Mindful Eating

Nutrition as fuel requires mindful eating

The Western diet is often structured around scheduled meal times, celebrations, moods and activities instead of eating mindfully to fuel our bodies. We eat to begin and end our days, snacks between meals and for special occasions. The entire Thanksgiving holiday has even become a day of feasting that we’ll regret and launches a holiday eating season we spend months trying to overcome.

Mindfulness involves awareness of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how it’s affecting us. Applying some mindfulness to the way we fuel our bodies can go a long way toward building a healthy relationship with food and the healthy lifestyle it can support.

Know your triggers

Much like Pavlov’s dog began to salivate when he heard a dinner bell, our bodies are conditioned to expect food when we experience certain triggers. Emotional triggers like sadness, anger, loneliness and even happiness also have us reaching for “comfort” foods that don’t provide the nutrition our bodies need to perform at their best and maintain a healthy weight. What’s worse, many times we eat without recognizing what we’re doing and why. Changing how we think about food requires a fresh perspective on why we’re eating, what we’re eating, and what the foods we eat are doing for—or to—our bodies.

Understand the mindless eating cycle

The science behind why we eat can best be described as a vicious cycle. The human body responds to perceived stress, whether physical or emotional, by releasing the hormone cortisol. Stressors that increase cortisol levels include inadequate sleep, obesity, emotional stress, illness or injury, and low blood sugar.

When cortisol levels frequently spike or remain high, levels of happy hormones (dopamine and serotonin) in the brain decrease and the body begins to deposit fat around the midsection. Those changes can lead to an emotional roller-coaster and obesity that can cause—you guessed it—mindless emotional eating. To make things worse, cortisol also increases cravings for salt, fat, and sugar, and decreases the body’s ability to fight off illness while increasing systemic inflammation. Left unchecked, chronically elevated cortisol levels can lead to conditions that are favorable for the development of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Regard food as medicine

Learn more about how nutrition impacts the body so you can apply that knowledge to everyday eating habits. The nutrition experts at the CU Anschutz Health and Wellness Center offer Culinary Medicine classes that are part cooking class and part medical nutrition class. The goal is to educate participants about foods that help prevent or treat disease and contribute to overall wellbeing. Topics include cancer care, foods that support GI health, low-carb eating, holiday recipes and more.

Mindful eating exercise

When taking control of nutrition, education is an important step, but it’s also essential to change the way we consume our food. Instead of inhaling that burger while driving or sipping an entire meal’s worth of calories in a coffee or smoothie, prepare and eat foods at home whenever possible. Sit down to eat at a table instead of standing at the counter or eating in front of the television. Put away cell phones and other distractions to focus on the way you’re feeling and the foods you’re eating.

Try this simple exercise to increase mindfulness while eating a single bite:

  1. Consider the food’s appearance, texture, and aroma.
  2. Take a thoughtful bite and pay attention to how the food feels in your mouth, without chewing.
  3. Make the conscious decision to begin chewing slowly.
  4. Swallow, and consider what you taste after you’ve swallowed.
  5. Note any emotional response to what you’ve eaten. How do you feel?

This exercise has elements you can incorporate into every bite you take. Tasting and appreciating your food triggers satisfaction. Chewing slowly aids digestion and helps us to recognize the signs of fullness before we’re over-full. Staying mindful and thoughtful helps us remain in control and change the way we think about food—as fuel for the active and healthy lifestyle we want to build and maintain for years to come.

Next time you’re eating out with friends, use this infographic as a guide.

In partnership with EXOS, a world leader in human performance and the management company for CU Anschutz Health and Wellness Center.