6 simple steps for mindful eating

buddha bowl
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With a focus on focusing on one's food, mindful eating could be the best diet out there.

If the term "mindful eating" conjures up visions of lithe Los Angelinos in expensive yoga pants meditating over a plate of raw greens, you are not alone. But the truth is, mindful eating is so much more than that; and in fact, I maintain that it is one of the best diets out there.

On average, Americans spend two-and-a-half hours a day eating, according to a report from the USDA; yet more than half of that time we are also doing something else. Which leads to mindless eating, and "a lack of awareness of the food we're consuming – [which] may be contributing to the national obesity epidemic and other health issues," says Dr. Lilian Cheung, a nutritionist and lecturer at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Meanwhile, mindful eating is the practice of focusing on the food you consume – from what you choose at the store to how you actually eat it. Mindfulness is often described as a feeling of being fully present and alive in the moment. Mindful eating is applying that idea to time spent at the table.

An increasing body of research is finding that mindful eating could help with weight problems and encourage people to steer away from processed food and toward healthier choices. There is no counting carbs or calories, no limiting this or adding that – just a twist of one's mindset, a strategy that is much easier to maintain than jumping through the hoops of the diet circus.

Here's where to start.

1. Eat when hungry (but don't wait until you're famished)

It may take some practice, but it's important to find that sweet spot between being hungry and being so hungry that you want to inhale a meal. Also listen to your body and learn the difference between being physically hungry and emotionally hungry For example, snacking at work may have more to do with boredom than needing nutrients.

2. Limit distractions

This doesn't mean eating alone in silence; mindful eating can be a wonderful shared experience. It just means don't eat in front of the television, while driving, at the computer, on your phone, et cetera. Eating in front of the television (or computer equivalent) is practically the national pastime, but just think about how easily it encourages mindless eating.

3. Eat slowly, chew thoroughly

Eating slowly and chewing thoroughly may be diet tip #1 in the annals of weight loss advice. And with good reason, as eating quickly has been positively associated with excess body weight. It takes a while to feel full, and we often go past that point when gulping down our food. How to slow it down? Take small bites; chew slowly and thoroughly; set your utensil down and/or take a sip of water between bites; use your non-dominant hand to eat ... whatever it takes to channel your inner sloth.

4. Let your senses feast

Most people associate eating with just taste; and many eat so mindlessly that even the taste buds get short shrift. But eating is a gift to more senses than just taste. Appreciate the aromas (which helps to increase the taste), enjoy the beauty of the textures and colors, be gauche and eat with your fingers to give your sense of touch some fun. By engaging multiple senses, the whole experience becomes much more fully satisfying.

5. Stop eating when you've had enough

The problem with amazing food is that by its very nature, it can be hard to stop eating. Eating slowly will help you feel full before eating too much, but it's also important to be cognizant of portion size and listen to your body for when it starts telling you it's had enough. Overeating may feel good in the moment, but it's uncomfortable afterwards and is generally not healthy for the body. With a little practice, you can find the just-right spot between eating enough, but not too much.

6. Shop thoughtfully

Chronologically, shopping should go on the top of the list, but this is ultimately about eating, so consider step 6 more of a crucial addendum, or a prologue as epilogue, or something like that.

Shopping thoughtfully – buying healthy foods that are sustainably produced and packaged – is an important part of the practice. Why eat mindfully if you are shopping mindlessly?

One thing you will likely discover about mindful eating is that whole foods are more vibrant and delicious than you may have given them credit for. Meanwhile, anyone who really focuses on the experience of eating, say, a bag of neon orange cheese-flavored snacks may find the whole thing a but less pleasurable, once the ungodly color, stained fingers, weird fake flavor, preponderance of salt, and other unsavory traits are taken into consideration. You will start gravitating toward more wholesome food; and as mindful eating becomes routine, you may want to extend that mindfulness beyond your plate and onto the world at large.

"The tenets of mindfulness apply to mindful eating as well, but the concept of mindful eating goes beyond the individual. It also encompasses how what you eat affects the world," says Cheung. "We eat for total health."

Which leaves us with a "diet" that takes little more effort than thinking, does wonders for the mind, body, and spirit, and can lead to shopping habits that are better for the planet ... no expensive yoga pants required. What more could anybody want?

6 simple steps for mindful eating
With a focus on focusing on one's food, mindful eating could be the best diet out there.

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