If you’ve ever made a conscious attempt to improve your eating habits only to feel disappointed and irritated when your plans fell through, join the club. While your food choices contribute to your health, mindful eating does not have to be difficult.
It’s easy to get derailed when trying to watch your diet. Feeling sad? Ice cream. Mad? Hot-wings. Bored? Potato chips — with extra dipping sauce. We’ve all been there.
A positive relationship with food includes giving yourself permission to eat food that makes you feel good. But you don’t develop a positive relationship with food overnight — it’s a lifelong journey.
So if you consumed too much of something unhealthy, don’t feel the need to make amends by drastically reducing your food or calorie intake, excluding certain foods, or increasing your physical activity. This is not just harmful, but also unnecessary.
If you’re prone to feeling this way, try monitoring your overall food consumption over a week instead of 24 hours. This allows you to have a healthier and more balanced view on eating junk food or skipping your fruits and veggies.
Ultimately, you either foster or abuse your relationship with food — and your body or mind will feel it. This is where mindful eating comes in.
What is mindful eating?
Mindful eating means using all your senses to eat food that is both satisfying to you and nourishing to your body.
Throughout the day, you probably eat while studying, watching Netflix, having a conversation, or performing different chores. Because you eat on autopilot, you may not notice when you’ve eaten too much chocolate or finished your second bowl of chips.
People in today’s fast-paced environment are tempted by many food options. Mindful eating counters that by helping you to:
- Eat only until you’re full
- Know when you’re actually hungry
- Eat slowly, with limited interruption
- Deal with food-related guilt and anxiety
- Observing how food affects your feelings
We all know our stomach’s limit. Eating only until you’re full helps you avoid bloating, lethargy, and weight gain from excess calories.
Sometimes, you’re not actually hungry — you’re just bored or moody. Listening to physical hunger signals helps you understand when it’s time to eat.
Eating quickly or eating around distractions (shows, conversations, books) may cause you to eat more than you need. Slow, conscious eating prevents that.
Much of our relationship with food is soaked in guilt — that extra slice of cake, for example, or those lamb wraps you can’t resist. Recognizing and mitigating this guilt helps you enjoy food better.
Food affects our bodies in many ways. It might make you more alert, tired, energized, sad, or raunchy. As you eat, pay attention to the after-effects of your food.
How food affects mental health
How we feel is related to what we eat. From the moment we wake up, our food choices set the tone for the day.
Certain foods improve mental health, such as omega-3 fatty acids, fruits and vegetables, and probiotics. Conversely, some foods can harm our mental health, such as processed foods, caffeine, and alcohol.
Having certain connotations of foods can influence an individual’s emotional state and exposure to developmental disorders.
Depression and anxiety have a high correlation with body image issues and are believed to be partly due to an over-stimulating and perfectionistic diet, plus inactivity.
What can we do to maintain a healthy relationship with food?
Ditch the dieting
Popular weight-loss crash diets are generally not sustainable. Ultimately, there’s no magic number that’ll make it happen for everyone.
If you’re already eating healthfully, but you’ve lost some weight, continue to slowly transition towards your weight goal.
Keep it flexible
On your journey to mindful eating, be flexible with what you eat, when you eat it, and how much you eat. Most importantly, be kind to yourself when you deviate sometimes.
There’s no such thing as “good” or “bad” food — it all comes down to the dosage. It’s easy to say “vegetables are all good” and “junk food is all bad,” but you’re allowed to switch up your meals from time to time and eat what you enjoy in small doses. The key is moderation.
Start a food journal
Keep a journal to track what you eat, when you eat it, and how much you eat. This helps you regain control over your eating habits.
Food tracking can help you figure out what’s bothering your stomach, preventing you from sleeping, or causing you to crash in the afternoon. We become more conscious of our consumption when we write down what we eat.
People with medical disorders that require dietary attention, such as hypertension and inflammatory bowel disease, may benefit from food journaling. It can also assist you and your doctor when discussing potential concerns and treatments.
