By Nicole Springle, Lead Sport Nutritionist and Registered Dietitian with the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario

Like many people, you may have started to incorporate mindfulness practices to the (often negative) feedback loop that runs through your thoughts. How often have you paused to bring awareness to how that voice that speaks to you when you’re eating, deciding what to eat, or to recognize how you’re eating? As a sport dietitian, my job is to instruct athletes on the principles of eating with the aim to optimize their health and performance, but I believe it is up to each individual to put those concepts into practice in a way that works for him or her. Science is only part of the equation, the rest involves understanding what works best in your body, at the right time, in the right way…and this is where mindful eating comes in.

So, what does eating mindfully involve? It applies the concepts of mindfulness (non-judgmental, present-moment awareness) to our eating habits. It involves being aware of the physical and psychological influences that affect how and why we eat.

Understanding the body’s natural signals like hunger and fullness can be challenging when we are constantly eating on the run or when our cues tend to be more psychological than physical (maybe your initial cue to eat has more to do with your mood than a pang in your stomach…) When you’re engaging in physical activity it is important to know what your body needs to fuel effectively and also honour your inner wisdom and listen to what, when and how that best works for you!

If the concept of mindful eating is new to you or you just haven’t found a way to put it into practice, here are a few tips to get you started:

  1. Tune into your hunger and fullness cues. We may think this is natural, but everyone is a little different, and understanding your personal cues takes awareness and patience. For some it may be the traditional physical sensations we’re used to hearing about as a signal you should eat, hunger pangs and maybe a dip in energy, while others may not experience physical sensations until they are ravenous and would benefit from paying attention to more subtle cues like changes in mood or concentration. The same applies to fullness cues, which are often harder to nail down. Some will naturally sense when they are full, while for others it may take time to understand the subtle difference between feeling satisfied and overly full. In this case, experimenting with pace of eating, taking a break when feeling slightly less full and waiting 20 minutes to assess if the sensation has changed or even drinking a glass of water after finishing before going back for seconds can be helpful in bringing awareness to your body and its own individual responses.
  2. Know when to listen to your cues and when not to! Sometimes, our hunger cues are impacted by physical activity or changes in our emotional state. Intense or lengthy workouts or going too long without eating may dull your hunger signals and depress your appetite, as can stress, sadness, depression, anxiety or other extremes in our emotional health. However, that doesn’t mean your body wouldn’t actually benefit from food during these times, so understanding when to override your natural cues to meet basic health or desired performance needs can be equally as valuable as learning to abide by these cues. This also applies to sensations of hunger, which in some cases, can be driven more by emotions than by an actual physical need for food. In the same way that you need to learn your own individual physical sensations related to hunger, it is important to pay attention to cues that relate more to ‘emotional’ hunger such as boredom, anger, stress, or on the flip side, joy and celebration, so that you can tell the difference and respond accordingly.
  3. Shift out of autopilot. Before you eat, ask yourself why you are eating. Are you experiencing physical hunger or are there other emotional reasons you might be looking for food (e.g. boredom, cravings, loneliness, etc.)? It is important here to view this in a non-judgmental lens. Everyone eats at times for reasons that do not relate to physical hunger –it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong – it means you’re human! Use these instances as a time for curiosity and awareness to help to get to know your tendencies. It may give you clues to choices you’re making that could promote this behaviour, like undereating at a mealtime or leaving too long between your meals and snacks. It may also help you identify an emotional trigger that leads you to make certain choices and provide important insight that can help you address whatever is causing this response.
  4. Eat with awareness and savor your food. When you do eat, make the decision to eat. Just eat, don’t scroll through social media, stare at the TV or run between 10 different tasks on your to-do list. Make the choice to sit down and slow down. Try to taste your food, appreciate what went into what you are eating, take time between bites (even consider putting your utensil down while you chew – a true test of patience) anything to help you take your time and be present. Only then will you be able to tune into your cues and be aware of your body and the choices you are making.

Understanding how, when and why you eat will help reinforce a positive and healthy relationship with food. Health and performance are not mutually exclusive. Putting some of these tips into practice will help you to eat for health, pleasure, and nourishment while still paying attention to overall nutritional needs that keep you performing at your best.