By Lizzie Waldo, YMCA Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

The world we live in moves at breakneck speed. We have come to expect immediate responses, quick results, and are always looking for what’s next. The same can be true when it comes to eating.

We don’t always have the time to contemplate food choices or spend five minutes chewing each bite. But there are some simple guidelines that can help us become more thoughtful and bring our bodies and minds together to make healthy food choices.

Before we jump in, it is important to set some parameters around mindless versus mindful eating. Mindless eating is eating past the feeling of fullness or ignoring your body’s natural signals to stop, eating when emotional, eating sporadically, eating and multitasking, or considering a meal an end product. 

In contrast, mindful eating is tuning in and listening to your body to stop when you’re full, eating when we are actually hungry, eating with others at set times and places, eating foods that are nutritious, eating without distractions or multitasking, and considering where food comes from. It's easy to see how a natural result of becoming more mindful is eating less and often losing weight. 

So how do we put this mindfulness into practice? Start with these five things.

1. Slow down

The biggest thing you can do to take a step toward being mindful is to eat slower. It takes about 20 minutes for the body and the brain to release specific chemicals that inform each other that we are feeling full and satisfied. This is the reason most people tend to overeat!

If we slow down and take time enjoy the meal, we allow the body and brain to catch up. Easy ways to do this are sitting for each meal (even snacks!), chewing each bite of food at least 25 times, setting your fork down between bites, and drinking water with your meal.

2. Tune in

In most situations, it is common that we first ask our brains for an answer. Practicing mindfulness or becoming more mindful means tuning into our bodies first to see what we really need or want. This is helpful in avoiding emotional eating when you are feeling sad, lonely, frustrated, or even bored. Instead, listen deeply for hunger cues. Is your stomach growling? Do you feel low energy? Light headed? Everyone’s cues for hunger are a little different, so it is important to discover your body’s triggers.

3. Check out your environment

Do you often find yourself getting home after a long day, opening and closing the fridge and cabinets and snacking aimlessly? This mindless habit prevents you from creating a healthy eating environment. Without even realizing it, you are wiring your brain to develop new eating cues that are not ideal.

Now, the issue here isn’t the snacking. As we’ve discussed, snacking is an important bridge between meals and an essential part of mindful eating. What we want to avoid is mindless “grazing.” Instead of grabbing a little bit here and there, we want eating to be planned and deliberate. Putting food away instead of leaving it out on the counter, placing appropriate portions on a plate or bowl, not eating straight out of the container, and using utensils instead of your hands all help encourage better behaviors.

4. Connect more

The farther we get away from the hunter-gatherer or farming lifestyle, the more disconnected we are to the food we eat. Most of the time we aren’t even thinking about where the food is coming from beyond the grocery store. When we take time to acknowledge all the hands involved in getting a meal to our plate, it helps us become mindful.

Take a moment to consider the people who prepared the meal, those who stocked the shelves and brought the food to the store, the individuals who planted and harvested the product, and all those who supported these individuals along the way. When we think in these terms, it is hard to not feel more connected to our food on a much deeper level and share a richer experience in eating.

5. Make it a priority

Eating should be a priority. Put your phone down, take lunch break away from your desk, and turn off the TV. Enjoy the conversation of those around you and be in the moment. Mindfulness is all about being fully present—aware of where we are, what we are doing, and what’s going on around us. This allows you to slow down, tune in, eat deliberately, and connect. When you train yourself to be mindful and focused, it remodels the structure of your brain to avoid running on auto-pilot.

Just remember that becoming mindful takes time and practice, so show yourself compassion and patience while you work towards better eating habits. Learn more about healthy living with 3 Tips for a Mindful Monday and How to Snack Well for Weight Loss.

Working toward a weight loss goal?

Stay accountable and inspired with the YMCA’s Weight Loss Program. This 12-week course offers weekly small-group discussion and tools to help you design a unique plan, track progress and set yourself on the path to a healthier lifestyle. Learn More.