Science of Food: Mindful eating
December 28, 2017
In last month's Science of Food column, I began a discussion about artificial food additives and whether or not they are safe to eat on a daily basis. In that article, and in all my writings about the man-made chemicals in our food supply, I intend to bring our awareness to what exactly we are eating. In this column, I wanted to expand the focus to look at how we eat, and the concept of mindfulness-based eating as a way to naturally control weight issues, improve eating habits and ultimately improve your overall well-being.
A simple definition of mindfulness is the state of being consciously aware of what is going on in the present moment (thoughts, emotions, physical sensations) in a nonjudgmental way. Traditional mindfulness practices, especially in the form of meditation, yoga and qigong for example are of Eastern origin, however activities like playing music, cooking, skiing or trail running can also be considered mindfulness practices as they require your mind to focus intently what is going on in the present. These practices are becoming more and more popular in the West as people are beginning to realize the benefits of quieting the "monkey mind," developing more self-awareness and living a more mindful life.
Many research studies have already been done to better understand how mindfulness practices impact the mind and body. In fact an entirely new field called "interpersonal neurobiology" has been created to study the effects on mindfulness practices on overall health. Dr. Daniel Siegel, M.D. a pioneer in this new field at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center and author of the book "Mindsight," discusses how there are physical "changes in brain features and brain functioning in those who practice mindfulness meditation regularly," which can reduces stress and symptoms of depression, lower incidences of binge eating and can improve immune function and healing times. Although modern science is just beginning to understand how this all works in the brain, people have been exploring mindfulness techniques as a way to improve quality of life for thousands of years.
So how do you begin to eat more mindfully? Here I offer a few tips on how to apply mindfulness-based eating to your everyday life.
Eat when you're hungry. This sounds simple enough, but can be surprisingly difficult to execute. We have all felt hunger pains, a physical sensation in the belly region that signals you are very hungry. There are also more subtle hunger signals that tell us we need to eat. Try and "listen" to these sensations to guide your eating times throughout the day. Each day may be different depending on the other physical activities you do or other foods you have eaten. Become more aware of things that you eat just out of habit or because it is a certain time of the day.
Be aware when "emotional eating" is happening. Certain types of foods, like the so-called "comfort foods" or sugary foods like ice cream, can often create pleasure in the mind and make us feel better for a short period of time. Oftentimes emotional eating happens when we are not hungry and can lead to eating excessive portions.
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Stop eating when you're full. When to stop eating can sometimes be difficult, but just as are there are hunger signals, there are also "stop signals" that are sent out when the body is full or satiated. We need to start by eating more slowly. There is a lag time for the food to process, to enter into the body and for the satiation signals to reach the brain, so simply eating more slowly by taking smaller bites and chewing more will help to allow the brain to catch up with the body. This will also likely reduce the amount of food you eat and will also help the food digest more easily.
Recent research reveals that hormones are involved, like leptin and ghrelin shown to be important players in regulating appetite and hunger and satiety. Base your diet on nutrient dense foods (real food) instead of foods with "empty calories" that do not turn on the satiation signals or nourish the body in any way. Some processed foods are actually designed to do the opposite and fool the brain to keep eating, which leads me to the next tip.
Know exactly what is in your food. If you are eating food that comes in a package or a can then make it a habit to read food labels carefully. Some synthetic additives and residues like artificial sugars and fats (e.g. trans fats), food dyes, preservatives and pesticides can disrupt the brilliant neurological network that creates the feelings of hunger and satiation. They can also signal the body to store more fat. I suggest that if you don't know exactly what the chemical food additive is in your food product, then don't eat it.
Sit down to eat and eliminate technological distractions. Practicing mindfulness based eating starts by being fully present. A distracted mind cannot hear the hunger and satiation signals, nor can it fully enjoy the experience of eating. Instead of eating on the run or in the car, make an effort to sit down and eat. Put away your phone, turn off the TV and cook your own food if possible. Chew more slowly and explore tastes, textures and smells with curiosity. I know we live busy lives in this modern world, but slowing down to eat will naturally improve your eating habits and will make you feel better about what and how you are eating.
Especially during the holidays, we are confronted with extra treats and richer foods and it is easy overindulge. These simple mindfulness-based eating techniques can help to naturally decrease portion sizes, reduce bloating and GI discomfort, and will help you feel satiated this holiday season and beyond. Creating healthy habits, developing greater self-awareness and being generally more mindful in all aspects of life can lead to a better understanding of how our thoughts, words and actions influence not only our eating habits, but our mental health and our relationships with others.
Lisa Julian Ph.D. has a passion for organic chemistry the "molecules of life," and its application to food and health. She's the owner of Elevated Yoga & Holistic Health in Frisco and teaches Science and Nutrition at CU Denver and CMC. She can be reached at 970-401-2071 or firstname.lastname@example.org For more information about services offered at her studio, visit ElevatedYogaColorado.com.
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