The holiday season is upon us with busier-than-ever schedules, endless to-do lists, and one get together after another with delicious, rich, waist-expanding foods at our fingertips. It’s easy to see how the average person gains 5 to 10 pounds during the holidays. Food is everywhere. Good food. Fortunately, there is a practice that can help keep our holiday gorging to a minimum, and even help us enjoy the foods we eat more. The practice of mindful eating is a win-win, really.
To understand mindful eating, we must first understand mindfulness. Luckily, as yoga practitioners, we are already primed for the practice. During yoga practice, when we bring our attention to the breath, essentially bring our attention back to the present moment, we are already practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the act of paying attention to what is happening—physically, mentally, and emotionally—while it is happening without getting caught up in the story surrounding it. For example, during yoga practice we bring our attention to the breath, but inevitably thoughts arise, such as, “I must be off balance today because I didn’t sleep well last night,” or, “Why can I never get this pose right?” or even, “I am SO good at this pose.” In these moments, when we finally realize that our minds have become distracted, we bring our attention back to the breath. Over and over again. This is a mindfulness practice.
According to Jan Chozen Bays, MD, author of the book Mindful Eating, “Mindful eating involves paying full attention to the experience of eating and drinking, both inside and outside the body. We pay attention to the colors, smells, textures, flavors, temperatures, and even the sounds (crunch!) of our food. We pay attention to the experience of the body.”
Think about how you usually eat. Do you read while eating? Or watch TV? Do you talk through your meal so much that each bite gets chewed and swallowed at rapid speed? Or maybe you eat too rapidly even if you’re not talking. Do you often find yourself fuller than you anticipated? Most of us, if not all of us, can probably relate. Eating mindlessly—the opposite of eating mindfully—has many negative effects on our health. Obesity, diabetes, and digestive conditions can all arise when we eat mindlessly.
Mindful eating, on the other hand, not only helps put us in the right frame of mind, but it has beneficial effects on our physical health. A recent study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that diabetics who ate mindfully were able to reduce their blood sugar levels and lose as much weight as those who received the traditional diabetes self-management program Smart Choices, which involved education about the diabetes condition itself, proper blood sugar control, medical nutrition therapy, and encouragement of physical activity. Those results are rather impressive when you consider that those people who received mindfulness training only received very basic information on nutrition.
This holiday season, try to incorporate mindful eating when you can. Take time to tune into your true hunger sensations. Before eating, determine whether you are really hungry, or simply eating out of habit, boredom, or emotion. When eating, be sure to chew your food well, taking in the flavors, smells, and textures of your food. If you tend to read while eating, Jan Chozen Bays recommends that you alternate the activities: read one page and then eat mindfully a few bites. Pay attention to your body’s cues. Stop eating when you feel satiated. Start small, maybe one meal a week. Or the first five minutes of each dinner. Over time, the benefits of eating mindfully will become evident to you.