Mindful eating has been the most difficult healthstyle habit for me to cultivate. By far.
Although I have developed several tactics to help me remember to slow down and pay attention to my food, it is usually the first thing to slip when stress and life get the better of me.
Humans, especially Americans, are notoriously susceptible to triggers in our surroundings that provoke overeating. Rather than paying attention to when we’re full or have eaten enough, we’re more likely to continue eating just because there is more food on the plate, the TV show we’re watching is still on, or because everyone else is still eating.
Dieters are even worse than most people in this department, since they have a long history of ignoring their internal satiety signals that tell them when they are and aren’t hungry.
When you eat mindlessly your environment wins and you’re more likely to overeat. You also appreciate your food less, since you aren’t focused on the sensory pleasures of eating. Cultivating mindful eating habits is therefore one of the most valuable tools in your foodist tool belt, because it helps you eat less while enjoying it more.
The benefits of practicing mindfulness are not limited to the realm of food. Cultivating mindful behaviors in your daily life has been shown to reduce stress, improve memory, and increase well-being overall.
When I noticed that wedding stress was taking a serious toll on me, I began relying heavily on what is known as 4-7-8 breathing to calm myself. I first learned about this practice in Dr. Andrew Weil’s book Spontaneous Happiness (a fabulous book, especially if you ever experience depression or other emotional disorders), and noticed that it had a tremendous positive effect on me, particularly when I was experiencing bouts of anxiety.
4-7-8 breathing is a short exercise that helps quiet the mind. To begin, lay down or sit in a chair with a straight back and close your eyes. Place the tip of the tongue on the roof of the mouth, just above your front teeth. Exhale through your mouth while making a blowing noise. Close your mouth and inhale through the nose for a count of four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, then exhale for eight seconds. Do this four times, then slowly open your eyes. Here’s a nice video demo if you want to check it out.
In the months leading up to the wedding I would use 4-7-8 breaths one to three times per day to reduce stress, and the experience became so pleasant and rewarding to me that I’ve continued it even after the actual wedding date. One of the benefits I’ve noticed is that if my 4-7-8 breaths come shortly before a meal (which is often, since it is usually the first time during the day when I sit in a chair that isn’t behind a screen), then remembering to chew thoroughly and eat mindfully is much, much easier.
Remembering to eat mindfully can be very difficult. If you’re being mindless, how are you supposed to remember to be more mindful? If you remember to be mindful, aren’t you being mindful already? It can be tricky, so 4-7-8 breathing is an incredibly valuable tool to help build the habit. I think it works because the reward for calming the mind with breaths is stronger than simply eating slowly, which feels difficult in practice. You also get the additional benefits of less stress and more focus. Everyone is a winner.
Have you found breathing exercises can help you eat more mindfully?
Originally published April 17, 2013.