I often hear my patients talk about the distress of comfort eating. They talk about how they feel trapped in a cycle of over-eating, physical discomfort, and shame. Emotional or comfort eating is a common, but unhelpful, way of coping with painful or uncomfortable emotions, and even boredom.
For a brief moment, eating might be considered a way to relieve these emotions. However, this coping method inadvertently stimulates our brain’s reward system. making it harder to break the cycle. Imagine you’re feeling bad, and to numb the feeling you reach for a chocolate bar. The instantaneous and brief relief from your emotions releases a group of feel-good chemicals including dopamine. The release of dopamine entrenches the cycle of comfort-eating even further. Before we know it, we might be reaching for another block of chocolate, packet of chips, bowl of pasta, or slice of bread.
Mindful eating is one way to tackle the cycle of emotional or comfort eating. There’s been a number of studies [e.g. 1, 2, 3] that have shown the effectiveness of practising mindful eating regularly. These studies have shown that mindful eating reduces impulsive eating, reverses the reward system, and has a positive impact on physical activity.
If you’ve been following our Mindfulness in May series, you'll know that the basis of mindfulness cultivates present awareness without judgement. One of the traps of comfort eating is that our minds are often distracted by something else like rumination on our painful emotion, depressive or anxious thoughts, or distracted by something we’re watching. When we’re distracted, we’re not paying attention to what we’re eating and how much we’re eating. When I’ve run mindfulness workshops and exercises, people consistently tell me that the food they’re eating is more delicious when they’re eating it mindfully. They also notice that they feel satisfied with fewer amounts of food than usual.
How do I eat mindfully?
This script is available to help you practice mindfulness as you eat. You might also like to listen to the audio of the exercise.
Have your food placed in front of you. You might like to start with a piece of fruit, or practice this with your food temptations.
Sit at a table with your feet planted firmly on the floor
Take slow, deep inhales and exhales, breathing in and out of your belly. Relax your shoulders.
Be aware of the physical sensations in your body. Start from the tip of your head, and scan all the way down to the tip of your toes. You might notice your stomach growling, or the physical urge to start eating.
Meanwhile, notice your thoughts, and when you notice that you’re thinking or making a judgement, return your attention back to your breath.
Pay attention to the food in front of you. Look at it with curiosity like it’s the first time you’ve seen food like this.
Notice the colour, the shape, and texture of the food.
Become aware of how your body reacts when you notice your food this way.
Imagine what it took for your food to get into your hands… the sunshine, the amount of water, the time, the processing, and the work. Take a moment to feel a sense of gratitude for this.
Touch your food, and notice the colours and textures.
Smell it and notice your body’s reactions, sensations, urges, and any memories that might arise.
With full awareness, bite into your food BUT don’t chew it yet. Allow it to be in your mouth. Notice the texture of the food and the flavour in your mouth. Be aware of your physical sensations. Take slow and deep breaths.
THEN, very slowly, begin chewing, resisting the urge to swallow. Notice the parts of the mouth that are involved in chewing. Notice the sounds and movements of chewing. Notice the sensations and flavour.
When you’re ready, swallow the food and notice the path of food travelling from your mouth to your stomach. Notice your breath and body.
Eat your next bite however you like and notice if this is the same or different experience.
Now with your future bites, slow down the eating process by the steps above.
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