Research shows we are only aware of a fraction of the food decisions we make. Have you ever eaten too much at a buffet, or a snack due to stress? Most of us make mindless mistakes about food. Learning to be more mindful about our dietary choices is a great step toward better health.
Rest assured that you can train yourself to become more aware of your decisions and more mindful of where, what, and how you eat.
If unhealthy foods are in your kitchen, you will most likely eat them. One simple way to make better choices is to shop for healthy fridge and pantry foods. Removing temptation really works! Your job is to stock a healthy kitchen, so you can be in control of what you eat. As you shop for groceries, be mindful of the types of food you put in your cart. Fill most of your cart with whole foods, like vegetables, fruit, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds, meat, fish and dairy. Next, add a few packaged (but not ultra-processed!) foods, such as plain yogurt, canned tuna and frozen peas. Although the packaging adds convenience, these foods are still nutritious. Keep the amount of ultra-processed foods like candy, soda, deli meats, and salty snacks to a minimum. Better yet, don’t buy any at all. These items are usually high in trans fats, sugar or salt.
When you choose whole foods like the ones in the tip above, you create a balanced eating plan filled with the nutrients your body needs. As well, you will not overdo the additives and refined ingredients that your body could do without. Deciding what to eat becomes a lot simpler when you prepare, cook and freeze meals in your own kitchen. When you have time, shop for and prepare ingredients that make cooking easier. Create single-serve containers to grab and go, and freeze leftovers for future meals.
It’s easy to focus on what to eat, and forget this question – how much are you eating at each meal? The truth is that plate sizes have doubled over the last 100 years. These days, we are eating off platters. People who are served larger portions of food will eat more calories, whether they feel hungry or not. An easy way to solve this problem is to choose a smaller plate. Simply swap your dinner plate for a salad plate, and you will be eating about 30 per cent less. Plates are not the only things that are bigger. The same is true for cups and bowls. Want another great tip that can positively influence your portion decision? Instead of eating from a family-size bowl or bag, take a single serving on a plate so you do not mindlessly munch.
If you want to make healthy food decisions, you must plan ahead. Before you start your day, ask yourself where you will be eating your meals, and what you need to have on hand to make healthy choices. That way, you know in advance where you are eating lunch or what you will snack on. By making mindful, conscious choices ahead of time, you are not left scrambling to make decisions when you are really hungry.
In an ideal world, you would eat every meal seated at a table, focused on enjoying your food. Eating while distracted by driving, watching TV or checking email keeps you from noticing your hunger level. If you concentrate on another activity, it is easy to overeat. Instead, focus on food with no distractions. Enjoy food with all of your senses. Notice how it smells, looks and tastes, and enjoy every bite. If multitasking is inevitable in your hectic lifestyle, make sure you take time to fill your plate with healthy food. Look at it before you start eating, and be aware of the amount you are about to consume.
Enjoying meals with friends and family can be fun and enriching, but it can also lead to overeating. We tend to eat more when dining with others than when we eat alone – a phenomenon known as 'social facilitation.’ Some researchers actually think we prefer to eat in groups because it offers us more opportunity to overindulge! Go into social situations involving food with your eyes wide open. It is easy to be distracted by conversation and laughter, so make food decisions before you arrive at an event. Remember, it is fine to overindulge on occasion, as long as you make it a mindful choice.
Now that you know where, what, and how much you will be eating, it is vital to determine why you are eating. Do you know the difference between true hunger and emotional hunger? Many of us are emotional eaters. We use this coping mechanism to soothe stress, fear, anger, boredom or loneliness. Before you take your first bite, ask yourself if you are really hungry. True hunger builds gradually and is often accompanied by a rumbling tummy. It tends to occur several hours after your last meal or snack, and goes away once you eat. Emotional hunger develops more suddenly and feels like a craving rather than a belly rumble. It can happen at any time, no matter when you ate your last meal. In this case, eating often leads to feeling shame, guilt or regret.
If you are an emotional eater, considering working with a dietitian or therapist to learn healthier ways to cope with your emotions.
When thinking about why you eat, note that temptation can influence your food decisions. Cheap, readily available foods and enticing advertisements increase cravings, and are hard to avoid. Fortunately, you do not need to skip treats. Instead, choose to enjoy smaller portions of these foods. One square of quality chocolate may provide enough sugar and fat to satisfy your need for something decadent. Instead of depriving yourself of all treats, enjoy them in moderation. The great thing about making thoughtful decisions about food is that mindful eating can help reduce impulse decisions. You also are more likely to sustain this behaviour.
Food nourishes your body and mind, and also brings pleasure. Learning to balance nourishment and pleasure is key. Consider following the 80/20 rule. Choose healthy, nutritious and balanced whole foods 80 per cent of the time, and select less healthy foods 20 per cent of the time. This allows you to nourish and love your body, while still enjoying treats. Mindfully choose a food, asking yourself whether it is part of the 80 per cent, or part of the 20. Foods should never make you feel guilty or bad about yourself.
Becoming aware of an issue is often the first step in making change. When you are ready for your next meal, think about at least one of these nine tips. Notice how your behaviour begins to change. Before long, you can retrain your brain to think before you eat.