How to Practice Mindful Eating

By Rebekah Smith – October 1, 2022

Our society encourages eating dinner in front of the television, snacking on the go to meetings and devouring until we’re too full. However, people today may not know that the practice of mindlessly eating started with the invention of TV trays in the 1950s. Before then, eating mindfully was the primary way to eat. 

Though mindful eating has become a popular topic within the last few decades, learning to do it can actually be quite difficult. We spoke with Austin-based Marissa Sommers, RDN to better understand mindful eating, why it’s important and how to practice it well.

Sommers spent around seven years in the health and fitness industry as a nutrition coach before opening her private practice in 2020. Today, she coaches women on how to fuel themselves properly to support their active lifestyles. 

“In the health and fitness space, there’s a lot of pressure to eat a certain way and be as small as possible,” Sommers says. “There was only one way to do that — chronic dieting, eating as little as possible and exercising as much as possible.”

She explains that mindful eating consists of thinking about what you’re eating and connecting with your body. Though it sounds simple, mindful eating can be difficult when it comes to eliminating distractions during meal and snack times. 

According to Sommers, two things can help you practice mindful eating. First, try to eliminate distractions. Although we may not always manage to do this, it’s the first step toward thinking about what you eat. Second, implement what Sommers calls the “pause skill,” which is taking five to 10 seconds to ask yourself questions before deciding to eat: How hungry am I? Do I need to eat right now, or can I wait? Do I need to eat preemptively? What sounds good right now? What’s going to make me feel good? 

“The perfect juxtaposition of mindful eating is the intersection between what sounds good and what is going to make me feel good,” Sommers says. 

However, building a new habit comes with failure. Sommers encourages those new to mindful eating to ask for support and never expect perfection.

“It’s not willpower that’s going to force you into a new habit; it’s practice,” Sommers says. “So even if the habit falls off for a day or two, bring it back.” 

Woman eating a watermelon.

Sommers also warns that thinking about food too much can cause unhealthy eating habits. 

“(Practicing mindful eating) is not supposed to take up so much mental energy every day. It’s supposed to be a quick 5-second check-in,” Sommers says. “No one meal or snack is going to make or break you.” 

She encourages people to avoid over-restriction as a result of “messing up” or “not being good enough.” Instead of over-restricting, which she says will backfire every time, Sommers says returning to your routine of mindfully eating is the best way to respond to negative self-perception around food and dieting. However, she also notes that general recommendations might not be for everyone, since people with disordered eating behaviors and eating disorders struggle with food in different ways. 

Similar to the intuitive eating method, Sommers initiates with clients a “gentle nutrition” approach to eating and ensures they have all components on their plates — a protein, vegetable, starchy carbohydrate and some sort of fat for flavor. She also encourages clients to eat every 3 to 5 hours to stabilize blood sugar, balance hormone and energy levels as well as regulate appetite. 

This “gentle nutrition” approach has been helpful for many of Sommers’ clients who struggle with cravings. By balancing their plates, they’re getting enough nutrients at consistent intervals during the day. Sommers even finds that a lot of those cravings eventually disappear!

Although Sommers pulls practices from the intuitive eating method, it’s important to recognize the difference between mindful and intuitive eating, even if they overlap. Sommers defines mindful eating as the act of being more conscious and connected with your food and body. It incorporates a mind-gut connection, which positively impacts digestion. Meanwhile, she describes intuitive eating as a nutrition philosophy, which consists of a 12-step approach to unlearn everything from diet culture.  

Mindful eating is helpful if you want to better connect with your food, mind and body while still completing food journals and counting calories. It’s also a great tool to have when experiencing binge-eating, under-eating or emotionally eating.

“Our world is not conducive to mindful eating. Our default is to multitask, and mindful eating is the opposite of that,” Sommers says. “If you’re trying to practice it, make sure to give yourself grace and not expect perfection. Lower your expectations so you don’t set yourself up for failure.”

 
 

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