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According to Dr. Jan Chozen Bays, an Oregon-based pediatrician, a meditation teacher and the author of Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food (Shambhala, 2009), mindfulness is "the act of paying full, nonjudgmental attention to our moment-to-moment experience."
This approach involves bringing your full attention to the tastes, smells, thoughts and feelings that arise while you're eating, whether you're enjoying a single snack or a multicourse meal.
The health benefits of mindful eating
Although experts can cite plenty of anecdotal evidence about how mindful eating improves health, only a few articles about mindful eating have been published in scientific literature. Research done at Indiana State University on the binge-eating habits of obese women indicates that you can't binge if you're eating mindfully.
"While the goal of mindful eating isn't to lose or gain weight," says Bays, "many people find that their weight normalizes if they practise mindful eating in a sustained way."
Lindsey Mazur is a registered dietitian and nutrition counsellor at Winnipeg's Women's Health Clinic, a feminist community clinic that holds mindful-eating workshops for the public two or three times a year. Mazur also incorporates mindful eating into her practice as part of the clinic's Health at Every Size approach, which focuses on achieving optimal health rather than scrutinizing numbers on a scale.
Who can it help?
"Mindful eating can be beneficial for everyone, but it may be most helpful for people who want to get off the yo-yo dieting roller-coaster, that cycle of restricting and binging," says Mazur. "It can help them connect to their bodies and their food in a more positive way that is about caring for their bodies rather than depriving themselves."
As with learning any new skill, developing mindfulness requires practise over a significant period of time. It involves asking questions whenever we eat something, such as: Do I really like what I'm eating? Will what I'm eating nourish me? Am I eating it out of habit or because I'm truly hungry? Am I able to stop eating when I feel satisfied rather than stuffed?
How to eat mindfully
Mazur advises her clients to take one deep breath before they begin eating. "It's so simple, but it can make a huge difference in your eating experience," she says, pointing out that we absorb more nutrients during digestion when we eat with awareness.
Here are some guidelines to help you create your own mindful-eating practice.
Try to avoid distractions. "It's unrealistic for families to eat an entire meal in complete silence, so I advise trying to have at least one mindful bite of whatever you're eating, even if it's mid-meal," says Mazur. It's also helpful to turn off the TV, radio and any mobile devices.
Look at each item. Take in each item with your eyes, noticing the colours, textures, shapes and arrangements of the food on your plate or in your bowl. Then inhale their aromas.
Take a moment to say grace.You don't have to save it for Thanksgiving! "Thank the animals, plants and people who brought this food to you," writes Bays in Mindful Eating.
Eat the same way that a connoisseur tastes wine. Take a small bite and roll it around in your mouth, savouring it. What ingredients can you detect? Chew slowly and swallow, then take a sip of water to cleanse your palate. When your mouth is empty of both food and flavour, repeat the process.
Stop if you get derailed. If you notice that you're eating without tasting, pause to look at the food again, then start over.
"Mindful eating is about being present in the moment with your food and engaging all of your senses," says Mazur. "It's a process of self-discovery that will lead to a healthier relationship with food and to feeling better."
Eating healthy can often be a challenge, so here are some tips on how to eat better. Don't forget to pack nutritious lunches with healthy foods to eat at work.