Take Stress off Your Plate
Admit to being stressed. When you’re stressed, focus on it. That may sound wrong, but people get into regretful situations when they stress eat before they realize they are stressed. It’s only after the fact that they realize the true reason they were so out of sorts. So right now, think about how high your stress level is—chronically sky high? Moderate but with brief, acute bursts?
Calm down before you eat. If your stress level is high, remember to pause and ground yourself before taking every bite. Bring the hands-in-freezing-water study to mind, and remember: we make our worst food decisions when stressed. Grounding calms down your fight-or-flight system. And it gets us connected back to the moment. When we’re stressed, we’re caught in our head in the midst of swirling thoughts. Grounding moves you back into your body, where you can be fully present, aware of your immediate sensations. And you can weave grounding methods right into the meal process. Taking one second to get calm before you eat can help you to make more mindful food choices. Choose one of the following or do all of them.
Plate Grounding. Before you eat, place your finger at the top of your plate. Take a deep breath. Start at the top and run your finger in a clockwise pattern around the plate. Exhale as you do. When you reach the top of the plate, breathe in deep again. Repeat as many times as it takes to feel calmer.
Sleep Tight for a Good Appetite
Get quality sleep. If you struggle with the quantity of sleep, do everything you can to reduce disruptions like pets, light, and noises that reduce the quality of your sleep. Place your phone at least three feet from your head. Better yet, turn off your phone, or at least turn it over. Phones emit blue light and sounds that may impact the quality of your sleep. You can also purchase an app that eliminates blue light!
Find a routine. Routine is your best friend when it comes to sleep. Get to bed at the same time and get up around the same time, as often as you can. And before you go to sleep, use a consistent winding-down pattern that gives you a ritual to calm your body and prepare yourself for sleep, such as a yoga exercise/stretch, saying a prayer, or reading a chapter of a book.
Kick the Habit
Notice habits: Notice, don’t change your habits—at first. Make a list of three habits that may be contributing to your hanger. Your job is to pick just one habit, such as grazing on food when bored or snacking at night. Give it all of your attention, but just observe it.
Interrupt habits: Habits are based on external cues that prompt you to do them. For example, when you see a bag of chips lying on the counter, you may automatically pick it up. So interrupt your habit. It might mean moving where you place your favorite snack or even getting rid of it. Maybe you start shopping at the back of the store instead of the front where you find your normal snacks. Or if you snack and watch TV, perhaps you sit in a different chair or room. Change up your routines. Ask yourself, “How can I interrupt my mindless eating habit?”
No Time like the Present
Think portable. If you typically eat breakfast, lunch, or dinner at work, consider packing portable foods and snacks. This includes easy-to-transport items such as granola bars, nuts, bananas, apples, cheese, and yogurt cups, which you can throw in a bag. Even if you are on the road during the day without access to a refrigerator, you can keep a small cooler with ice packs in your car for items that need to remain cold.
Overprepare. When making meatballs, you can just as easily prepare a dozen meatballs as you can six. Then you can freeze the unused portion and save it for days when you’re extra-busy. It’s much easier to stick with your plan when you already have premade meals—and all you need to do is defrost and reheat!
Ditch the Diet
Lose the diet mentality. We often think thin = happy. But eating well is what truly leads to a positive mood. Instead of thinking about what you’re taking off your plate, start to focus on what you put on it. The goal isn’t restricting calories. It’s about mindfully putting together a plate of nourishing, tasty food. In a study on happiness and college students, students who ate breakfast every day, ate more than eight servings of fruit and vegetables daily, and ate three meals in addition to one or two snacks per day had the highest happiness score.
Shift your language. For a week, stop the diet-focused language—talking about or focusing on calories or portions. Instead, start asking yourself, “Am I eating mindfully?” A study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2018 showed that young adults whose parents had encouraged them to diet as teens were more likely to be overweight or obese; engage in dieting, binge eating, and unhealthy weight-control behaviors; and have lower body satisfaction when they became adults. And these disordered eating habits were still present fifteen years later! The researchers’ recommendation: families should steer the conversation away from “dieting.”
