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How to be a mindful eater

Jane Murphy / 09 January 2017

Want to be happier and healthier? Of course you do! The secret could lie in learning to eat mindfully – and taking time to savour the flavour.

eating together
Turn mealtimes into a sociable, enjoyable occasion and you'll boost your mental, as well as your physical, health.

Find out more about mindfulness

What exactly is mindful eating?

Put simply, it's the opposite of mindless eating. Instead of wolfing down food for fuel or out of habit, it involves taking time to focus on what you're eating – and why. The trick is to chew slowly, enjoy every mouthful and not allow yourself to get distracted. Be sure to notice and appreciate the colour and texture of food, as well as its flavour.

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Why are colour and texture so important?

If you aim to eat plenty of different coloured fruit and vegetables – or 'eat the rainbow' – you're more likely to get a wide range of health-boosting nutrients.

But there's much more to it than that. 'There's an old saying that we eat with our eyes,' says nutritionist Zoe Martin. 'When our meals are well-presented, this visual stimulus leads us to start salivating – the first stage of digestion. This signals our brains to get the gastric juices flowing. So you're giving the digestive process a head-start.'

Eat the rainbow: why colourful food boosts your health

And why chew slowly?

'Mindful chewing has the dual purpose of breaking food down to make the stomach enzymes' job easier, as well as allowing our satiating hormones to register – and signal – when we're full,' explains nutritional therapist Eleanor Strang. 'Too often, our hectic lives mean food is grabbed on the run, simply to recharge the batteries, so arrives in our stomachs barely chewed.

'The parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for digestion, won't activate while we're on the move or feeling stressed. It requires a relaxed, resting state to function. That's why wind and bloating, caused by undigested putrefying proteins and fermenting carbohydrates, are so common. Optimal digestion requires calm, mindful consumption.'

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Does it matter what I eat – as long as I do so mindfully?

In theory, you could eat a family-sized takeaway pizza or an entire Black Forest gâteau mindfully. But in reality, you probably wouldn't manage it if you were truly focussing on what you were doing. Besides, by slowing down the process and chewing for longer, you'll be more likely to notice when you're full-up and stop eating.

Indeed, the more you chew, the less you eat. In a recent experiment, shown on Channel 4's How to Lose Weight Well, women who chewed every mouthful of a pasta dish 35 times ate nearly 30 per cent less than those who chewed just 15 times.

So I can still have chocolate and cakes then?

Yes – this isn't about counting calories or cutting out certain foods completely. 'Eating occasional treats within the context of a healthy diet isn't harmful when shared socially and mindfully,' says Eleanor Strang. 'These foods only become a problem when they're consumed habitually, mindlessly and in excess.'

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In fact, eating a small amount of chocolate mindfully can significantly boost your mood, say researchers at Gettysburg College. People who took time to savour a small portion of milk chocolate reported feeling much happier afterwards than those who'd simply scoffed it down without thinking about it.

Should we stop counting calories?

How do I stop myself getting distracted?

You could switch off the TV for starters. People who don't watch TV during mealtimes eat significantly healthier food and enjoy it more, according to a recent study at the University of Minnesota. And even those who have the TV on the background, without actively watching it, don't eat as healthily as those who switch off completely.

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So I've got to eat alone in a silent room then?

Not at all! Turn mealtimes into a sociable, enjoyable occasion and you'll boost your mental, as well as your physical, health. 'Food can be a great socialising tool,' says Zoe Martin. 'It's worth noting that the French take daily lunch-breaks of up to two hours, so they can take time over their food with friends, family and co-workers. This is a form of mindful eating, too. Grabbing a quick sandwich is unheard-of. And France is statistically one of the most slender nations, with a low precedence of heart disease and type II diabetes.'

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.