Mindful eating: Put that potato chip down, now

  • Article by: GABRIELLA BOSTON
  • Washington Post
  • July 14, 2013 - 6:11 PM


We know a whole lot about what to eat (kale) and what not to eat (potato chips). But what about the how and why of eating?

Those questions are just as important, said Vanessa King, nutrition professor at American University and a proponent of “mindful eating” — the how and why of eating — along with the what.

“It’s not that people ever thought that eating potato chips was good for them. That’s not the point,” King said.

So why do we eat potato chips? And after 20 chips, why are we still eating?

This is where King and other mindful-eating nutrition educators recommend that we “tune in.”

Are you eating because you’re in a social setting where everyone else is eating? Are you eating because you were taught to always finish what’s in front of you? Are you eating because you are upset?

“The question becomes, are you eating mindlessly?” King said.

Jean Kristeller, co-founder of the Center for Mindful Eating, said the practice is about bringing awareness to our automatic and reactive responses to food.

“We all develop a lot of automatic patterns around eating,” said Kristeller, who has a doctorate in psychology and whose research focus is food intake regulation and eating disorders. “Eating everything on our plate is a perfect example of one of those patterns.”

To break patterns, we first have to be aware of their existence. That starts with slowing down and calming down.

“Mindful eating is ‘about’ bringing your attention to a more calm place,” said Kristeller, a professor emerita at Indiana State University. “And then you might start observing yourself and learning about yourself in a nonjudgmental way.”

We might then discover that we eat because of such things as emotional triggers and social pressures. “We might find that every time we get upset, we want chocolate,” Kristeller said.

Talk to your body

If observing is the first step, the second step is connecting the body and the mind, said Elise Museles, a nutrition and eating psychology educator in Bethesda, Md.

“I find that for many of us, the biggest thing we’re missing is what our body is telling us,” Museles said. “Slowing down allows you to taste and feel textures, to feel full sooner with less.”

Too often we override that feeling of satiation by eating too fast, she said. But if we sit down and eat from a plate (instead of a bag, basket or takeout container), the body has a better chance to send signals of satisfaction and satiation back to the brain.

“Tune in to the intelligence of your body,” she said.

Presenting the food in a pleasing way is part of that slowing-down process.

“Breathe deeply, notice the appearance, slip colors into the dish; if it’s a Caesar salad, add tomatoes and beets,” she said.

Better yet, maybe you buy those tomatoes and beets at a local farmers market where you come face to face with the farmer who harvested your produce, she said, adding that sustainably sourced food is part of eating mindfully.

Other tools for mindful eating, King said, include eating on a small plate, keeping counters clear (“we eat what we see”), avoiding bulk buying and cooking at home “with love” as often as possible.

Dear food diary

Another tool is to keep a food diary. It makes you observe your behavior in a whole new way, King said.

“You become accountable: No one wants to write down that they just ate an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s,” she said.

It sounds a bit like a diet, but perhaps with a little more compassion. “I got into this many, many years ago when I found that diet approaches created so much stress and anxiety,” Kristeller said. “It was all about good food, bad food. So, I started helping people tune in to and cultivate self-acceptance.”

For example, if you really want that chocolate chip cookie, have it. Or have a bite of it. And enjoy it without guilt.

“Mindful eating is about cultivating that inner gourmet — really letting yourself enjoy the food you enjoy — just in smaller quantities,” Kristeller said.

It’s about affirming yourself rather than condemning and judging, said King. Then again, she is quick to acknowledge there is one thing she’s judgmental about: the multitasking meal.

“Multitasking is not being mindful,” King said. “Give eating its time. Enjoy. You are worth it. Ultimately, the way you eat is the way you live.”

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