Monday, November 26, 2012

Seven Guidelines for Mindful Eating

How do you nourish yourself?
These days we’re hearing a lot about the power of mindfulness, and its amazing capacity to help us increase awareness, decrease stress and make wiser choices.  Although programs like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), originated by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts, continue to provide opportunities for individuals to explore pathways to mindfulness, the concept may still seem a bit nebulous to the general public -- particularly folks who aren’t used to the idea of a meditative practice.
Mindfulness and  "The Wheel of Health"

The good news is that mindfulness is something that we’ve all experienced, and it can be cultivated simply.  It is nothing more than “paying attention on purpose”, and it can be developed through formal or informal practice.  Like any habit, mindfulness becomes easier the more we do it.  As a coach, I find mindfulness to be a powerful tool in facilitating behavior change, and it is at the very core of the model that guides my practice.

Mindfulness is a particularly important habit to cultivate with respect to nutrition.  We’ve all heard about the trends – U.S. citizens are becoming increasingly obese, and our nutrition choices are a major reason why.  According to a 2006 study by the Pew Research Center, more than half of U.S. adults estimate that they overeat “junk” food at least some of the time.  Increasing our mindfulness about how we nourish ourselves, is an important first step towards making healthier choices.

Dr. Lilian Cheung, a nutritionist and health promotion researcher at Harvard School of Public Health, identifies seven behaviors that are key to mindful eating. 

1)  Honor the food – In remembering where our food comes from, we enhance our sense of connection to our food and our appreciation of its role in supporting our well-being.
2)  Engage all your senses – Sensory awareness is a mindfulness strategy that, when applied to eating,  allows us to fully experience our nutrition choices.  In addition to helping us slow down, this practice also allows us to notice what thoughts or feelings come up to interrupt our full participation.
3)  Be mindful of portion sizes – When we cultivate the habit of taking smaller portions, we reduce the likelihood of overeating.  Cheung recommends using a plate no larger than 9 inches.  A number of research studies confirm the link between large portions and overeating.
4)  Chew your food – Many of us have trained ourselves to eat quickly, but this habit does not promote healthy nutrition.  Chewing food completely allows us to fully experience our food and to digest it more completely.  It also helps us to eat more slowly.
5)  Eat slowly – Our sensation of being satisfied after eating (satiety), is driven by stretch receptors in our digestive system.  It takes approximately 20 minutes for these receptors to provide feedback to our brains that we are full.  If we eat too quickly, we are more likely to overeat because we don’t sense that we’ve had enough until we’ve already eaten too much.  Studies confirm that eating slowly reduces our food intake!
6)  Do not skip meals – Skipping meals during the day can negatively impact your nutrition plan for a couple of reasons.   Skipping meals alters your metabolism and may increase your risk for diabetes. Also, when you skip meals, you are less likely to make thoughtful food choices the next time you eat.
7)  Eat a plant-based diet – Plants are rich in fiber and phytonutrients, both essential to a healthy metabolism.  In addition, all the fiber that comes with eating plants increases our sense of fullness.  While one can find a wide variety of nutrition advice, all eating plans seem to agree on the value of eating more vegetables.  For an interesting summary about the research on plant-based diets, I recommend viewing the documentary Forks Over Knives.

In this three-minute video, Dr. Cheung shares her perspective about these habits.  It’s well worth your time!

What about you?  Which of these strategies have you tried and what have you discovered?  I’d love to hear what you think!


  1. Great reminder to go eat my breakfast! I used to be so regular about that and don't seem to have a "normal" routine these days, so I forget until it's late. Must get back on that. Thanks for the great article!

  2. Thanks, Rachel. Yes, breakfast is so important to a great start! I'm also reminded of a point that Mark Hyman makes in one of his books. He says that skipping breakfast is one of the key strategies for creating great sumo wrestlers! Sumo wrestlers rise early, work out for several hours, then eat a huge meal and sleep. Your body, interpreting this as a famine situation, slows down your metabolism and stores the energy you take in instead of burning it.