One of the most popular New Year’s resolutions we make each year is to throw away the junk food and eat better. It’s a great idea which starts with the best intentions, but you’ve probably noticed it never lasts very long. Right around March is often when we realize we’re falling back into our old habits of grabbing a donut on the way to work or running out to get fast food every day for lunch because it’s just so convenient and it’s right next to the office and it tastes so good and…(insert limitless excuses here).
Luckily for us, March also happens to be National Nutrition Month. Created by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, National Nutrition Month aims to help us make informed choices about the food we eat and to develop sound eating and physical activity habits. Every National Nutrition Month has a theme - this year’s being “Savor the Flavor of Eating Right.” The aim is to encourage everyone to appreciate the pleasures, flavors, and experiences food can add to our lives while developing a mindful eating pattern that includes nutritious and flavorful foods. As someone who regularly teaches nutrition to kids, I absolutely love this theme. It not only emphasizes eating nutritious foods, but also savoring flavors and allowing ourselves to actually enjoy our foods as well. Too often we get caught in the trap of thinking that we can’t enjoy healthy foods because they’re too bland or that if we’re trying to eat healthy we can’t indulge every once in a while. The theme this year helps us focus on the experience of eating, which we all too often take for granted. As stated by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “How, when, why and where we eat are just as important as what we eat.”
A big part of savoring the flavor of eating right is practicing mindful eating. Mindful eating simply means deliberately paying attention to what you’re eating and drinking, as well as the experience surrounding it. Mindful eating includes noticing the smells, textures, aromas, flavors, and sounds of the food we eat and making ourselves aware of our responses to food. How do I know I’m hungry? What does it feel like? How do I feel when I’m satisfied or full? What do I feel like when I eat too much? How does my current mood influence my eating habits? Am I eating because I’m hungry or just out of boredom, habit, or stress? When we ask ourselves these questions and take time to savor both the food and the act of eating, we’re more likely to eat a healthier diet and enjoy our meals more.
According to the Center for Mindful Eating, mindful eating is:
- Allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food selection and preparation by respecting your own inner wisdom
- Using all your senses in choosing to eat food that is both satisfying to you and nourishing to your body
- Acknowledging responses to food (likes, dislikes, or neutral) without judgment
- Becoming aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decisions to begin and end eating
Someone who eats mindfully:
- Acknowledges that there is no right or wrong way to eat, but varying degrees of awareness surrounding the experience of food
- Accepts that their eating experiences are unique
- Is an individual who, by choice, directs their attention to eating on a moment-by-moment basis
- Gains awareness of how they can make choices that support health and well-being
- Becomes aware of the interconnection of earth, living beings, and cultural practices and the impact of their food choices on those systems
So what exactly does all of that mean? Even as part of a healthy diet, it’s absolutely ok to enjoy a special dessert every once in a while. You can enjoy a night out with friends at your favorite restaurant, a not-so-healthy snack, or a favorite indulgence on occasion. Although food originally was and still is a necessity for survival, it now plays a major role in our various cultural celebrations, history, and traditions. We don’t just eat to survive anymore, we eat to live – and that’s ok. Mindful eating helps us appreciate and enjoy the social aspects of mealtime, celebrate cultural foods, savor the variety of flavors found in the world, and even find joy in cooking and preparing our meals. All of these are part of our eating experience and our overall enjoyment of life. Our complex history and relationship with food should be celebrated through our enjoyment of foods that make us happy and feel good. If we only focus on eating strictly healthy foods all the time, it can get pretty dull. That’s a major reason why so many diet or food-related resolutions ultimately fail. Mindful eating can help us stay on track by bringing the enjoyment back to eating.
Research is already showing further benefits of mindful eating. When the stomach gets full, it sends a message up to the brain to trigger our feeling of satiety which tells us to stop. That’s why we get that full feeling after a big meal. The problem many of us run into is that we actually continue eating after the stomach is already full. This is because it takes approximately 20 minutes for the brain to register fullness in the stomach. If you eat too fast, this signal for satiety might come after overeating has already occurred. When we eat mindfully, we become more aware of our satiety signal and often eat at a slower pace to savor all of the textures, flavors, and experiences associated with our meals. This gives the brain more time to register the signal that the stomach is full, thus preventing overeating.
This month, take some time to be mindful about your food and engage your family to do the same. Think about what foods and flavors you each love, what settings you like to enjoy your food most often, how different foods make you feel, and all other aspects of eating rather than just the nutritional content of the food. Yes, it is important to eat healthy foods, but eating is supposed to be pleasurable for you, not simply a means to get nutrients into one’s body. It’s ok to indulge, but make sure you’re fully savoring these foods and moderating your consumption of the less healthy options. The more mindful we are of the foods we eat, the more satisfying they become and the less often we feel we have to consume them. If I mindlessly eat candy while I’m watching Netflix, I’m more likely to eat far more than I should. However, if I’m focusing on the flavors, textures, and enjoyment of that candy, I’ll feel much more satisfied with a smaller amount. By practicing mindful eating and savoring the flavor of eating right, we can get both nutrition and enjoyment from the foods we eat.
Here are some tips for eating mindfully:
- Try new foods and recipes – Varying what you eat not only ensures you get a variety of nutrients, it also makes eating more exciting and enjoyable by introducing you to new flavors, textures, and experiences.
- Make meals a social event – The social aspect of eating is an important part of mindful eating. Cooking and eating with family or friends can be a great time to savor both the food and each other’s company. It’s also a great time to teach, learn, and relax with each other, as well as a good way to get some extra help in the kitchen.
- Give your meals the time and setting they deserve – We often find ourselves eating in the car on the way to work or standing at the kitchen counter scarfing down a meal. This type of eating is often rushed, solitary, and not very enjoyable. Enhance your focus and mindfulness by taking your time and choosing a time and place where you can truly relax and focus on the experience of eating.
- Bump up the sensory impact of your food – The flavors we experience are actually the result of many different stimuli, including taste, smell, texture, and color. That’s why food often tastes different when it’s cooked (partly due to a change in texture) or when we’re sick (if your nose is stuffed up you can’t smell the aromas contributing to taste). Try to mix up various colors and textures on your plate to add more variety, such as putting bananas or other fresh fruit on your cereal or green peppers in your scrambled eggs. It’ll make everything on the plate taste even better.
- Use more herbs and spices – Herbs and spices can help add an extra pop of flavor without added salt
- Choose fruits and vegetables at their peak ripeness – The enhanced colors and flavors of perfectly ripe produce can increase your enjoyment. Ripe fruits are also at their peak nutritional content as well.
- Start by adding instead of taking away – When we try to eat healthier, we often begin by focusing on what to avoid. Focusing on what to add is a lot more fun. By adding more healthy foods to our diets and focusing on mindful eating, we grow to appreciate those tastes and textures more, increasing our enjoyment of them and ultimately leading us to developing an overall healthier diet. There are no “bad” foods, just those which we must be careful to eat in moderation.