We lead busy lives in today’s modern world. We’re always on the run.
And because there are tons of fast food options available to accommodate our fast-paced lives, this means we’re usually distracted and inhaling our meals. So we wolf down a quick energy bar and drink it with a soft drink, not even realizing that we could be causing more damage (both psychologically and physically) than we ever thought possible.
As Washington Post journalist, Carrie Dennet, puts it:
There’s a Zen proverb that talks about how, “When walking, walk. When eating, eat.” However, modern society seems to follow this adage: “When walking, check your cell phone. When eating, check your cell phone.
Our fast-paced lives distract us from being genuinely intentional about our meals. It’s common for us to eat in front of the television, computer, or to have our smartphone in hand, which is the very definition of mindless eating.
You need to, instead, be determined to become a mindful eater — because doing so is vital to becoming your most vibrant, healthiest self!
But to do that, we need to unpack what mindless eating is really all about.
What is Mindless Eating?
Some believe that mindless eaters are people who don’t have any willpower or self-control when it comes to eating.
But actually, there are real reasons why people either overeat or eat without having an awareness of what they’re eating. The truth is that some people eat just to cope (or not cope) with their emotions, or out of pure habit.
Mindless eating means ‘eating without awareness’ — as in, sometimes you may not even be hungry when you eat. Instead, you’re eating to fulfill a different type of hunger (e.g., like your hunger to numb painful emotions).
Eating mindlessly can also disturb the communication between your gut/brain axis, which in turn, can negatively impact your moods and cause many gastrointestinal problems (like gas and bloating).
And no quick-fix or fad diet can compare to learning how to mindfully eat for your health.
Mindless eating often occurs when you’re feeling bored, lonely, anxious, sad, or frustrated. You then attempt to distract yourself from uncomfortable emotions by trying to mask these feelings with food. Mindless eating means that your brain is not involved with your eating, and before you know it, you’ve eaten much more than you originally intended.
The Power of Mindful Eating
Mindful eating, on the other hand, is about developing a conscious awareness of your thoughts and feelings around food. It’s a non-diet approach that has the added benefit of helping you achieve and maintain your healthiest weight.
Mindful eating is all about choosing healthy, vibrant foods that you enjoy — foods that awaken your senses and give you pleasure in eating them. If your goal is to eat mindfully, you must learn to shift the focus from obsessing over or fearing food to exploring and being curious about how you eat it.
Mindful eating means to eat with intention and involves developing an enjoyable relationship with food, because — yes, it IS possible to have a good relationship with food!
Mindful Eating is NOT a restrictive diet. Instead, it’s a practice that involves deriving pleasure from food and being fully present at every meal. It promotes a psychological barrier to overeating and emotional eating by paying attention to your body’s signals — like hunger, fullness, and satisfaction. With mindful eating, you learn to honor your hunger and to eat food consciously as a means to fuel your body.
A Simple Mindful Eating Test
To gain insight into just how often you eat mindlessly, try this fun test: take one week out of your busy schedule to eat food using your non-dominant hand!
This simple act demands that your engage your brain fully in the act of eating. Because it’s unnatural for you to eat with your other hand, your brain needs to send a message to that hand to pick up the food and place it in your mouth. This small experiment will amaze you and make you realize just how much mindless eating you actually do.
All silly eating exercises aside, try to just imagine your life if you decided to never eat mindlessly again — would you feel a lot different about food and how you feel in your body?
“Make food choices that honor your health and taste buds while making you feel good. Remember that you don’t have to eat a perfect diet to be healthy. You will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency, or gain weight from one snack, one meal, or one day of eating. It’s what you eat consistently over time that matters. Progress, not perfection, is what counts.”
EVELYN TRIBOLE, INTUITIVE EATING: A REVOLUTIONARY PROGRAM THAT WORKS
The Reasons You Eat Mindlessly
While I hope I’ve made the point that mindful eating is best for us, we also need to understand that there are many things that cause us to eat mindlessly. Understanding these underlying reasons is critical to transforming your relationship with food.
One substantial reason for mindless eating is anxiousness. The thought of not being able to eat a particular food again, or feeling that you must eat something before someone else gets to it can create a sense of fear. This fear of being deprived in the future can lead to impulsive decisions around eating, sometimes even when you’re not actually hungry.
The sight or smell of certain foods can also trigger your desire to eat. Maybe you catch a smell of your local coffee shop, with its rich aromas of coffee and freshly baked donuts (how could anyone resist that, right?), and it brings back positive memories of a time when you enjoyed a coffee or sweet treat.
