Maybe you follow the standard recommendations for healthy eating, but they don’t seem to work for you—and you’re always fighting off cravings. Or maybe you’re constantly distracted by technology and overwhelmed by busyness, too scattered to find pleasure in your meals.
Learning to listen to your body’s reactions to food can do much more than just help you lose weight. Research suggests that mindful eating—nonjudgmental awareness of the complete experience of eating—can contribute to weight loss, a decline in negative emotions, and a healthier relationship with food. It can also help you find a deeper connection to the foods you eat, nourishing you in ways you may never have experienced before.
Eating healthy can become both easier and more enjoyable because you are finally in sync with your body.
What Is Mindful Eating?
To get to know how your body really reacts to food, you first need to listen mindfully. This includes being aware of what’s happening inside your body, inside your mind, and in the world all around you as you eat. It might involve paying attention to the entire timeline of eating: where your food comes from, how it is prepared, and how it is digested. And it might involve paying attention to the dynamic process of eating—for example, what changes occur in your body when you eat a particular food, a particular amount of food, or food prepared in a particular way.
When you fully listen to your body’s reactions to food, you pay attention not only to your five senses—taste, smell, touch, sight, sound—but also to subtler bodily sensations, emotions, and food triggers. By honing this type of awareness, you can discover how different foods impact your body, mind, and day-to-day experiences.
You might discover that a certain food always makes you groggy and that another food energizes you. Or you might realize that you only eat a particular food when you’re anxious or only overeat when you’re sad. The goal is simply to listen, learn, and then take actions that better support the body’s needs.
If you are able to fully embrace mindful eating—becoming aware and accepting of your relationship with food—it can become a superpower. Try these seven strategies to learn how to listen to your body.
1. Mindfully Explore Your Food Issues
Shira Lenchewski, a registered dietitian and author of the new book “The Food Therapist,” suggests that there are five dysfunctional habits that many of us have around food. We may have just one of them or we may have them all. These food habits are:
- Having trust issues (you just can’t stop yourself from eating)
- Being a “pleaser” (you cave into other people’s food choices)
- Fearing the mundane (you think eating healthy would be way too boring)
- Craving control (you beat yourself up for tiny diet “mistakes”)
- Having a hot-and-cold pattern (you yo-yo diet, going from “all in” to “all-out”)
By becoming aware of your food habits, you can better explore the reasons behind them and put in place strategies to change them. For example, if you’re like me and you crave control, you might work on practicing self-compassion or acceptance so you’re not so hard on yourself when your diet is imperfect. If you’re a pleaser, you could practice assertiveness, perhaps by requesting to meet a friend at a healthier restaurant. Or if you fear the mundane, you could get a new cookbook and learn some fun, creative ways to cook healthy meals.
2. Remove Addictive Foods
Paying attention to anything is harder when you’re distracted. Your smartphone makes it harder to pay attention to others; your workplace stress makes it harder to pay attention to your family; and it turns out that craving addictive foods distracts your attention, too.
What you miss out on are important signals from your body. Food addictions—especially to sugar, caffeine, and alcohol, but sometimes also to dairy, carbs, and chocolate—can scream louder than true hunger, nutrient deficiencies, and food intolerances. When you try to listen to your body, you may simply hear, “Candy, candy, candy, candy!”
Once you remove addictive foods, you might start to crave things you never expected. For example, when I cut out all addictive foods, I noticed an intense craving for cantaloupe, spinach, and avocado—foods all high in potassium. Being able to identify which foods my body really needed and then eating them created a truly amazing experience—the cantaloupe even gave me goosebumps.
3. Prepare for Each Meal by Calming the Body
Your body’s voice won’t be as reliable if you’re stressed. Stress makes all of your digestive processes go haywire, leading your body to react poorly to everything. As a result, you may have a harder time identifying the specific foods your body wants and doesn’t want. That’s why calming the body before eating is so important.
To calm the body before each meal, take a few deep breaths. If you’re cooking dinner, make a habit of playing calm music while you cook and breathing deeply. Or if you’re picking up fast food on the way home, pause for a few deep breaths when you get out of the car.
