Mindfulness is paying attention and being present, not an easy skill to master. Anyone who does mindfulness meditation knows that it takes practice. Bringing that practice to the act of food selection, preparation, and consumption will allow us to identify areas for change that may benefit our health and well being.
Many of our eating behaviors are engrained from decades of habitual patterns. We eat three meals a day, we clean our plates, we eat quickly, we don’t waste food, we go for seconds, dessert follows dinner, we reach for food when happy or sad. Bringing awareness to these behaviors is the first step toward promoting change in our eating patterns and food choices. Below I have outlined a seven-step process to making lifestyle changes, beginning from a place of awareness and observation.
Step One: Pay attention
The next time you are about to sit down to eat, eliminate any distractions, such as the television or your phone, and take a few deep breaths before you pick up your fork. Take a moment to reflect on your level of hunger. Smell the food that has been prepared and notice your body and mind react to your sense of sight and smell. After taking the first bite, chew slowly and truly savor the food. Notice the taste and texture and observe without judgment any thoughts that go through your head and instincts that may start to take control. Try to maintain this presence and awareness throughout the meal, perhaps pausing to re-evaluate your hunger and bring back awareness if your attention wanders. Do this for a day’s worth of meals and snacks, and it’s okay if you aren’t able to maintain your focus. Mindfulness is a “practice” for a reason. Simply bring your thoughts back to the act of eating when your awareness falters.
Step Two: Make observations
After a day of paying attention, perhaps you notice that you eat every morning at 6 AM, or perhaps at noon when you are given a break at work, but at neither time are you actually hungry. Perhaps you observed that when you get home from work you feel starved and tend to overeat at dinner. You may notice that you consume the majority of your calories between 5 PM and 10 PM at night, or that you crave sugar immediately after finishing a meal. Other habits you may observe are that you eat beyond fullness because the food tastes good, that you will clean your plate rather than waste food, you eat out every day because you run late in the morning, or that you crave donuts on the afternoons that you skip lunch.
Step Three: Identify areas for change
Once you’ve made observations, you are now able to decide what is realistic for you to change. Perhaps an overhaul of your eating pattern is in order, rather than 2 meals a day, four smaller meals make more sense. You may find that a strategic snack here or there could solve your hunger dilemma. Perhaps you observe the type of snack you choose could be improved by adding protein and fiber. You may identify that you need to go to bed earlier so that you can get up in time to prepare your lunch. Maybe you need to institute a pause in every meal to help you slow down. Once you’ve identified areas for change, you may observe additional barriers to success, so picking and choosing what to change first is the next step.
Step Four: Set specific and realistic goals
You may determine that altering your eating pattern is the change you want to make, but in order to do that, you need to go to the store more often, get up earlier, and go to bed on time. Your “one” idea for change, is actually a major lifestyle overhaul. Simply pick and choose a few changes at a time to tackle. Perhaps start with going to bed on time. Determine what is stopping you, make it your number one priority, and spend a week trying to succeed. Set a goal to go to bed five days a week at 9 PM. At the end of the week re-evaluate based on what went wrong or right. Maybe getting to bed on time is only realistic Monday and Wednesday, but you observe that is enough to make a difference. Make this new change a habit and decide what to tackle next. It’s about choosing your battles and making small incremental changes that move you toward your ultimate goal.
Step Five: Eliminate judgment from the process
Making lifestyle changes is hard. And we can make it even harder when we judge ourselves harshly for failing to meet unrealistic expectations. Treat this process like a scientist. Make observations, develop a hypothesis, experiment, and then proceed or start again. Scientists rarely succeed their first time out, and we shouldn’t expect ourselves to either. Changing decades-long habits does not happen overnight. Where we succeed is by continuing to try and recruiting support along the way.
Step Six: Recruit support
Support can come in many shapes and sizes. It can be an app on your phone, a friend at work, a significant other, or a healthcare provider. We can ask for support at any stage of the process. Also, your loved ones may want to make changes as well. You may find that your desire to change inspires others to make positive changes of their own. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. Sometimes it takes a village.
Step Seven: Love Yourself
Don’t forget in your drive for change to love yourself exactly as you are. Yes, you may benefit in a myriad of ways by making some lifestyle changes, but that doesn’t mean that who you are isn’t good enough today. It just means that by changing some areas of your life you may more easily exhibit your best self. Give yourself credit every step of the way and when there is a setback, because there will be, avoid defining it as a failure, rather consider it a valuable part of the learning process and for every step backwards, take two steps forward.
If you desire change in your life, give this seven-step process a try. Mindfulness can be a stepping off point for making new habits. But in your drive to move forward don’t forget to slow down, observe your hunger, and savor your food. Sometimes just sticking with step one for a time can be all the change we need.