The Benefits of Mindful Eating for Your Wellbeing (and Your Sleep!)
It’s May! And for the whole month, Shepherd’s Dream is taking a deep breath and focusing on…well…all the things that are happening on a daily basis that form the foundation of our lives. You know, all those things like nutrition and movement and stress reduction and sleep that we forget or that fall to the wayside while we tend to the business and busyness of modern life.
For the first installment of our Mindful May, we’re taking a look at our relationship with food, a function that is so automatic and mundane for most of us that it’s easy to take for granted. Let’s learn more about mindful eating!
Getting Mindful About Food
The good news is that mindful eating isn’t just another diet or way of denying ourselves pleasure from eating. Rather, it’s about slowing down and checking in with ourselves as we go through all the steps of understanding our hunger cues, motivations, cravings, and how the food we eat makes us feel.
For example, something like chocolate cake can be problematic if we find ourselves constantly craving it and indulging more often than our bodies would prefer. And then there are times when enjoying a slice of chocolate cake is celebratory and delightful. The key is to know the difference and be aware of what’s going on inside of ourselves. It isn’t a matter of the cake being bad or good because ultimately the chocolate cake is neutral, but our experience of it usually isn’t.
There are many benefits to mindful eating, including:
- Increased awareness. Mindful eating can help you become more aware of the types of food you eat, how much you eat, and how often you eat. By paying attention to your body’s signals of hunger and fullness, you can better regulate your food intake and make healthier choices.
- Improved digestion. By slowing down and savoring your food, you may find that you experience better digestion and fewer digestive issues.
- Weight management. Mindful eating can be a helpful tool for managing your weight. By becoming more aware of your eating habits, you can identify and address problematic patterns, such as mindless snacking or eating out of boredom.
- Reduced stress. Eating mindfully can help to reduce stress and promote relaxation. By focusing on the present moment and savoring your food, you can create a more calming and enjoyable eating experience.
- Better Sleep. You all knew this was coming, didn’t you? Read on for more on this.
Mindful Eating and Better Sleep
So how does mindful eating contribute to better sleep? Some awareness around certain foods and how digestion interacts with our sleep can really help us get better Zs.
- Complete eating 2-3 hours before bedtime. Experts recommend giving your body time after dinner so that when it’s time to rest, your body isn’t busy digesting food. Going for an after-dinner walk can help with this process as well. Folks with sleep apnea, take note—earlier eating is associated with better sleep outcomes.
- Spicy foods? Not so much. It’s true what they say…spicy foods can cause indigestion and acid reflux. Both are major sleep disruptors. Spicy food can also warm up the body when what we want is to begin to cool down, you can read more on body temperature and sleep here.
- Look for signs of inflammation. Our diet is a major source of inflammation in our bodies. Certain foods can trigger a reaction in us and increase mucus production which can disrupt sleep, especially for those with sleep apnea, snoring, and asthma.
- Caffeine. Need we say more? Experts recommend giving our bodies an 8-12 hour window to fully clear caffeine from our system so we are primed for a good night’s sleep. Read more on that here.
- Incorporate sleep-inducing foods and nutrients. From melatonin to tryptophan to serotonin, sleep is a chemical process and luckily for us, there are some delicious natural ways to boost these in our bodies. Read more in our Healthy Sleep Series, and be sure to give our Magic Melatonin Mocktail a try!
Before we get into how to go about mindful eating, it’s helpful to understand a few things first. One is the unique and oftentimes challenging food culture we have in the United States, and another is a peek into our bodies’ relationship with food.
One of the last things we think about before eating or drinking is to ask our body what it wants and needs, and yet…isn’t that the whole purpose?!
The diet marketplace is full of fancy ideas, theories, trends, and products, so much so that most of us feel a great deal of confusion around exactly what we should be eating. Thanks to research, we do know a lot about what the body needs to function and be healthy, but even amongst those experts, you’ll hear wildly different takes on how to go about it. It’s still buyer beware out there.
