Even though last week I was all about sharing the details of my indulgent 4th of July weekend, today I’m here to talk about mindfulness, specifically as it applies to food. I often share my times of indulgence to help my clients and followers with the mindset and self compassion piece of health (an essential piece of the puzzle), but it’s important to also share my day-to-day mindful eating practices that keep me on track the majority of the time.
Mindful eating is definitely one of those concepts like listening to your body is. What does mindful eating even mean? How does one actually PRACTICE eating mindfully? In general, I like to define mindfulness as a non-judgmental awareness of what is happening in the present moment. This includes slowing down and pausing long enough to allow the present moment to sink in so you can become aware of what is happening with your body physically and emotionally. As this relates to food, the more aware you become of your habits, body, actions, and feelings in the present moment, the more control you will develop over what and how you eat instead of walking around on auto-pilot not paying attention to the things you consume from day to day.
For me, practicing mindfulness is the key to successful moderation.
In this post, I dissect this concept a bit by sharing some questions that I often ask myself before, during, and after I eat. Asking myself these questions helps me become more in tune with what’s REALLY going on in my body. This helps me navigate my food choices day in and day out and keeps me honest with my moderate and non-deprivation approach to healthy eating.
Questions That Help Me Practice Mindful Eating
Why do I want to eat right now?
Asking myself why I want to eat can be helpful for assessing if I am eating for a reason other than hunger. It may sound silly, but sometimes saying out loud “Athena, why do you want to eat right now?” helps me figure out if I’m actually hungry or not. Maybe I’m hungry because I didn’t eat enough protein with lunch or maybe I need to fuel up for a workout. But maybe I’m looking to eat because I’m stressed, bored, lonely, tired, sad, or pissed. If I can recognize in the moment that I’m looking to eat for emotional reasons over hunger, I’m much more equipped to slow down for a second not let my feelings make my food decisions for me.
What’s my level of hunger on a scale of 1-10?
Rating my level of hunger is another strategy I’ll use, often in conjunction with the first question, to pinpoint if I’m eating because my body physically needs food or if I’m eating emotionally. There are times I ask myself “are you hungry” and I’ll just say yes without REALLY thinking about it. Rating my hunger gives it more meaning, and I find that when I rate my hunger level as less than five, there is usually something else going on. In these cases, I’ll have a glass of water and wait a bit to see if the perceived hunger continues or not.
Is this something I think will be DELICIOUS?
I use this one ALL the time. Thinking about whether I will find something yummy and worth it really helps me make mindful decisions, especially when it comes to food that is just THERE. I really dislike when I eat something that I could have made better myself or is simply flat-out disappointing. Take pre-packaged sweets, for example. I know they do nothing for me, but if there are pre-packaged goodies out on a plate at a party, I might be tempted to reach for one without really thinking about it. Asking myself, “will I even like this, or would I rather have a glass of wine or something else more enjoyable later?” really helps. The decision usually takes me about a split second to make because sure, I could eat the pre-packaged cookie, but I know the satisfaction factor for me will be missing. This makes it easier for me to decline, and knowing that I have more preferred alternatives I can eat later if I REALLY want to keeps me from feeling restricted. Definitely ask yourself this question around that bowl of candy out at work or in situations where unhealthy food might be free or in abundance. Free donut day at Dunks is another great example for this! There is nothing special to me about a Dunkin Donuts munchkin, so why would I go out of my way to get one just because it’s free on this specific day? I’d rather mindfully indulge in a homemade donut from the best local bakery in town when I’m really craving one.
How will I feel after I eat this?
I know a lot of people who keep a food journal to write down everything they eat, but often times these people are missing an important part of the equation. If you are a food tracker, think about tracking not only WHAT you eat, but how your food choices make you FEEL. Write down physical feelings, such as bloating, headaches, and stomach-aches, but try to also pinpoint the foods that make you feel yucky emotionally as well. For example, is there a certain food that causes you to wake up the next morning feeling guilty, frustrated, and disgusted with yourself after eating it? Does eating a certain food make you call yourself fat more often than others? Does eating the chips and salsa always cause you to throw in the towel and just go nuts with everything else in sight? Does eating ice cream always make you feel like you NEED to make up for it by cutting back on food the next day or doing extra exercise? Once you can identify the foods that make you feel not so great physically and/or emotionally (noticing some common patterns might take some time!), answering “how will I feel after I eat this” becomes much easier, and selecting food more mindfully will too.
Does this taste good enough for me to continue eating it?
When I am having a treat, I have a bite and think about whether what I’m eating actually tastes good. If it does, then I go ahead and continue eating it because it’s likely worth it to me. However, if I’m on the fence about whether I want to continue eating something, I will remind myself that there’s really no harm in not finishing something or tossing it. I don’t find any point in wasting my sampling or indulging on something that I don’t even enjoy in the first place. If I eat something, and it’s not for me, I acknowledge it and move on. Basically, if something starts tasting not as good as the first bite or two did, I know it’s most likely time to stop eating it. This is the rule of first bites!
What is the satisfaction level of this treat on a scale of 1-10?
Here is another scale question! I love these because again, they keep you honest and give a little more meaning to your feelings. Sure, I might be able to say “yeah, this tastes good” or “yes, this is satisfying,” but if I rate it as a five, then maybe I’ll stop and choose something different with more satisfaction factor. Again, eating a treat because I know I will really enjoy it is what makes an indulgence mindful, not just because I already took a bite so I might as well finish it.
Am I full right now?
After I finish eating something, I try to slow down a bit and let whatever I ate settle. Then I’ll assess how full I am. If it seems like I’m on the verge of feeling overly stuffed or that I’m going to hit that I need to unbutton my pants and v-neck it uncomfortable level, then I won’t keep eating just because food is there. Remember that it often takes your body a little longer to get to a level of fullness that you can actually recognize, so slowing down to savor what you eat and enjoying the atmosphere and company of wherever you are eating can really help here.
Hopefully having these questions at your disposal will help some of you have a better understanding of what practicing mindful eating can look like. I don’t necessarily ask myself every single one of these questions every time I eat something, but normally I’ll think about a couple of them as I go. If one of the questions is resonating with you more than another, try asking yourself the question the next time you are in a social food setting. Don’t have any expectations of yourself, just give it a go, and see what happens!
Remember that mindful eating is a practice that also takes TIME. Being able to ask myself these questions in the moment didn’t happen for me overnight. It’s taken me years of practicing, and I can honestly say that I will never be perfect at this. It’s a life long journey, but now when I have slip ups and moments of weakness, I’m more equipped to handle them next time. I’m always tweaking and adapting what works for me, but just having the ability to slow down and be aware of what I’m feeling in the moment before, during, and after I eat has helped immensely! It’s what helps me not beat myself up after indulgences, it’s what helps me navigate the middle instead of being so black and white about everything, and it helps keep me sane!
If anyone has any different approaches to mindful eating, I would love to know what they are! Feel free to leave a comment telling me about what works for you.
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