Get a support system
No one is an island. Surround yourself with friends and family who will applaud your progress and keep you committed and motivated.
5 tips to transition to a healthy lifestyle
#1 Reduce your calorie intake
Your body has a constant energy demand. Calories provide this energy and keep your body functioning.
Cutting calories should not be a difficult process. Small changes can have an enormous impact on the number of calories you consume. For example:
- Swap high-calorie food options for low-calorie ones — Replace white pasta with whole-grain pasta or quinoa.
- Reduce portion sizes, eat slowly, and stop when you’re full. Drink a few glasses of water before eating to help you stay full for longer.
#2 Eat more fruit and vegetables
Eating seasonally is a great way to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet. Vegetables and fruit are a vital part of any healthy diet.
They’re low in calories, rich in nutrients, easy to cook, and can serve as the base of healthy meals and as side dishes.
Fill at least half of your plate with vegetables: kale, lettuce, or sliced broccoli salad. Add chopped fruit or vegetables, such as oranges, bananas, or strawberries, to finish.
Tomato marinara, curries, roasts, stews, and frozen dinners all benefit from fresh or frozen vegetables. In recipes, double the amount of vegetables. To save time, use traditional fermented vegetables.
#3 Eat less processed foods
“Eating is necessary, but eating intelligently is an art.”
François de Rochefoucauld
Processed foods are altered chemically through various methods. These include canning, freezing, drying, smoking, curing, fermenting, pickling, and extruding. They are often high in sodium, sugar, fat, and preservatives.
Many people unknowingly eat these types of food every day without realizing it. Examples include chocolate bars, microwave meals and savory snacks, such as pies.
When these ingredients are combined with preservatives, artificial flavors, and colorings they become a toxic substance in your body and cause health problems:
- High blood pressure is connected to a high salt diet. Many quick foods include a lot of salt.
- Obesity is tied to junk food consumption. Processed foods are usually high in sugar and calories, contributing to weight gain.
- Foods that have been overly-processed are high in unhealthy fats. Trans fats increase the risk of inflammation in your body. They also increase low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol levels.
Choose unprocessed and whole foods, and reduce or eliminate processed foods to have a huge impact on your health.
#4 Cook at home
Chemical agents, hormones, sugars, salt, bad fat, and calories are all common in fast food, all of which can harm your brain and physical health. This can cause you to feel angry, tired, and bloated, and worsen depression.
Most restaurant portions involve three times the daily recommended quantity of their nutrients. This stimulates you to consume more calories than you might at home, which is bad for your weight, blood volume, and diabetes risk.
When you prepare your meals, you have more power over the ingredients. Cooking for yourself and your family ensures access to fresh, healthy meals.
Cooking at home doesn’t mean you have to slave away in the kitchen for hours following complicated recipes. Simple meals are just as delicious.
#5 Exercise regularly
Half an hour of moderate physical activity each day can strengthen your muscles and increase your stamina. Activity stimulates your cardiovascular system to deliver oxygen and other nutrients to your tissues.
Owning your health and body size
The drive to achieve the perfect body can alter our relationship with food. Even if your weight alone was a good measure of your level of fitness, there are some people who, no matter what they do, will never have a small body.
However, we now understand that the size or form of a person’s body has no bearing on how healthy he or she is — or how healthy his or her relationship with food is.
Body type, as well as where you store fat and how your metabolism works, are all influenced by genetic factors, ethnic background, and family history. Seek a medical professional to determine what works for your body.
Build a mindful eating habit today
Food has a huge impact on your health. It can impact how you feel physically, how you react emotionally, and how you look externally.
It’s important to recognize how various foods make you feel so you can eat with less guilt, more balance, and more impact.
In health and happiness,
Chef Lerato Mokonyane has worked for some of South Africa's best-known brands such as McCain, Topo Chico, Eskort, and Sutherland Wines. She's passionate about recipe development, food photography, and everyday nutrition.