Sweeter Than Sugar
Mind the sugar. Take a mindful look at the role and level of sugar intake you have in your life. Is it at the root of your hunger? Does it exacerbate it? Keep track of how sugar affects your mood and body. Whenever you eat something with added sugar, take note of your mood afterward. How does it affect your mood when you eat sugar as a treat—like a dessert after a meal? How is your mood different when you eat sugar in place of real food or fruit—reaching for a candy bar instead of a snack?
Feel better with fruit. Try mindfully eating a piece of fruit, which can break the blood-sugar hanger cycle. Fruits do contain sugar, but they are also filled with fiber and nutrients. This helps you to digest fruit more slowly than sugary snack foods. And slower digestion helps regulate your hanger. Fruit can also improve your mood. In a study on sugar intake, including 70,000 women, researchers found higher chances of depression in those with a high intake of added and processed sugar but not in those with a high intake of naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in fruit.
Eat Real Food for Your Mood
Know what you’re dealing with. First, it’s important to identify the processed foods in your life. Sometimes they are tough to spot! Foods that are fried, baked, frozen, canned, or packaged are suspect. Step one is simple: read the labels. Just turn it over and see what’s inside. Is the paragraph of ingredients short, medium, or long? You don’t need to become an expert on every ingredient. Just be mindful of what is in your food.
Get the real deal. One way to cut down on processed foods is to buy local. For example, small bakeries don’t usually fill their bread with preservatives the way big bread companies do in order to keep them on shelves for long periods of time. Or learn how to cook your favorite processed foods yourself. As Michael Pollan advises, if you love fries, that’s great—just make them yourself.
Hanger hydrating food challenge: Add at least one hydrating food every day, such as watermelon, strawberries, cantaloupe, peaches, oranges, skim milk, cucumbers, lettuce, zucchini, grapes, celery, yogurt, tomatoes, bell peppers, grapefruit, or coconut water. One of my favorites is frozen grapes! Think of it as an experiment, and take note of how adding these foods affects your mood and appetite.
Drink when you eat. Drink water before mealtimes. How much, and how close to a meal? Research shows that drinking 568 milliliters of water (about 2.4 cups) thirty minutes before a meal is ideal to help you to eat more mindfully at the next meal. Compared to those who did not drink water before a meal, pre-meal water drinkers reported increased fullness, satisfaction, and decreased hunger after the meal.
Always Eat off Your Feet
Instead of scarfing down a slice of pizza while you walk, find a park bench. Go to the lunchroom, or find a chair at a party. Remember, you’ll be more satisfied and eat a more mindful portion if you take some time to focus on your food.
Center yourself. The real trick: don’t just sit. Be fully present, mentally and physically, before you dig in. Wherever you eat, take a moment to center yourself. Put your feet flat against the floor and repeat the motto “Time to eat, off my feet, I’ll be present in my seat.” Use this to center your attention on your food and ground yourself to the spot.
Set your intention. Before you start eating, tell yourself, I’m going to chew more consciously. Setting an intention helps you to focus better on mindful eating. Chewing each bite approximately twenty-five times is optimal, according to a large review of studies on chewing.
Notice others. The next time you’re eating with your family or out for a bite with friends, notice how much they chew. Some people eat slowly, while others scarf down the whole plate in one bite. Others are somewhere in between.
Create a mindful pause. Between chewing each bite, take a mindful pause. Some examples of mindful pauses are taking a breath, a drink, switching utensils, or putting your fork down for a moment.
Smile Between Each Bite
Between bites, pause for a moment to smile. It can be any kind of smile. A closed-mouth Buddha-like smile or a big Cheshire Cat one. Whatever works for you.
Take a moment. Take a bite. Smile. Smiling gives you a moment to pause. In that pause time space, think. Do you want the next bite? Or are you satisfied by this one? Then, decide. Repeat.