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Tune in to your food habits

We know a whole lot about what (kale) and what not (potato chips) to eat. But what about the how and why of eating?

Those questions are just as important, says Vanessa King, nutrition professor at American University and a proponent of “mindful eating” – the how and why of eating – along with the what.

“It’s not that people ever thought that eating potato chips was good for them. That’s not the point,” King says. So why do we eat potato chips? And after 20 chips, why are we still eating?

This is where King and other mindful-eating nutrition educators recommend that we “tune in”: Are you eating because you’re in a social setting where everyone else is eating? Are you eating because you were taught to always finish what’s in front of you? Are you eating because you’re upset? Are you eating because you’re bored?

“The question becomes, are you eating mindlessly?” King says.

Jean Kristeller, co-founder of the Center for Mindful Eating, says the practice is about bringing awareness to our automatic and reactive responses to food.

“We all develop a lot of automatic patterns around eating,” says Kristeller, who has a doctorate in psychology and whose research focus is food intake regulation and eating disorders. “Eating everything on our plate is a perfect example of one of those patterns.”

To break patterns, we first have to be aware of their existence. And that starts with slowing down and calming down.

“Mindful eating is (about) bringing your attention to a more calm place,” says Kristeller, a professor emerita at Indiana State University. “And then you might start observing yourself and learning about yourself in a nonjudgmental way.”

We might then discover that we eat because of such things as emotional triggers and social pressures. “We might find that every time we get upset, we want chocolate,” Kristeller says.

If observing is the first step, the second step is connecting the body and the mind, says Elise Museles, a nutrition and eating psychology educator in Bethesda, Md.

“I find that for many of us, the biggest thing we’re missing is what our body is telling us,” Museles says. “Slowing down allows you to taste and feel textures, to feel full sooner with less.”

Too often we override that feeling of satiation by eating too fast, she says. But if we sit down and eat from a plate (instead of a bag or takeout container), the body has a better chance to send signals of satisfaction and satiation back to the brain.

Presenting the food in a pleasing way is part of that slowing-down process.

“Breathe deeply, notice the appearance, slip colors into the dish; if it’s a Caesar salad, add tomatoes and beets,” she says.

Better yet, maybe you buy those tomatoes and beets at a local farmers market where you come face to face with the farmer who harvested your produce, she says, adding that sustainably sourced food is part of eating mindfully.

Other tools for mindful eating, King says, include eating on a small plate, keeping counters clear (“we eat what we see”), avoiding bulk buying (“we eat what we see”) and cooking at home “with love” as often as possible.

It sounds a bit like a diet, but perhaps with a little more compassion. “I got into this many, many years ago when I found that diet approaches created so much stress and anxiety,” Kristeller says. “It was all about good food, bad food. So, I started helping people tune in to and cultivate self-acceptance.”

For example, if you really want that chocolate chip cookie, have it. Or have a bite of it. Enjoy it without guilt.

“Mindful eating is about cultivating that inner gourmet – really letting yourself enjoy the food you enjoy – just in smaller quantities,” Kristeller says.

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