Sometimes we can be found hovering over our laptop, chomping salad while finishing a proposal, or eating with a fork in one hand and a cell phone in the other. In a culture where it’s easy to stay plugged into work and social media 24/7, it’s easy to devour meals ravenously and swiftly without blinking an eye. While keeping up with work and current events is important, it doesn’t have to be at the expense of your health. If you often feel distracted and can’t remember the last time you sat down and truly savored a meal, it may be time to hone and and focus on being intentionally present.
Let’s practice giving ourselves the extra space to make healthy choices and bring the pleasure and joy back to the table. These principles work best when you take the time to think about and really understand them, not just superficially, but at a deeper level too. So put the breaks on your current eating regemin and incorporate these four principles of eating to enhance your dining experience.
1. Slow Down
Oftentimes, people associate busyness with efficiency. Tick everything off your to-do list quickly, and you’re instantly placed in the effective and goal-directed buckets. But when it comes to eating, efficiency is not the pinnacle of virtue. If you also couple speedy eating with stress, it has even more detrimental effects.
For one, it takes time for your brain to register that it’s full. So when you eat quickly, the communication channel goes awry, which can potentially cause you to overeat. If you’re also swallowing a lot of air while “wolfing down” your food, you can trigger a slew of digestion-related issues like indigestion, hiccups, or bloating. And if you couple speedy eating with stress, the combination can create even more problems for your digestive system.
You autonomic nervous system (aka the main driver of digestive function) has two parts. The sympathetic nervous system is the gas pedal that gives your body the burst of energy needed to run away from the frightening bear (or other impending danger). On the other hand, the parasympathetic system, is your rest-and-digest system. It is the biological opposite of the fight-or-flight rush, and is also the system that helps your body hone in on digesting, detoxifying, eliminating, and building immunity.
When you’re in fight-or-flight mode, your body doesn’t properly absorb or metabolize food because blood moves away from your digestive organs. When you’re relaxed, however, blood feeds directly into your digestive system.
Slowing down to eat is a simple habit that can take a minute in a half, but it’s hard to remind ourselves to do it in the moment. Still, it has endless benefits, including better digestion, better hydration, and overall greater satisfaction and appreciation for our meals.
So, next time you sit down for a meal, one of the easiest things you can do is slow down. Start by breathing deeply and slowly for five breaths. Slow and long deep breathing shifts the body out of the “gotta go” mode into our parasympathetic nervous system. This will help give your brain time to wave the “I’m full” flag.
2. Check In With Your Belly
The second thing to do is check in with yourself before you start to eat, or, even better, when you begin to think about food. Listen to your body and begin to truly understand your hunger cues. Focus on connecting to your body’s wisdom — what is it really asking for?
Ask yourself, “How hungry am I?” Imagine that you have a scale from 0 to 5, with 0 being full and satiated, 3 being “Hungry, I’m ready to eat”, and 4 to 5 being “I’m so hangry, I could eat someone’s arm off”.
Eating should happen when you’re truly hungry. That means your body should be somewhere around the middle of the scale. So, the next time you feel the urge to eat something, here’s how to know if your hunger is genuine:
1. You notice that the desire to eat gradually builds over time.
2. Your feel the rumble in your stomach.
3. Ask yourself: Will eating anything — but ideally something nutritious — satisfy you? Or will you not be happy unless you bite into that greasy or sweet snack? If it’s the latter, you’re not really physically hungry.
If you find yourself wanting to eat but you don’t feel a rumble in your tummy, drink a glass of water first. Sometimes we confuse hunger for thirst. The goal, after all, is to discover and continue to rediscover our our innate capacity to feel when we are hungry or full.
3. Find Pleasure in the Food You’re Eating
Before you take your first bite, ask yourself, “How can I maximize the pleasure of this experience?” Pleasure activates the parasympathetic nervous system which helps us absorb more nutrients and maximize our metabolism.
Savor your meal a little more by truly learning to relish every single bite. Start by observing the color, texture, and smell of the food on your plate. Then chew and savor the bite of food itself. Notice the aromas, textures, and pleasure of eating this one bite of food. And continue to maintain that awareness as you swallow and put your utensil down. Rinse and repeat.
Also, try to incorporate ways to enhance your experience of eating, even if it means adding something to your meal or getting a little more comfortable. If you work in front of a computer all day, maybe it means stepping away from your desk and heading to a quiet conference room.
4. Cultivate Thoughtfulness and Gratitude
Gratitude and self-love can mean many things when we’re eating–enjoying a hearty salad on a spring day, or savoring an ice cream cone instead. But whether it’s french fries or steamed broccoli with cinnamon, taking the time out to pause and be thankful for our food can have profound effects. Just imagine all the effort that went into bringing that food to you and how lucky you are to eat.
Often our thoughts are hardwired to judge, evaluate, attach, worry, rationalize, check out, and more, regardless of the quality of the food in front of us. Depriving our food cravings and forcing our stomach growls to quiet down, can overtime break down our relationship with food.The most profound act of gratitude that we can offer ourselves and our body is to listen, without judgement, and to be thoughtful about your food’s journey to your plate.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Julianka Bell, MS, RD
Julianka Bell is a Registered Dietitian, nutrition consultant, and founder of Nutrition Her, a platform focused on having an honest conversation about women and food. She works with food and wellness brands to help tell their story, and provides personalized nutrition counseling in New York City. She holds a Master of Science in Nutrition from Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition. You can find Julianka on Instagram @nutrition.her.