but it often causes more health and weight issues than it claims to solve. So, why would I advocate a practice that suggests we think more about food, not less?
Firstly, mindful eating is not about thinking about food so much as it is about experiencing it. In many ways, mindful eating spits in the face of toxic dieting that makes an enemy of food and seeks to take away the pleasure we find in feasting. Mindful eating encourages us to take a bite of our favourite food, close our eyes, savour it and enjoy. Doing so, means we aren’t then obsessing about food in between eating. Doing so means that enjoying what we are eating often results in needing less of it. Doing so can help to repair our tricky relationships with food. Mostly, when we binge, it’s not because we are loving each and every mouthful and we don’t usually find that it makes us happy.
Intuitive eating, which is where mindful eating usually leads, is about trusting our bodies and our instincts again and ditching toxic diet myths that have made too many of us damaged and disillusioned.
Read more about how to master Intuitive Eating.