The Practice of Mindful Eating

Have you ever found yourself standing at the refrigerator in a haze, staring blankly at the shelves of half empty cartons and containers? You have a vague sense that there's something you’re looking for but you don’t know quite what it is. Then in an instant you come-to and realize that even if you could find something satisfying, you weren’t really hungry in the first place. But then despite your realization, you make a snack anyways!


Mindless Eating

According to Brian Wansink Ph.D., author of “Mindless Eating”, 80% of food choices are made by factors other than actual physical stomach hunger. The reason he suggests is that most of our eating decisions are automatic, or mindless. When asked how many food-related decisions are made each day, most people in Wansink’s studies guessed an average of 14.4 choices. In reality, when the participants carefully tracked their decisions, the average was 226.7. That’s more than 200 choices that participants were unaware of initially. And without awareness, it is hard to listen to the body’s wisdom or make conscious choices.

So if not hunger, what does influence what we eat and how much? There are both internal and external factors that impact what goes in our mouths.

Internal factors such as:

  • Stress/ anxiety
  • Loneliness
  • Boredom
  • Avoid/Escape/ Numb
  • Escape painful emotions
  • Re-create positive emotions

External factors include:

  • Norms set by Family & Friends
  • Packaging
  • Plate size
  • Nutrition labels
  • Colors and shapes
  • Time of day

Mindful Eating

In contrast to mindless eating, mindful eating is the practice of paying full attention in the moment to both the internal cues in your body, heart and mind and external cues in your environment –both social & physical.

In both the MBSR and mPEAK classes, mindful eating is introduced with a small, brown, wrinkled and sweet smelling object. Participants are asked to bring a “beginners mind” to the practice, letting go of any preconceived ideas or opinions they have of this object. They’re reminded that even if they’ve had objects similar to this one, they’ve never experienced this particular object before now. We then embark on a deep exploration of our senses, one at a time, seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling and finally tasting the object that we call a raisin. The participants consistently remark on how they’ve never really experienced a raison before this. Usually they’re just something that comes with the salty nut mix and consumed by the handful while focusing on something else. But by pausing, and intentionally bringing an intimate presence to every detail, the raisin comes alive in a way that inspires gratitude and wonder. Some even claim to feel a sense of connection to the earth that grew the fruit, the farmer who picked and dried it, the company that packaged and transported it and the store that sold it. This is an experience that can only be had when eating mindfully.

Mindfulness of the 7 Hungers

The perception of hunger, when our stomachs aren’t really hungry can be called a “craving”. This can be an overwhelming and confusing sensation that is difficult to manage and is responsible for sabotaging millions of dieter's good intentions. A craving is experienced as a strong desire for something but you're not sure what or why. To help you get a better grasp on what part of you is actually hungry and what you’re really hungry for, Jan Chozen Bays, Zen teacher and author of "Mindful Eating" has created distinctions between 7 different hungers.

1. Eye Hunger

The visual experience of food can be magnificent. Foodies love to post pictures of their exquisitely presented entrees followed by #foodporn. Nutritionists will often give the good advice to “eat the rainbow” which not only looks absolutely radiant on your plate but adds all the necessary vitamins and phyto nutrients from different colored vegetables.  But your eyes can also deceive you. You’ve likely had this experience out to eat: shortly after claiming that you’re stuffed and unbuttoning your trousers the waitress comes by with the tray of deserts. As soon as she waves the selection of mud pies and banana splits in front of your eyes, you’ve forgotten all about your aching, full belly and you’re half way though the atomic butterscotch bliss. It is true that our eyes are bigger than our stomach.

According to research by Brian Wansink, what we see on our plates impacts the amount we eat more than how hungry we really are. Participants with larger containers and access to more food consistently consume a great deal more calories and don’t even know it.

