by Emily Nachazel
Even after becoming a certified holistic health coach through The Institute for Integrative Nutrition, the practice of “mindful eating” still eluded me. I knew it was something I should be doing (especially as someone teaching about health and wellness!), but I wasn’t clear on how I could get started in a practical way, especially as a busy city gal.
So wait, why IS mindful eating important?
Our bodies have two operating modes: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is what gets turned on when you’re stressed: blood goes to your limbs so that should you need to run away from a tiger (or answer a pressing email from your boss), you have the energy to do so. Most of us, especially those of us living in a fast-paced city like NYC, live more in this state.
Your parasympathetic nervous system is your rest and digest function. When this state is activated, blood goes to your organs so that your body can digest your food, flush out toxins and rejuvenate. This is the state we want to be in when we eat our meals. If you’re in fight or flight mode (sympathetic), your body isn’t prepared to digest food, which can lead to digestive issues, poor nutrient absorption and overeating.
In contrast, when you’re in your parasympathetic state, your body easily digests and assimilates food, and you’re better able to listen to your natural hunger and fullness cues. It’s easier for you to eat the type and amount of food that make you feel your best. In addition, when you allow yourself to be present with your food, you’re better able to assess how it makes you feel and shift future choices based on this information.
This is what mindful eating means: you are intentional with your food choices and eating habits. You’re in touch with your body and your values, and you’re making decisions from that place.
The more I worked with clients one-on-one, the more I realized that eating mindfully is something we all struggle with - either we don’t have time, or we’re not totally sure what eating mindfully means. But it’s also something everyone can benefit from, no matter your age, circumstances or health goals. The best part? Mindful eating is a totally free way to feel better in your body, anytime and anywhere.
I’ve come up with some guidelines and practical tips for myself and my health coaching clients to actually slow down around meal time and eat more mindfully.
I suggest picking one practice to start with, and then build from there!
1. Chew until your food is liquid. This is one way to slow down during meals. Don't think too much about it, just chew every bite until it becomes liquid. It may feel weird, but you want the food to stay in your mouth for some time so that the digestive enzymes in your saliva (that actually start breaking down food before it gets to your stomach) can get to work!
2. Put your fork down in between bites. Resist the urge to put more food in your mouth until the current bite is done. Focus on each bite until you have chewed it completely, and then pick up your fork for your next bite.
3. Eat with zero distractions! This is the hardest one for me. No phones, no computers, no newspapers. Just eat your food. Listen to calm music or a podcast if you must have something going on, but the point of this one is to be fully present with your plate. Even if you have to eat at your desk, turn away from your computer or at least close your email so you’re not being pinged.
4. Take three deep breaths before your meal. Deep breathing drops you into your parasympathetic nervous system (remember that’s your “rest and digest” mode). This is the place where your body can most effectively process your food. When your body uses less energy to digest your food, that means more energy is available for all the other things you want to be focusing on.
5. Start your meal with a prayer, blessing or moment of gratitude. This doesn’t have to be religious. The important thing is that you are taking a moment to pause and appreciate everything you have. You can look at your plate and think about how the food made its way there, perhaps acknowledging whoever or whatever made this meal possible for you.
When I’m practicing these tips, I naturally make the food choices that are best for my body, I eat a little less, and I experience a huge decrease in digestive issues like bloating, gas and indigestion (something I’ve struggled with for years!). Plus, I’m happier. I feel a deeper sense of gratitude and satisfaction, not only with my food, but with my life.