Mindful Eating: Why It's Important and How it Helps Rewire Your Brain
It’s no surprise that we often go through life without having any real connection to what's happening around us. Are you ever driving and suddenly you realize you're halfway home and have no clue how you got there? Or maybe you’re walking down the street spending the whole time with your head in your phone scrolling through Instagram. We are often so conditioned to doing everything at once that we lose sight of the actual act of “doing”. Now ask yourself what you had for breakfast yesterday. How about dinner two nights ago. Unsure? Mindless eating is what happens to your brain unless you are actively telling it to WAKE UP and start paying attention. This is why you may find it hard to remember what you ate for dinner the night before, or even what you had for breakfast that very same morning.
Raise your hand if this sounds like you...
You’re too busy to stop working midday so you eat lunch in front of your computer, typing in between bites and scarfing your food down as quickly as possible.
You walk through the kitchen and see a muffin on the counter so you grab one and eat it at your desk, even though you're not hungry.
You’re sitting on the couch at night watching tv eating a bag of chips until you realize you ate ALMOST the entire bag.
I’m sure it comes as no surprise that we have all been in these scenarios, maybe some more frequently than others. Each scenario is a common example of mindless eating. With each instance, our brains become increasingly conditioned to the new habits that we are creating. These habits become harder to acknowledge and break as our brains learn to expect certain food (usually sweet, salty, or fatty) in response to a trigger or action… Pavlov’s dog anyone???!!
So, how do you rewire your brain and create new, healthier habits with food?
Like anything else involving mindfulness, it all starts with acknowledging what exactly it is that we’re doing or feeling. Whether it’s eating food, driving home from work, or scrolling on Instagram, the first step is stopping to think about how frequently you’re simply “going through the motions” without thought. In order to incorporate mindfulness and rewire your brain, start by asking yourself WHY, WHAT, and HOW….
WHY am I eating?
This is a big one because we often eat for so many reasons outside of hunger. Are you eating out of stress? Are you eating because you’re bored? Maybe you had a bad day at work and you’re thinking of food as your reward when you get home. The more you eat for emotional reasons instead of physical hunger, the more your brain associates that feeling, or trigger, with food and cravings. And let’s be honest, it’s not usually a salad. When we ask ourselves why we are eating, it gives us insight into the route of the trigger. Food may feel like an escape or reward in that moment, but fleeting to say the least. Instead, ask yourself if you can wait 5 minutes and change up your triggering environment before surrendering to an emotional craving. You’d be surprised how quickly you can move on.
WHAT am I eating?
Have you ever gotten home from a long day and ate the first thing you saw without really caring or questioning what it was? Maybe it’s a bag of chips, a cold slice of pizza, or some leftover Chinese from the night before. It may not seem like much in the moment, but all of these mindless moves add up. This is also why it becomes difficult for us to remember what it was that we ate for breakfast that day. We stop paying attention to what it is that we are actually consuming, so our brains turn off and forget. Asking yourself WHAT you’re eating in the moment is a great way to initiate new behaviors. Maybe there’s a healthier choice besides chips that will leave you feeling more satisfied once you take a second to question it. Let's be honest, how often have you eaten that cold slice of pizza and said to yourself after that it wasn’t worth it? Next time you ask yourself what you’re eating, you may find yourself putting the leftover Lo Mein back in the fridge.
HOW am I eating?
It’s not uncommon to be multitasking throughout the day. We’re often so busy it only makes sense to eat while we work while we wash the dishes and fold laundry. But yet again, eating while we’re doing other things takes away from our brain and body’s ability to recognize the WHAT and the WHY of eating. Think about how you ate your last meal. Was it in front of your computer? Standing at your sink? In your car? Now ask yourself, how did that meal taste and how did you feel after?
Of course, it is unrealistic to be seated at your kitchen table for every meal without any distractions. But taking a moment to acknowledge HOW you are eating might make you decide to put your phone down or close your laptop for a minute so you can properly enjoy your food. On top of that, eating while you're distracted makes it difficult for your brain to recognize when you're full, which often leads to overeating.
Asking yourself these few simple questions might not seem earth-shattering at first, but the more you practice, the more you break the cycle of mindless eating. Taking a few seconds to acknowledge WHY, WHAT, and HOW you are eating throughout the day helps encourage healthier food choices as well as more deliberate decisions. With each act of mindfulness, you are rewiring your brain to enjoy more, and forget less.
- Chelsea Hoover, MS, RD, LDN