Phones down! How to eat more mindfully

30th November 2020 | Alison Turner

While you’re reading this, what else are you doing? You might be scrolling through social media while you down a morning coffee on the commute to work, or squeezing in some internet time between emails over a rushed lunch break. Hey, we all do it. But these days our lives are so bombarded with external stimuli, we’re often too distracted to focus our attention on any one single task. And this includes our daily meals.

We all eat at least three times a day, but often we’re barely paying attention to what we’re putting in our mouths. When you eat mindlessly – inhaling a late dinner over the TV news, or cramming in a rushed lunch between Zoom meetings, you’re not allowing your mind to register the proper cues that your body is trying to send you.

Mindfulness facilitator and performance coach Melo Calarco has done a lot of work in the corporate space, and is all too familiar with the sight of people eating mindlessly at work.

“There are a lot of people sitting in front of their computer, eating, and they’re not getting any cues,” he says. “They’re not getting their satisfaction cues, that they’re full and content. You haven’t engaged with your food – you’re tapping away at your email, and then suddenly, your lunch is finished and you’ve barely noticed that you’ve even eaten anything. So then you want more to get that reward.”

Lunch at your desk again? It’ll be gone before you even notice it.

Calarco cites research that says if you eat in front of the computer, you get hungry 20 minutes later, because your brain hasn’t registered that you’ve eaten.

“Then you often crave carbs, a sweet kick, to satisfy your brain’s reward system,” he says.

Not paying attention to your body and to your meals can also lead to poor decision making. Eating on the run, and just grabbing whatever you can at the last minute, is likely to cause you to opt for convenience over nutrition.

“Thinking, ‘I’ll just grab something quickly to fill me up’– that sort of eating on the run attitude; you’re not mindful of even taking the time to eat something healthy,” Calarco says,

This kind of mindless eating can become a habit, such as your afternoon pick-me-up of coffee and a muffin. When 3pm rolls around, you build an association that you need that hit. And often, once you grab that snack, you eat it while working at your desk or staring at your phone, without even really noticing what you’re consuming.

“You often see people in cafes, staring at a screen,” Calarco says. “We use our phone as company when we’re sitting alone. This teaches you to not engage with what you’re doing.”

Did you even taste that flat white? Your screen is distracting you from the simple pleasures of life.

So what can you do to start being more mindful of your food? You don’t need to move to an ashram, or start chanting “om” before every meal. Eating mindfully is as simple as stopping.

“Like any mindfulness practice, eating mindfully is stopping what you’re doing and taking the time to focus on your food,” Calarco advises. “Pay attention to all your senses.”

Start by smelling the aroma of your food. This won’t just increase its appeal, it will also start your mouth producing enzymes, which aid digestion. Then chew your food – taste the flavours and feel the textures. Embrace the whole experience that comes with eating.

“Sometimes I even close my eyes, and taste the flavours with my eyes closed to heighten that sensory awareness,” Calarco admits.

If you’re cooking a meal for yourself or your family, try to resist the temptation to eat bits and pieces as you go. Enjoy the preparation of the food, and appreciate the fact that you have an abundance of nutritious food at your disposal. Wait until the meal is ready, and then sit down, without distractions, and focus solely on eating it.

Twitter can wait: eat your meal slowly, and appreciate who prepared it, and who grew it.

We’ve all heard about the benefits of mindfulness, but in our rushed and over-stimulated existence, it can feel impossible to incorporate it into daily life. But since you already have to eat every day, Calarco says eating is the perfect way to start practising mindfulness.

“It’s called a non-formal practice,” he says. “Mindfulness is not just about closing your eyes and meditating; it’s about enjoying all the other things you do in your day, including eating.”

Eating your meals and snacks mindfully will not only prevent you from overeating or making poor food choices, it can even help you to notice any issues you might have with your relationship with food.

“People eat for certain moods,” Calarco says. “Being mindful of what you put in your body is the first step. Then ask yourself, why are you doing it? What is the feeling that triggered it? It could be a need for comfort, you could be missing something, it could be stress. This will make you more aware of your relationship with food.”

Take the time to enjoy your food: every delicious bite.

Once you start eating more mindfully, Calarco says this can have a positive flow-on effect to other areas in your life, including your performance at work.

“Think about all those things you’re doing in default mode, from waking up in the morning to having a shower to commuting to walking,” he says. “If you can train yourself to be focused on just eating, for example, you can also train yourself to be focused on doing all those other things in your day – with full attention.

“That’s what mindfulness at its most fundamental level is – attention training. Eating more mindfully is a way to train your attention to do just one thing and be engaged with that one thing. And then that mindfulness becomes a habit in the long term.”