Back in the caveman days, we spent a good part of our day (and a lot of our energy) looking for food — hunting it, gathering it, picking it. Now, food is literally at our fingertips, whether it’s in the plastic bag in front of you or a phone call away. As a result, eating has become relatively automatic: we’re hungry (or bored, or sad, or happy…), so we head to the pantry and pick whichever snack looks good. Most people no longer think about the short- or long-term impact of that food; they’re focused on the immediate gratification of America’s favorite snack foods: salty chips, sugary cookies, and greasy donuts. So how can we re-teach ourselves to appreciate and select the right foods for us? The answer, according to experts, lies in mindful eating: being present and aware of what you’re eating, its sensations, and its impact on your body and feelings. Mindful eating has multiple benefits: it can reduce the risk of diabetes; it may curb overeating; it could help you lose weight; it can help you manage your emotions. Below are five strategies to eat more mindfully:
Whether you like to watch Food Network, catch up on the news, write emails, or chill out with your Kindle while you eat, unplugging at mealtime can help you focus in on the sensations on your meal. Other sensations apart from those you get directly from food (taste, smell, texture, appearance) can distract you from focusing on those sensations, making it more difficult to register how much you’ve eaten or whether you’re full or not. Sit down at a (preferably set) table and take a minute to appreciate the food you’re about to eat and your surroundings. And at the very least, keep stressful stimuli (like responding to work emails or planning a dinner party) at bay: a study published in the journal Gastroenterology found that attending to two stimuli at once can alter metabolism and halt the digestive process.
2. Eat with your non-dominant hand
Popcorn-eaters who ate with their non-dominant hand ate far fewer calories than those who snacked with their dominant hand. According to lead researcher David Neal, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, “When we’ve repeatedly eaten a particular food in a particular environment, our brain comes to associate the food with that environment and makes us keep eating as long as those environmental cues are present.” Altering those environmental cues–that is, by eating with your non-dominant hand–removes the “automatic” part of eating, forcing us to pay attention to our intake. For an extra challenge, try eating with chopsticks using your non-dominant hand–research shows that doing so activates both hemispheres of the brain, strengthening neural connections and stimulating creativity.
3. Chew 40 times
In a recent study, individuals who chewed their food 40 times consumed 12% fewer calories than those who chewed each bite 15 times. The mechanism may be as simple as limiting the amount of food you can actually put in your mouth in a certain time, or it may be physiological: chewing stimulates the production of appetite-suppressing hormones like PYY and curbs the production of ghrelin, an appetite-boosting hormone. As a bonus, more chewing means that your food is broken down further, which may lead to better absorption of nutrients.
4. Put your fork down
You’ve heard it before: it takes about 20 minutes for your brain to register fullness. But because most of us can put down a burrito in less than five minutes, it’s important to slow down in order to let your brain catch up with your stomach. Putting your fork down between bites simply prolongs the eating period, allowing you to stop eating when you feel full and not when your food is gone. It also lets you focus on the taste, smell, and texture of your food (as opposed to getting your next forkful ready), so that you can truly taste your food.
5. Identify all the ingredients in the meal
Take a bite of your food and really focus in on the different flavors. Is the overall taste sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or savory? Which herbs and spices can you detect? Identifying each ingredient in a dish helps you stay in the moment and focus exclusively on your meal as opposed to thinking about tomorrow’s deadline.