To create calm specifically around food, it can also be helpful to periodically do short, food-focused, mindful meditations.
4. Pause Before Beginning Each Meal
When you sit down with your food, Dr. Jan Chozen Bays recommends that you ask yourself which types of hunger you’re currently feeling:
- Eye hunger: Did you see food and then want to eat?
- Nose hunger: Did you smell food and then want to eat?
- Ear hunger: Did you hear food cooking or being eaten and then want to eat?
- Mouth hunger: Did you taste food and then want to eat more?
- Stomach hunger: Did your stomach feel empty or growl and then you wanted to eat?
- Mind hunger: Did you realize it was a certain time of day or think that you “should” eat more of a particular kind of food and then want to eat?
- Emotional hunger: Did you feel sad, lonely, or anxious and then want to eat?
- Cellular hunger: Did you get an intuitive craving for a specific food and then want to eat?
For example, your mouth hunger might want something crunchy, or your mind hunger might need some vegetables. When you really experience and begin to understand all of your hungers, you can finally learn how to satisfy them. You may find that if you address the type of hunger you are experiencing, you’ll achieve the type of fullness you seek.
5. Be Mindful About Each Bite
To stay open to your body’s signals as you eat, focus on each bite using all of your senses. Ask yourself questions to more fully experience the meal. For example, ask yourself: Is it warm or cold? Is it savory or sweet? Is it crunchy or soft? Explore even further by trying to identify the exact flavors. Ask yourself: What herbs or spices are in this food? Does the food have any added sugar or salt? What other ingredients are in the food?
Next, explore the food emotionally. By tuning in to the effects of different foods on our emotions, we may start to see ways we use food to regulate and generate certain emotions.
So ask yourself: Does eating this food evoke any emotions—for example, happiness, calm, excitement, contentment, anxiety, anger, sadness, loneliness, shame, or guilt? If so, dig a little deeper and see if you can figure out why.
6. Pause Sometime Mid-Meal
Pause when you’ve eaten enough food that it has reached your stomach and the digestive process has begun. During this pause, listen to your body to see if you can experience how it’s receiving the food. Pay attention to things like tummy rumbling, sweating, tiredness, nasal congestion, tingling, goosebumps, or any other bodily sensations.
Next, check-in on your stomach hunger. Ask yourself: Is your stomach feeling full? Does your body want to keep eating? Or are you still trying to satisfy other types of hunger? There are no right or wrong answers. Rather, aim to be more aware of what’s happening inside your body so you can better understand the habits, drives, and experiences you have in relation to food.
7. Reflect Mindfully at the End of Your Meal
Once you decide to stop eating—whether this be mid-meal, when your plate is empty, or after you’ve eaten several helpings and dessert (no judgment!)—take a moment to reflect on the entire experience.
Start by asking yourself if each of the eight types of hunger (eye, nose, ear, mouth, stomach, mind, emotional, and cellular) have been satisfied. Make a mental note or scribble on a piece of paper the hungers that weren’t satisfied by the meal.
Spend an extra few minutes reflecting on each of the hungers that weren’t satisfied. Ask your body what it would need to satisfy each hunger. You may not get all the answers you’re looking for on the first try, but once you start listening to your body regularly, you’ll likely start to notice trends. And as you gather these insights, it becomes easier to eat in ways that are more satisfying and filling.
Listening to how your body reacts to food requires some effort—namely, a willingness to be aware, open, and accepting. It also takes time and attention—you probably won’t play calming music before every meal, notice all the emotions you’re having, or take mindful bites all the time.
With that in mind, practice mindful eating when you can and see if you can take just one insight from each mindful meal. In time, hopefully, you’ll discover what nourishes your mind, body, and soul.
Tchiki Davis, M.A., Ph.D., is a Berkeley graduate, well-being-technology expert, research and development consultant, and contributor to GGSC’s The Science of Happiness course and blog. To learn more about how Tchiki can help you measure and improve well-being, please visit her at BerkeleyWellBeing.com. This article was originally published in the Greater Good Magazine.