• Dr. Karen Bender, ND, RN

Mindful Eating: A Tool to Improve Digestion and Encourage Healthy Food Choices

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Nutrition is not just about what you eat but also about how you eat it. Studies have shown that the amount of absorption you get from the food is actually effected by how you eat it. If you are distracted or preoccupied when you are eating, you absorb less nutrients from the food you are eating.

What can explain this you might be wondering. One thing that explains this is the fact that digestion begins before you put food in your mouth. When you smell food, it stimulates the production of saliva with the digestive enzyme amylase in your mouth as a way to prepare for digesting carbohydrates. While this happens subconsciously, its effect can be maximized by taking the time to slow down and smell your food before beginning to put it in your mouth. In our modern on the go society many of us do not take the time to slow down and eat. We eat in our cars, at our desks while working or are doing other things while we eat. Our digestion can be greatly improved by applying the principles of mindfulness and slowing down to eat our food.

Simply put, mindfulness means being fully aware in the present moment by engaging all the senses and being attentive to all the sensations we are experiencing. One strategy for being more mindful while eating is to have some routines and habits around how we eat that optimize engaging all of our senses and remove other distractions. Eat at a table that is clear of clutter and is decorated to be aesthetically pleasing. Have a placemat, maybe light a candle and have some flowers. There is a reason why restaurants go the trouble of making the dinning environment pleasing to the eye and displaying food on the plate in an appealing manner. Visual stimulus such as the arrangement of the food and the surround environment actually effect the way we perceive how delicious the food is and how satisfied we are with the dinning experience. If we are intentional about the dinning environment and take a little effort to make it enjoyable we are more likely to find satisfaction in our dinning experience and will be less unlikely to over eat.

Another strategy to be more mindful when you eat is to take three deep breaths before beginning to eat. When we take deep breaths, breathing from the diaphragm with exhales twice as long as the inhale, we engage the parasympathetic nervous system. The nervous system is divided into two different modes, the sympathetic and parasympathetic. It is in the parasympathetic mode in which we optimally digest our food. In this mode our heart rate slows down and blood flow is directed to the digestive system so that digestive juices like stomach acid, pancreatic enzymes, bile, and saliva are produced and secreted to help us digest our food. If we are on go while eating by standing, walking, driving ect we are engaging our sympathetic nervous system where blood flow is directed away from the digestive system and the production of digestive juices are not encouraged resulting in overall decreased digestion and absorption of nutrients from the food we eat.

In addition, if we are not taking the time to slow down and eat our food we are more like to not be satisfied by the experience and therefore are more likely to over eat. This is partly because when we eat more slowly it gives the message from the stomach that it is full enough time to reach the brain. If you don’t believe me think about how many times you have been on a long road trip or watching a movie and ate a whole bag of chips without even have realizing that you ate that much and yet despite having done so still not feeling satisfied and felt the need to continue to eat. On the other hand, if you sit down and take the time to mindfully engage your senses you might be surprised how little of a food you need to eat to feel satisfied by the experience. You will also more likely make more nutritious food choices and be less likely to overeat junk food.

Try and experiment. Sit down with a food you usually find yourself over eating without distraction. Find a clutter and distraction free environment, take three deep breaths before eating it, express gratitude for it, smell it, look at it and observe something about the food you had not noticed before, and then eat it one bite at time, taking the time to chew completely. You might be surprised how different your experience is with food and how much more satisfaction you have while eating it.

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