Author: Sharon A. Suh, Ph.D.
Mindfulness and mindful eating can help shine the light of awareness on our experience so that we can take a pause before going into compulsive autopilot.
Mindful eating has its roots in the over 2600-year-old Buddhist practice of mindfulness or sati. The Buddha taught that mindfulness is paying attention to our present moment experience so that we can free our attachments to the past and our anxieties about the future. Mindfulness is the cultivation of awareness that helps us pause between an impulse and an immediate and sometimes unconscious reaction. Mindfulness and mindful eating can help shine the light of awareness on our experience so that we can take a pause before going on autopilot. We may instead take a breath, ground ourselves, and then make the conscious choice to nourish ourselves by selecting a few cookies, putting them on a plate, and allowing ourselves to be present both to our emotions and to the cookies we are actively choosing to eat. In other words, be mindful of what you are feeling, make a conscious choice to eat what you crave, and try not to go unconscious while you do it. One way to stay conscious and aware while you are eating is to check in with your stomach fullness and your emotional satisfaction along the way.
Notice what you are eating and what is eating you.
When you eat emotionally (which is totally fine because we are all emotional beings who must eat), it can be helpful to notice with curiosity what it is that you are eating and notice what is eating you. Most of us are usually churning on some difficult emotions that we may wish to ignore by going unconscious through consumption (booze, binge watching shows, mindless eating).
Being a mindful eater means recognizing that we are creatures of habits and that past conditioning may cause us to react to things in a habitual manner without even thinking about it.
We are often on autopilot and without the awareness that mindfulness brings, we can endlessly harass ourselves over our presumed mistakes and failures (e.g., “I can’t believe I ate all that… again!) or shortchange our current happiness for some projection of a better future self. I call this conditional living which basically conveys the harmful belief that you cannot have happiness yet, because there is something about you that is not good enough. Here’s the thing-- conditional living is all about depriving your current self in the false hopes of attaining a better you in the future. But alas, as the Buddha taught, the future is always going to elude us because, well, it is in the future.
ALL food is medicine—you just have to find the dose that works for you.
The first step to mindful eating is to bring awareness to how we are shaped by family, culture, and social norms. As Jan Chozen Bays, author of Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food often likes to say, “Awareness leads to choice and choice leads to freedom.” Mindfulness can provide us with a wonderful sense of freedom because we can learn to make new choices for ourselves once we realize that we have been acting out of inherited habits. Neuroscience shows us that we can rewire our neural pathways and build new habits by becoming aware of our conditioning and choosing differently. As a mindful eating teacher, I believe that ALL food is medicine—you just have to find the dose that works for you. And that means that you will need to tune in to your hunger, your desires, and discover that sweet spot where you are satisfied. You cannot rely on the past, the diet industry, or your friends to make these decisions for you.
Mindful eating means paying attention to the foods you are eating, allowing yourself to take a pause between bites to taste and savor your food, and to be okay with acknowledging that you have desires for certain foods. Giving yourself the freedom to choose what you want and learning to trust yourself around food means that you also need to stop criminalizing certain foods. Remember: Food is just food. It’s our relationship to it that matters.
As you practice mindful eating, it may be helpful to remind yourself of these mindful eating principles:
- Engage your senses while you eat – sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste – in order to be fully present to what, when, how, and why you are eating. Can you plate your food instead of eating out of a bag by the kitchen counter? Can you sit and eat at the table without scrolling through social media? Being present to your food allows you to notice how satisfied you are during and after eating and when you are comfortably full.
- Be kind and gentle with yourself while rediscovering a joyful and healthy relationship with food. Notice what’s happening in your emotional world when you reach for your go-to foods. Check-in with yourself and see if you are hungry for physical food or if your heart is hungry (lonely, sad, angry, etc.) because we sometimes overeat certain foods so that we can avoid those difficult feelings.
- Take a breath and put down your utensils between bites. Pausing allows us to become aware of the food that we are eating and to fully taste our meal.
- Finally--ask yourself before you sit down, “Stomach: how hungry are you? How much would you be satisfied with?” Halfway through your meal and at the end of your meal, pause and check in again and notice if you are physically full and if you are emotionally satisfied. These are two different things!
Using the Stomach Meter
As a Mindful Eating-Conscious Living™ certified teacher, I always encourage my students to check in with their stomach to see how hungry or full it is right before a meal. I usually get some curious looks, for most of us have not been taught to ask our stomach how full it is, and more importantly, how much our stomach would be satisfied with, prior to sitting down to a meal. In fact, most of us typically only register our stomach hunger as 1. Starving, 2. Could eat more, or 3. Full/stuffed.
Learning to pause and check-in with our stomach hunger while we are eating can help us become more aware of the difference between stomach fullness, which is a measure of volume in our stomach, and satisfaction, which is an emotional response to what it is we are eating. The reason this distinction matters is that sometimes we may forget to check in with our stomach hunger when we are eating something we love. That feeling of emotional satisfaction can be diminished if we eat to the point where we are completely overstuffed and uncomfortable, which can give rise to subsequent feelings of guilt and anxiety. Therefore, it may be beneficial to check in with our stomach hunger before and during our meal to assess the physical level of hunger and if our food is still satisfying.
But how do you check in with stomach hunger? Here I would suggest utilizing the stomach meter devised by Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, which can help us learn to detect various gradations of physical hunger and learn to gauge our emotional satisfaction derived from food. It is a simple tool that can yield great benefit in learning how to assess stomach hunger so that we can learn to take better care of ourselves.
In this chart, you see that most of us register stomach volume as either “starving,” “could it more,” or “full/stuffed.” Yet it may be helpful for us to begin to discern additional levels of physical hunger during our meals to help slow us down and learn to pay better attention to what our stomach is telling us. The stomach, after all, only measures the physical volume and cannot register taste. The average stomach holds about ¼ cup of volume at rest and around 4 cups when full. Although these levels vary according to each person, it might prove beneficial to be able to detect different levels in your body as you practice slowing down your eating so that you can maximize satisfaction and find that volume of food that works best for your body’s comfort. You might consider referring to this stomach meter both before, during, and after a meal in order to check-in and see how full your stomach is: is it empty, ¼ full, ½ full, ¾ full, full, or overstuffed? Learning how to tune into your stomach fullness can help you become better acquainted with the point where you are emotionally satisfied by your meal and still physically comfortable.
You might also consider rating your emotional satisfaction during and after eating on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being not satisfied at all and 5 being completely satisfied. You might find some new insights about the level of satisfaction in relation to the level of volume, and you might begin to trust your body’s wisdom and ability to inform you when you are hungry, full, and satisfied. Remember—all food is medicine and finding the right dose for yourself is one of the first steps toward becoming a mindful eater.
How Do I Know I am Hungry?
Presented by Sharon A. Suh, PhD
Professional Education Series
Original Presentation:December 2020
About the Author
Occupy This Body: A Buddhist Memoir (Sumeru Press, 2019), Silver Screen Buddha: Buddhism in Asian and Western Film (Bloomsbury Press, 2015), and Being Buddhist in a Christian World: Gender and Community in a Korean American Temple (University of Washington Press, 2004). She serves on the board of directors of The Center for Mindful Eating and is president of Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women. www.mindfuleatingmethod.com and email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bays, J. C. (2017). Mindful eating: A guide to rediscovering a healthy and joyful relationship with food. Shambhala.
Wansink, B. (2011). Mindless eating. Hay House UK Ltd.