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How to Make Mindful Eating a Regular Part of Your Diet

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Let's be honest: Changing your relationship with food isn't easy. Sure, you might *know* that you should stop labeling foods "good" and "bad" and that it's better if you tune in to your physical hunger cues rather than just eating a meal at a certain time by default. But these things are definitely easier said than done. That said, implementing a mindful eating style has tangible benefits, including a healthier relationship with food and weight loss. (See: I Changed My Approach to Food and Lost 10 Pounds) But what qualifies as mindful eating, and how can you get started? Here's what nutrition and mental health experts want you to know, plus how you can try it for yourself.

What Is Mindful Eating, Exactly?

"When you eat mindfully, you slow down and notice your emotions and your hunger so that you eat when you're hungry and taste the food in your mouth," says Jennifer Taitz, Psy.D., an LA-based psychologist and author of End Emotional Eating and How to Be Single and Happy. Two of the biggest benefits of this practice are that it reduces a lot of the stress around eating (after all, you're only eating when you need to!) and can help people enjoy their food more, she says.

Another huge plus: "You can use it with any eating style because it's not about what you eat; it's about how you eat," says Susan Albers, Psy.D., New York Times bestselling author of EatQ and a mindful eating expert. That means whether you're paleo, vegan, or gluten-free, you can also implement mindful eating to not only help you stick to your desired eating style, but also enjoy it more than you might otherwise.

Lastly, mindful eating is all about improving your relationship with food. "It helps break the hold food can have on a person," says Amanda Kozimor-Perrin R.D.N., a dietitian based in LA. "It starts to help eliminate the idea of food being 'good' or 'bad' and hopefully stops endless yo-yo dieting." Being mindful and present can also help to reduce stress overall by introducing new practices like meditation, exercise, and baths, which replace emotional eating.

How to Know If Mindful Eating Is Right for You

Not sure if this is the right eating style for you? Spoiler alert: Mindful eating is for everyone. "Everyone is a candidate for the mindful eating style," says Amy Goldsmith, R.D.N., a dietitian based in Frederick, MD. "Most individuals lose their hunger and satiety intuitiveness around the age of 5, or when they enter the education system, simply because they switch from eating when they need energy to eating when they have a designated time allowance." Think about it: You were probably told from a young age when you were supposed to eat, whether you were hungry or not! Obviously, this makes sense logistically when you're a child, but one of the best things about being an adult is that you can do what you want when you want, right?! That can and should include eating. (Related: Why Do I Lose My Appetite When I'm Stressed?)

Now, that doesn't make mindful eating easy. "It won't stick if you're not ready to make lifestyle changes," Kozimor-Perrin says. "All of us, when introducing a new behavior or trying to alter our current ones, need to be ready for that change so when it gets hard we push through." Just like with any diet change, you'll need to make a commitment in order to see the changes you're looking for—regardless of whether they're emotional or physical.

Practical Tips to Get Started

One of the best things about mindful eating is that you can define what it means for you as an individual rather than conforming to set standards. "Think tools, not rules," Albers says. But mindful eating's abstract nature can also make it tougher to implement than a more restrictive eating style focused on rules. This can sometimes be discouraging for people used to knowing exactly how they're supposed to eat. Luckily, there are lots of strategies you can try out on your own to get started.

Be an observer. "People are surprised when I give them step one: Do absolutely nothing different," Albers says. "Spend a solid week just nonjudgmentally observing your eating habits. That means just noticing without adding any commentary (i.e., 'how could I be so stupid.') Judgment shuts down awareness on a dime." You'll probably be surprised at how many eating habits you have that you didn't even realize were habits, she says. "For example, one of my clients said that she kept a mindful eye open for a week. She learned that she ate mindlessly only when in front of screens. She became very aware of this habit. This awareness was life-changing for her."

Try the 5 S's: Sit, slow down, savor, simplify, and smile. These are the basic tenets of mindful eating, and with some practice, they'll become second nature before you know it. "Sit down when you eat," Albers advises. "It sounds easy, but you'll be surprised at how often you eat while standing. We eat 5 percent more when standing. Slowing down helps breaks down the food and gives you time to contemplate each bite." If this is tough for you, she recommends eating with your nondominant hand, which will force you to take slower bites. Savoring means using all your senses when you eat. "Don't just shovel in the food; determine if you actually really like it." Simplify means creating a mindful environment around food. When you're done eating, put food away and out of sight. "This reduces the temptation to mindlessly pick at food just because it's there." Lastly, "smile between bites," Albers says. It might sound weird, but it will give you a moment to determine if you are truly satisfied.

Step away from the screens. Make it a policy to ditch screens when you're eating. "Put away your phone, sit down, and slow down," Taitz says. "To be mindful, you need to be present, and you can't be present when you're scrolling or rushing." (BTW, here are three ways to stay healthier while watching TV.)

Schedule time for your meals and snacks. On a similar note, try to keep working and eating separate. "We work in a society that works through breakfast and lunch, has long traveling times to work, or skips snack and lunch breaks all together," Goldsmith says. "Add breaks to your schedule and allow yourself to honor them." You can spare 15 minutes, right?

Try the raisin experiment. "I encourage everyone I meet with to do the raisin experiment," Kozimor-Perrin says. Essentially, the raisin experiment walks you through the basics of mindful eating by noticing every tiny detail of one small raisin. "It feels very uncomfortable at first, but it helps you realize all the aspects missing to be present during a meal, leading to a lightbulb going off in your brain. It helps you to see how you should be taking your time with food and how to begin understanding your relationship with each food item you eat."

Make sure you have access to foods you like eating. While mindful eating doesn't dictate the types of food you should eat, you'll probably feel best if you focus on wholesome, healthy foods most of the time—although there's absolutely room for enjoying indulgences. "Ensure you have groceries to make meals or pack them," Goldsmith says. "If that's not possible, choose restaurants that provide you with the proper fuel you need, like a mix of protein, grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy."

 

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