It’s hard to resist the tempting, familiar dopamine hit. Sometimes we are more inclined to follow those urges because we crave “satisfaction,” or are seeking entertainment through sweet, savory, or “off-limits” treats.
The paradox is that once you stop viewing certain foods as being “off-limits,” or “good vs. bad,” an easefulness and joy ensues, making the opportunity for these treats less urgent. As you begin eating your food with intention and awareness of the senses it triggers, it will help you reduce your urge to want more and allow you to have sensory experiences, without being driven by them.
Eating What’s Available
You might feel inclined to eat certain foods just because they are more readily available. So you eat whether you’re hungry or not.
For example, let’s say you attend a meeting (assuming there’s no pandemic!) where donuts are freely available to enjoy with your coffee. Even though you had breakfast before the meeting, everyone else is putting pieces on their plates and you want to “feel included” — so you add some to your plate!
Another example of just eating what’s available (versus eating mindfully) could be mostly eating quick snacks, rather than fruits or vegetables, because that’s what you have available in your home.
What about time? It’s breakfast time, then it’s lunchtime, and then dinner time. But do you ever just pause and check-in with yourself to see if you’re actually hungry when those times come up?
Many of us have been conditioned that breakfast, lunch, and dinner are times to eat, hungry or not, which means that sometimes we eat more than what we need or when we’re not actually hungry. Again, the remedy for this is an intuitive, mindful eating practice. We’ll get deeper into that at a later point, but beginning to be more mindful when enjoying your meals — noticing how they make you feel before, during, and after — is a great place to start.
Download Your FREE Mindful Eating Journal
When your emotions are taking charge, it’s easy to succumb to food urges. When you’re lonely, sad, happy, or nervous you reach out for those snacks to make you ”feel better.”
You might also reward yourself with food. When you do well on a test, you might feel as though you deserve that massive piece of chocolate cake — after all, you “earned” it!
The key here is to learn to recognize the signs of being emotionally hungry vs. physically hungry. It’s a critical skill that I help my clients build.
Finally, you may eat simply to please others. Perhaps your mother or a friend went to great lengths to prepare your favorite meal, so you want to show your appreciation by eating more than you’d like. Or perhaps your partner may really want to go out to their favorite burger place, where there aren’t many other options, so you’ll reason that you do not want to offend them or “rock the boat” — leading to possible guilt or frustration.
How to Deal with Food Triggers and Break the Mindless Eating Habit for Good
While there are many reasons that you may eat mindlessly, shifting to mindful eating is something within your control. To do so, you must cultivate an awareness around your personal triggers that lead you to overeat. Once you’re consciously aware of them, you can then move forward with a strategy to overcome them. Here are a few helpful tips:
- To start, honor the fact that it’s ok and perfectly natural to feel hunger! The enemy to your triggers is not being hungry. The problem lies in over-stuffing yourself and remaining disconnected with your food. Again, there’s nothing wrong with being hungry — it is natural for your body to tell you it needs food. Part of the trick is figuring out, or working with a qualified practitioner to help you learn, what balanced meals look like for your body and lifestyle!
- When you learn to respect your body and appreciate the health you have, you will take better care of it. Work on appreciating all that it does for you and on feeding it in a way that deeply nourishes you.
- Instead of saying, “What can I eat now?” ask yourself, “Do I need to eat now”? If you are hungry, then you should eat!
- Remember you’re neither a “bad eater” nor a “good eater.” Just let whatever enters your mouth be a deliberate and intentional choice you make. And then be willing to check-in with yourself as to how certain foods make you feel.
- Don’t forget to drink water, because it is crucial to your wellbeing. Hunger is often disguised as thirst, and we tend to eat mindlessly when we are actually dehydrated. If you learn to drink water regularly each day, you will quench your thirst and eliminate the yearning to eat mindlessly.
- Learn to eat slower, relishing your food, listening to how you breathe. When you start breathing or sighing heavily, your stomach has had enough and it’s time to quit eating.
- Take the time to master eating. With perseverance and patience, you can get rid of mindless eating. This means approaching it as a daily practice, focusing only on today and not on a certain event or date in the elusive future.
Learning what causes you to eat mindlessly is an excellent step in changing how you eat. Don’t worry too much if you’ve over-indulged in the last few days because there is no time like the present.
You are now more aware of the mindset that’s required to promote mindful eating. Naturally, you would not run a long marathon without practicing correctly, and it’s the same thing here — so start practicing today!