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Monday, February 19, 2018

Mindful eating: Bite by bite, honor the food

What is mindful eating? And in the life of a busy parent during the holiday season, is it an oxymoron?

Harvard nutritionist and registered dietitian Lilian Cheung, DSc, RD, who collaborated with the Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh on the book Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, defines mindful eating as “eating with awareness and stopping when we are full.”

mindful eating

Photo credit: Serhiy Kobyakov

In today’s culture, many of us know what eating without awareness looks and feels like. It’s not uncommon for the habit of multi-tasking to include eating: slurping down a smoothie while dashing out the door; devouring a sandwich while checking email or texts; sneaking spoonfuls of a preschooler’s leftover mac and cheese while clearing the table or settling into the couch with a bag of chips to watch TV after putting the kids to bed.

Unfortunately, eating this way means we’re unlikely to enjoy any of these foods, let alone to know why we ate them—or even to remember that we ate them at all. We’re more likely to overeat when we’re not paying attention to our own needs.

The awareness of eating is central to wellness, says Michelle May, MD, an Arizona State University alumna, Phoenix resident, CEO and Founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Program and author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat. “You’ll notice how you feel, both physically and emotionally, when you eat certain types or amounts of food, eat in certain environments or eat in certain ways.”

May’s philosophy of mindful eating means tuning in and understanding why we want to eat so that we can consciously decide whether to eat, what to eat and how much to eat. She views weight management as a potential side benefit, not the focus, of mindful eating.

“Mindful eating is part and parcel of emotional regulation,” adds Banner Health social worker Wendy Lieberman, MSW, of Phoenix, the mother of sons ages 5 and 3.

Lieberman, who uses mindful-eating exercises during therapy sessions with clients with mood disorders, says, “The holidays can be triggers of negative emotions. Awareness of the triggers aids in soothing the intense negative reactions that lead to impulsive behavior such as restricting food, overeating and/or bingeing.”

With the pressure of unrealistic expectations we place on ourselves to create the perfect holiday family photo, orchestrate Norman Rockwell-like experiences for our kids, shower loved ones with perfect gifts and cheerfully negotiate the interpersonal dynamics of extended family, most of us could benefit from some mindfulness practice this month—and beyond.

The best way to raise kids who eat with awareness and stop when they’re full is to serve as a good role model. I asked Cheung for some mindful eating strategies to use at home.

“Honor the food,” she advises. “Eat with all your senses, with no distractions like television and smartphones. Eat slowly to allow the satiety signal to set in. Chew well.”

I made a mental note to move the iPhone charger out of the kitchen. And texting while cooking? Guilty as charged.

As for what to eat, Cheung recommends “eating for our health as well as for the health of our planet.”

A healthy, balanced diet consists of fiber-rich vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, small amounts of healthy unsaturated and omega-3 fats and a variety of lean proteins.

“Eating mindfully teaches us to live more mindfully,” says May. “Too often we put a bite of food in our mouth then immediately begin to load the next forkful. Our attention is on the next bite, not the one we are eating.”

I vow to slow down and pay attention—bite by bite, moment by moment. Becoming more mindful at the table and in everyday life may be the best gift we give to ourselves and to our families this holiday season.

Photo by Daniel Friedman.

Photo by Daniel Friedman.

3 mindful eating tips for busy parents during the holiday season:

  • Eat what you love. Don’t ruin your favorite foods with guilt; deprivation and shame are powerful emotional triggers for overeating. Remind yourself that all foods can fit into a healthy diet when you balance eating for enjoyment with eating for nourishment.
  • Set an intention for eating. Know why you’re eating—nutrition, fuel, pleasure, social connection, tradition—so your choices will reflect that intention. Before you start eating, ask yourself, “How do I want to feel when I’m finished?”
  • Love what you eat. Then sit down to eat—even if it’s just a holiday cookie. Savor each bite mindfully, noticing the appearance, aromas, textures and flavors of your food. Stay conscious of how your body feels as you eat so you’ll feel great when you’re done.

—Source: Michelle May, MD

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Jessica Lehmann, MS, RDN

Jessica Lehmann, MS, RDN, is a Phoenix-based registered dietitian-nutritionist and mother of Oliver (7) Felix (4) and Adrian (1). She also teaches nutrition as a faculty associate at Arizona State University. Find more of her writing at and

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