“Mindfulness” is a buzzword you might be tired of hearing by now. But what does it actually mean? Mindfulness is technically defined as: the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis (x). It’s simply about being aware. When applied to eating, it’s about being aware that you are eating, knowing why you’re eating, acknowledging how hungry you were before the meal and how full you are after, and sensing how your body feels after the meal. It’s a whole a lot of awareness many of us are not able to access for a variety of reasons.
This means that eating a protein bar while driving to work does not count as mindful eating. Nor does eating a salad while checking e-mails at lunch, or eating your dinner in front of the television at night. All of these, of course, are examples of eating while doing other activities. We all need to do it from time to time. However, when you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or an intestinal bowel disorder (IBD) flare, it’s especially important to be mindful while eating to help manage your symptoms.
So, here are my 7 tips to help you become a more mindful eater to help manage gastrointestinal distress:
1. Keep a Food Journal
Not everyone needs to keep a comprehensive food journal, but for those who can’t remember what they ate this morning, it might be a helpful tool. Include where you were, what time you ate, who you were with, your hunger before (on a scale of 0-10, with 0 being famished, and 10 being stuffed), your fullness after, what you ate, and how you felt after.
2. Use Your Detective Skills
Now that you’ve either thought about how you typically eat, or analyzed your food journal for trends, you’ve probably identified some areas you want to work on. First of all, do certain foods always bother you? You’re likely going to want to try eliminating these foods or reducing your consumption of the offending food item.
What other trends do you notice? Do you always eat in the car on the way to work? At your desk while checking e-mails? In front of the TV? Do you never feel full after these meals? Does eating with your one co-worker who is super judgmental always make your stomach hurt? Bringing these food journals to a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and having her analyze them for you can be a huge time/stress saver so that she can pinpoint exactly what you should work on.
3. No Distractions
When it’s time to eat that’s all you should be doing. Obviously that’s not always realistic, but as much as possible you should eat with no other distractions so that you can focus on your food and how it’s making you feel rather than having food be an afterthought.
4. Set Intentions
Your intention for every meal you consume might be, “to feel full afterwards and not be in pain”, and that’s totally fine. Sometimes we just need to fill up so we can get on with our days. But you can also try setting the intention to enjoy your meal, nourish your body, try new flavors, or explore foods you like or don’t like. Just by setting an intention for your meal, you are already practicing mindfulness. Then, by focusing on that intention while eating, you are able to completely be present in the experience.
5. One Bite at a Time
No, really. Eat one bite at a time. Before putting each bite in your mouth take note of the aroma, the way it feels in your hand or on the fork, and then feel the sensation of the food in your mouth. How does it taste? Do you enjoy it? You may actually find that the food you’ve been eating every morning for the past year doesn’t taste that great. Or you may appreciate how awesome what you’re eating tastes. By hyper-focusing on your food in this way, you’ll be better able to understand which foods work with your body, and which foods cause you pain or discomfort.
6. Stop When You’re Full
When you’ve been practicing mindful eating for long enough, you’ll be able to stop eating when your body tells you it’s ready. Keep checking in with your hunger/fullness before and after meals. This can help prevent the abdominal discomfort that comes from overeating.
7. Keep Doing it For You
Other people might not understand your need to eat mindfully. I certainly don’t suggest you stay home when invited out so that you can sit alone at your dining room table chewing each bite of food with intention. But when other people can’t understand why you don’t keep eating because you know you’re full, kindly remind them that you know your body better than they do and you were ready to stop eating.
Mindful eating is a wonderful form of self care and the more you practice it, the easier it will get.