How can I practice mindful eating?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I’ve heard so much about mindful eating. How do I practice it?

DEAR READER:

Mindful eating is the opposite of mindless eating — a lack of awareness of the food we’re consuming. What is mindless eating? Think about something you’ve eaten in the past few hours. You probably remember what it was — say, an apple. But do you remember the sensation of eating it? The burst of juice as you bit through the skin? The initial tart bite, followed by the sweetness of the apple’s flesh? If you’re like many of us, then probably not.

That’s because we’re rarely just eating. We’re usually doing something else, too. Maybe we’re working. Maybe we’re talking with family around the dinner table (a concept I realize some folks regard as quaint). Or maybe we’re driving, reading, watching television or fiddling with our smartphones. Eating mindfully counteracts this distracted eating.

Mindfulness means focusing on the present moment. The tenets of mindfulness apply to mindful eating as well. Mindful eating means being fully attentive to your food as you buy, prepare, serve and consume it.

Mindful eating can apply to healthy meals as well as unhealthy ones. However, mindful eating benefits your health only when you’re eating the healthy foods we discuss so often: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts and vegetable oils.

I spoke to my colleague Dr. Lilian Cheung, a nutritionist and lecturer at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Here are several practices she recommends to help you eat mindfully:

  • Begin with your shopping list. Consider the health value of every item you add to your list. Then stick to that list to avoid impulse buying when you’re shopping.
  • Come to the table with an appetite — but not when ravenously hungry. Otherwise you may be so eager to get anything in your stomach that your first priority is filling the void instead of enjoying your food.
  • Bring all your senses to the meal. Be attentive to color, texture, aroma and even the sounds different foods make as you prepare and eat them. As you chew your food, try identifying all the ingredients, especially seasonings.
  • Chew thoroughly. Chew well until you can taste the essence of the food. Let the chewed food sit on your tongue for just a few seconds, to savor it.
  • Eat slowly. Put down your utensil between bites. Eating slowly helps you savor the food.

In closing, I want to come back to eating an apple. Yesterday afternoon, I ate an apple to prevent hunger pangs. It was a red apple, but I’m not sure what kind. I think it was crisp and tart, but I’m not sure.

When I was a kid, after athletics I would always go to the refrigerated vending machine in the gym and eat a cold, crisp, tart apple. Not only did I savor the taste back then — I can still taste those apples; the memory hasn’t left me. That was mindful eating. Yesterday was not. I’ve got some work to do.