When’s the last time you really tasted your food? Breakfast in the car, lunch at your desk, dinner in front of the television…We live in an on-the-go world, and it’s affected not only what we eat, but how we eat it. Eating while multitasking isn’t just less enjoyable, it’s worse for your health: If you eat while distracted, you’re more likely to overeat. Why? Because feeling “full” isn’t just a physical state—it’s a mental one, too.
This mind-body connection is what makes mindful eating so powerful. The practice of focusing on what you eat while you eat it, mindful eating doesn’t require meditation at every meal or a special diet. “It’s just setting an intention that you want to be more present,” says Dr. Adam Perlman, Chief Medical Officer and Co-founder of meQuilibrium.
Here are five ways to incorporate mindful eating into your daily routine:
1. Let Go of Labels
Mindful eating, at its core, is about improving our relationship with food—a relationship that, in our diet-obsessed culture, is often characterized by judgment. We judge what we eat, relying on always-changing (and sometimes conflicting) “rules” to label food as “good” or “bad.” We judge ourselves when we eat too much or not enough and when we choose “bad” over “good.” These judgments stand in the way of a mindful relationship with food and can get us stuck in a disordered cycle of restriction, overeating, and shame.
The first step of mindful eating is to let go of these labels and the guilt that comes along with them. To do this, think about your goals for your relationship with food. What would you like to achieve? Aim for balance, not perfection. For example: “I would like to genuinely enjoy my relationship with food. I want to be able to occasionally indulge without guilt and primarily fuel my body with the nutritious food it needs, and I want to role model this behavior to my kids.”
2. Know Your Triggers
Mindless overeating is often triggered by a negative emotion overwhelming your signals of hunger and fullness, which is why it’s so easy to overeat when you feel stressed. When you find yourself reaching for food when you’re not hungry, stop and take a look at the emotion that’s driving it. Are you anxious? Sad? Bored? Acknowledge what you feel so you can give it needed attention.
3. Remove Distractions
When you eat with a fork in one hand and a remote or smartphone in the other, you’re not paying attention to what (or how much) you’re eating, let alone appreciating it. “These things distract us from the enjoyment and gratitude of having a great meal, and also our own sensations that are telling us we are full,” notes Perlman. Turn off the TV, put your phone away, and leave your laptop in the other room during mealtimes. Keep your focus on the food in front of you and anyone else sharing the meal with you.
4. Savor the Moment
Often, mindful eating is simply about putting on the brakes. If you feel your mind wandering, bring your focus back to your food by chewing slowly and checking in with each of your senses. Pay attention to the colors, smells, textures, flavors, temperatures, and even the sounds of your food. “Think about it the way a sommelier drinks wine—he looks at it, smells it, swishes it in the glass,” says Perlman. Try pairing foods with different textures, such as apple slices with cheddar cheese or whole grain crackers with hummus, or getting creative with preparation. Perlman’s family, for example, freezes red grapes. “It’s our favorite snack. It tastes like grape ice cream!” says Perlman.
5. Plan Ahead
A little planning can go a long way: Avoid mindless grazing by practicing portion control and snacking with intention. “Instead of grabbing a bag of chips, for example, take whatever you intend to eat and put it into a bowl,” says Perlman. His wife Laurice, an integrative health coach and registered nurse, chops carrots, cucumbers, and other veggies and leaves them out as she’s cooking dinner. “When the kids come by and say they’re hungry and can’t wait for dinner, they’ll pop one in their mouth instead of rummaging through the pantry,” recounts Perlman.
Like all relationships, our relationship with food can be repaired when we give it the time and attention it needs. Food, after all, is more than fuel—it’s one of life’s greatest pleasures, and you deserve to enjoy every last bite.
Hannah Wallace is a Portland-based journalist and editor who writes about integrative medicine, sustainable agriculture, and wine for Food & Wine, Vogue, Fast Company, and other publications. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram at @Hannahmw23.