It’s beyond the scope of this article to tell you what to eat, but we can share a few helpful things to consider:
- Sympathetic vs. Parasympathetic. Our body has an elegantly designed mechanism for eating. Our nervous system has two gears: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is active, regulating the “fight or flight” functions, while the parasympathetic is more passive, our “rest and digest” mode. Many of us live in chronically elevated stress levels, and when we try to eat while in sympathetic, our body is receiving some seriously mixed messages. This results in less-than-stellar digestion and nutrient absorption.
- Food Intolerances & Allergies. If you haven’t already discovered some of these for yourself, food intolerances and allergies are on the rise and becoming quite common. Most people remain unaware of them until they intentionally go without a certain food for an amount of time, then reintroduce it to see what happens. Common offenders include gluten, dairy, various food chemicals, nightshade plants, and nuts.
By slowing down and getting mindful, we can ensure we’re in parasympathetic mode while eating, and if anything we’re eating is causing us trouble, then we’re more likely to pinpoint it. And that also helps you sleep better at night.
For many, many reasons, we here in the United States have quite a different relationship with food than the rest of the world. For example, in many parts of Europe, they have a deep relationship with what their region seasonally provides and supports there. Meals are traditionally communal affairs, with everyone gathering around the table, often for hours, and engaging in lively conversation. Fresh groceries like produce, bread, and meat are often purchased more frequently at neighborhood marketplaces. In New Zealand, you won’t find meat labeled as “organic” or “grass fed,” because it’s assumed—that’s just how it’s done there!
Contrast this with America’s habits of fast food, junk food that is “shelf stable” for eons, drive-thrus, eating alone, eating while driving and working at our desks, and the numerous other symptoms of a food system and culture that places health and wellbeing way down the list of priorities. Unfortunately, it shows in our physical, mental, and emotional health markers.
So while we wait for the culture to course correct, we must empower ourselves to hit the pause button and take good care of ourselves in the meantime. It can be difficult to go against the tide, but when it comes to our wellbeing, the effort is absolutely worth it and will pay off in so many ways. Here are some tips to support your mindful eating journey!
5 Tips for More Mindful Eating
You’re sitting down with a plate of thoughtfully-chosen food. Now what do you do?
- Pay attention to your body. Close your eyes and take a breath. Tune in to your body’s signals of hunger and fullness, and try to stop eating when you feel satisfied. Notice when different foods bring up different emotions: comfort, anxiety, avoidance, joy.
- Eat without distractions. Try to eat in a quiet and peaceful environment, without the distraction of TV, phone, or computer. Meals were historically shared communally, so be sure to keep devices away from the dinner table and use the time to connect with your loved ones.
- Slow down. Take your time when eating, and savor each bite. Chew your food slowly and mindfully, putting utensils down between bites. Chewing food properly is the first step in healthy digestion, this alone can really help.
- Engage your senses. Pay attention to the colors, smells, textures, and tastes of your food. Experiment with new foods for new experiences.
- Practice gratitude. Take a moment before and after your meal to express gratitude for the food and the nourishment it provides. The plate of food in front of you is an excellent example of how interconnected we all are. Think of the places all over the world each food component came from, how it got to your plate, all the various people involved every step of the way. Think of the vast knowledge passed down from generation to generation in the human lineage just so we could know what to eat and how to prepare it. Think of how each bite is going toward your body’s health and wellbeing. Gratitude, indeed. Not to mention, gratitude is associated with all sorts of other beneficial health and wellbeing markers, so our food is a great place to start!
Remember, mindful eating takes practice, so don’t expect to master it overnight. Start small, and gradually incorporate these tips into your daily routine. As you increase your awareness, a more mindful and healthy relationship with food will develop. You might be surprised at what you notice and how you feel!
Thanks for joining us for Mindful May! Be sure to follow us on Instagram and check us out on Pinterest for more as we bring mindfulness to many areas of life. Stay tuned for more this month, and as always—sweet dreams!