2. Nose Hunger

All I need to say is “Cinnabon” and you know exactly what nose hunger is. You could be walking down the street minding your own business when along comes a big waft of fresh baked bread. Instantly you’re transported to your grandmother’s house at the age of eight.  Smells are more powerful than we give credit and can trigger nostalgic feelings and memories from the past.  In fact what we call taste is almost entirely made up of smell which can easily trick us into thinking we’re hungry the same way that Pavlov's dogs were tricked by hearing the sound of a bell.

3. Mouth Hunger

The mouth has been referred to as “the cavern of desire”. We have a seemingly insatiable desire for the taste and texture of food but even when taste diminishes, we often still continue to eat. For instance, the fourth cookie won’t taste as good as the first because of something called “taste specific satiety”. Basically your taste buds’ get bored of a certain food flavor and you get less pleasure the more of it you eat. But does it matter? Nope, we keep chasing the hope for more pleasure even when it’s no longer available.

Taste preferences can also change over time or with conditioning. As food companies have increased the fat, salt and sugar content of foods over the years, our culture has grown used to and expects what food scientists refer to as “Highly Palatable Foods”.  Fortunately, you can train yourself to crave healthier foods as well. After a cleanse program where participants drink only vegetable juices for periods of 3 days to 90 days, they claim to actually crave vegetables afterward. Their body gets used to it and their mouth starts to like them.  

4. Heart Hunger

Joshua Rosenthal founder of the Institute of Integrative Nutrition makes an important distinction between “primary and secondary foods”. Primary foods he says are what feed our soul and include, intimacy, connection, gratitude, and a sense of life purpose.  Secondary foods are what our body needs for nourishment to sustain us.  Heart hunger is the hunger for this primary nutrition.

When people eat out of heart hunger, it’s typically call it, “emotional eating”. Emotional eaters confuse primary and secondary foods and attempt to fill the hole in their heart with pizza, chocolate or whatever their favorite comfort food. Consuming calories to feed emotional hungers adds insult to injury by stimulating another negative emotion, guilt.

5. Mind Hunger

The nutrition & diet industry have done quite a bit to stimulate mind hunger. With shelves full of books and new research coming out every few months often with conflicting information and a high degree of contradictions, it’s impossible to follow all the rules. Yet many try and are frustrated by it.

Mind hunger is eating based on information including calories, nutrients and cost. If you’re eating is dictated by the rules of the latest fad diet or is even based on research, you’re feeding mind hunger. This kind of hunger is based on concepts and principles and usually comes along with an inner voice of “should’s” and “should not’s”. The experience of mind hunger may sound like you’re living with an inner food critic or meal manager who wants to make sure you’re doing it right. “Get the right amount of protein or your muscles will wither and don’t skip one of your 5 small meals or else your metabolism will crash.” The problem with eating based on rules is that today fats are good, but yesterday fats were bad. Eggs are the perfect protein…nope eggs are allergens. Whole-wheat is good for you because it’s high in fiber… nope, don’t eat gluten, and while you’re at it, cut out the other know allergens, soy and dairy. 

So this may be a good time to mention that none of these 7 hungers are bad or wrong. Some of these rules might actually serve you and you may enjoy indulging in the comfort in tasty food on occasion. They are all communicating something to us and as far as mindful eating is concerned, it’s only important to be aware of the hunger and respond consciously to it rather than mindlessly react. 

6. Stomach Hunger

If there were a hunger to feed with food, it would be stomach hunger.  Stomach hunger is the sensation of feeling empty and in need of sustenance.  When it comes to feeding stomach hunger, it’s a matter of finding the right amount. Remember, the stomach is the size of your fist and it takes 4 signals and about 20 minutes for the stomach to perceive fullness. However, if you’re thinking too much about those facts, you’ll start getting confused with mind hunger! 

The best way to practice mindfulness of stomach hunger is to use a hunger scale by observing physical signals from your stomach and practice rating them from 1-10 before, during and after meals. The idea is to never wait until your famished to eat and never eat until your gorged. Eating when you get to a 3-4, and stopping when you get to a 7-8.

