5 Brain-Based Mindful Eating Tips
I recently finished the fascinating book What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite by David DiSalvo.
The title may sound counterintuitive, but the short version is that our brains crave certainty and enjoy the feeling of being right. The problem is that we do much better when we acknowledge uncertainty and allow ourselves to admit being wrong. Even when that’s uncomfortable.
Much of what DiSalvo covers can apply to any area of life, including food, and a couple of things were specific to eating. So, here are my five top mindful eating tips from the book.
1: Slow Down
The first and broadest suggestion in the book is to simply slow down. This applies to everything, from considering your words before speaking, pausing to calm down before sending an angry email or text, and trying to go at a more reasonable speed in life to avoid mistakes made in haste.
And certainly, slowing down applies to mindful eating in a couple of ways.
One is to pause before eating, long enough to consider if you’re truly hungry or not. That pause can help you understand if you’re reaching for food due to emotional reasons, some other trigger, or physical hunger.
It’s also helpful to slow down while eating. This allows you to enjoy the food and feel satisfied sooner.
2: Imagine first
Speaking of feeling satisfied, here’s an interesting trick to try when you find yourselves craving a certain food but you’re not hungry.
In cases like this, you’ll probably be thinking about the food. Maybe you saw a commercial for it, and now you can’t get the image out of your head.
Instead of trying to drive the mental picture away, imagine actually eating the food.
Strange as it sounds, this can help lessen the craving. As DiSalvo explains: “The reason is that to our brains, imagining an action and doing it are not too dissimilar. We can trick ourselves into feeling like we’ve already enjoyed the treat….” (p. 221)
3: Delay gratification
In the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating program, we talk about how when you want to eat but aren’t hungry, one of your options is to redirect your attention. And DiSalvo agrees that this is a good option – and it’s one that not only humans use.
Researchers experimented with chimpanzees to see if the chimps could control impulsivity. The chimps had some toys, and they could also see but not touch a pile of candy – a pile that grew larger over time.
Even though the chimps were given access to the candy at certain intervals, some of them distracted themselves with the toys instead of going for the food, apparently realizing that if they waited, they’d get even more candy later.
From a mindful eating perspective, of course, the goal wouldn’t be to get more food, but rather to wait until you’re hungry to eat, so you can fully enjoy the food and avoid overeating.
But the principle of not acting on impulse remains the same. And even though many people struggle with this regularly, DiSalvo commented that “perhaps remembering that even chimps can do it is inspiration enough to keep trying.” (p. 233)
4: Remember variety
I think most of us have gotten tired of eating certain foods at one point or another. Like if you make a big pot of soup, or some other meal, over the weekend, and then you end up eating it a few times during the week.
Or it may be other situations where a food you used to love doesn’t seem as exciting anymore, now that you’ve had it more.
This can happen with all kinds of things – food, TV shows, music, decorations, and even people. It seems that once you become habituated to something, it’s no longer as enticing.
Does this mean you should give up on the food you once liked? I’d say no.
Instead, you should try to “dishabituate” by remembering the variety of foods you’ve had.
After all, even if it feels like you’re always eating the same thing, you’re probably getting more variety than you realize. By thinking about the variety you’ve had, you’ll experience “virtual variety,” and that acts much like actual variety, allowing you to enjoy your favorite foods again. (p. 220)
5: Ask yourself instead of telling
I suspect you’ve all heard the story of the Little Engine Who Could, which is often used as a motivator by encouraging you to tell yourself that you can achieve a goal.
And on the surface, this seems like a good way to go. If you can change how you think about something, including your ability to do it, then it seems like that should help you do what you want.
But here’s an interesting twist. Self-talk can indeed be helpful, but it’s more helpful if you ask yourself about doing something instead of telling yourself.
For example, say you’re trying to slow down when you eat. Instead of saying to yourself, “I will eat more slowly,” try asking, “Will I eat more slowly?”
Asking does a couple of things. If you have a rebellious streak, it can help work around that, so you’re less likely to rebel against your own self-talk. And asking also encourages more creativity and motivation as you think about how to achieve your goal.
The immediate happy path may not be the best
I know a lot of people are focused on being happy, and while it’s not necessarily a bad thing, doing things that keep your brain happy may not be the best choice, at least in the short term.
Doing things like slowing down, delaying gratification, asking yourself to do a task, and looking for satisfaction with virtual variety and imagined foods may be uncomfortable for your brain, especially at first. But once you get some practice with it, you may well find that you feel better and are happier in the long run.