Are you hungry right now? Is it time for lunch or is it the middle of the afternoon? Are you feeling bored, stressed or eager to sit down at the table with your family? What do you plan to eat for dinner? Will you have to stop at the grocery store or go to a restaurant? When you really think about it, eating isn’t as simple as it sounds.
For many of us, the challenge is that we don’t think about eating. We reach for food when we’re hungry — and even when we’re not. We may eat more than we intend to when the flavor is great and the conversation is flowing. Or perhaps we eat simply because food is in front of us, such as at a party or in the workplace break room.
Developing a healthy relationship with food takes thought and practice. First, ask yourself if you are able to stop eating at the point when you’ve eaten enough food for your body to function well and you feel satisfied. To answer that question, you need to be mindful, not on autopilot.
Some people are on the opposite end of the continuum and need to learn how to give themselves permission to eat and take time to eat. We all know people who spend too much time at work and are so absorbed in their work that they skip meals as if they have an invisible and bottomless supply of energy. Then there are people who eat in their cars or at their desks without any regard for taste or digestion.
And what about people who have set very strict rules about what they can and cannot eat, rules that may or may not be grounded in good nutrition or healthy behavior? Being at war with food takes away all the natural pleasure of using our senses of smell, taste, sight, touch, and even sound — think about foods that crunch, for example.
Rate your relationship with food: To become more mindful about eating, try using this scale several times a day: 1 for ravenous, 5 for satisfied, and 10 for overstuffed. When you rate yourself 1-5, think about what and how much you eat when you’re that hungry. If you’re at 8 or 9, would skipping a second helping have kept you closer to a 5?
Sure, it’s a game, but the idea is helpful: Connect with your hunger level and food intake. Balance is the goal.
How fast or slowly we eat is part of the balance, too. Eating more slowly gives your stomach enough time to send signals to your brain that you are satisfied or full. That’s a 5 on the rating scale. If you’re ravenous when you start a meal, eat only half the food on your plate and take a pause to give your body time to catch up. If you are still physically hungry, continue eating — slowly — until your appetite is gently satisfied.
Family values and practices can influence how we eat as adults, so it’s wise to consider what a healthy portion of food actually is. In some families, children are instructed to clean their plates, a practice that can interfere later in life with the ability to judge what a healthy portion size is.
Restaurants sometimes serve overly large amounts, so stop, look and listen to your body before you start into that heaping plateful. Effective strategies for portion control include sharing your meal with another person or asking for a take-out container — even before you start eating.
Test your flavor buds. Here’s another exercise to help you explore your relationship with food. Take a bite of a strawberry, fresh pineapple or other flavorful fruit. Let it rest in your mouth. Close your eyes and concentrate on the flavor. Then, begin to chew slowly. Think about how the fruit tastes and how it can give you energy and provide nutrition.
Was it hard to go slowly? Repeat the exercise and think about how different your eating experience could be if you savored all your food by simply slowing down your eating.
Being mindful about what and how we eat can help us truly enjoy food and recognize the benefit it provides us. At your next meal, put your relationship with food to the test. Select your food for taste and enjoyment, and take the time to savor.