7. Cellular Hunger

In contrast to mental hunger where we think about what we should eat, Cellular or body hunger is what we deeply know we need to eat.

This is often referred to as intuitive eating and is based on “trusting your gut”. This is a way of eating with curiosity and a beginners mind to experiment with different foods to see which resonate with your body and which don’t. Try eliminating certain foods for a while to see how you feel. Then slowly reintroduce foods like gluten, dairy, eggs, and beans during different days to feel how your body responds.  Do they give you energy or do you crash? How did they impact your mood, cravings and digestion? Ultimately, feeding cellular hunger is getting back in touch with your bodies wisdom and trusting that it will tell you what it needs.

Getting Curious About Hunger

Lots of my clients come to Mindfulness Based Health Coaching to make shifts in the way they relate to food.  They want to heal an illness, lose weight, or increase energy and vitality.  Once they become familiar with the 7 hungers, the challenge is to start cultivating greater awareness and taking new actions. Here are some of the ways you can integrate the practice of mindful eating into your life.

The next time you have a craving, reach for seconds, or find yourself standing at the refrigerator late at night, ask yourself, “am I really hungry?” Then check in with your stomach and rate it on the scale from 1-10. If it is indeed hungry, check in with cellular hunger by asking yourself, “what kind of food would be most satisfying to my body right now?”

If you’re stomach is not really hungry, then get curious about the other hungers by asking, “what part of me is hungry?” Pause long enough for an answer. If your mouth is hungry for something tasty, consciously choose to acknowledge the craving and let it go, or see if you can satisfy it with a healthy treat like frozen grapes.  If it’s the heart that is hungry, ask, “what am I really hungry for in my life?” Pause and then make a choice to have a few bites of comfort food or feed the emotional hunger with something other than food. No matter which part of you is hungry, the most important part of the practice is being able to choose your response rather than mindlessly consume.

Mindfulness Eating Practice

These are not hard rules or guidelines but simple suggestions on how to approach mealtime with more mindfulness.

  • Intention: Mindful eating starts with a conscious intention at the beginning of each meal to stay fully present to the experience of your food, one bite at a time.
  • Gratitude: Many religious traditions start meals by saying grace. If you have a formal ritual
  • Savoring: Allow yourself to get completely absorbed in your meal. Acknowledge and let go of thoughts so you can use your senses and turn up the volume on taste, smell and acknowledge the beauty of the colors and presentation of your food.
  • Awareness of Stomach: Your stomach will determine how much to eat so continue to mindfully monitor your level of fullness through out the meal.
  • Awareness of "Taste Specific Satiety": Notice and enjoy all the subtle flavors of your meal and also pay attention as the flavor diminishes.  Choose to stop eating when your food is no longer as pleasurable.

Tips to Savor

In order to get the full experience of your meal and really savor your food, it helps to slow down. Here are some tips from Mindfulness Eating teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh:

  • Set your kitchen timer to 20 minutes, and take that time to eat a normal-sized meal.
  • Try eating with your non-dominant hand.
  • Use chopsticks if you don't normally use them- this will both make you focus, slow down and eat less per bite- all great for savoring.
  • Eat silently for five minutes, thinking about what it took to produce that meal, from the sun's rays to the farmer to the grocer to the cook.
  • Put down your fork and spoon between bites.
  • Drink slowly. It will also help fill you up more quickly.
  • Eating sitting down. If you adhere to this practice you will avoid grazing, snacking while preparing food or eating while standing at the refrigerator.
  • Take small bites and chew well. Flecherizeing your food was a popular practice in the early 20th Century Horace Fletcher who gave lectures on losing weight and gaining health by chewing your food. He recommended chewing your food 32 times.
  • Don’t let yourself get to be “starving” before a meal. If you are ravenous, your more likely to throw these tips out the window and engulf your entire meal in one mindless bite.