Food for thought

Mindful eating: Building a healthier relationship with food

The simple acts of taking the time to meal prep, meditate and sit in gratitude as I eat a meal have kept me grounded as a student.

Editor’s note: This is an opinion piece; the views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Medical school is one of the most rewarding journeys anyone will ever embark upon. However, it can be a challenging environment as students face a range of stressors, which can ultimately have negative impacts on their relationship with food.

Unchecked stress and long hours spent studying or on clinical rotations can contribute to changes in eating patterns. A strained relationship with food can lead to unhealthy meal choices driven by emotional distress, which can lead to weight gain, and has the potential to increase an individual’s risk of obesity or other metabolic disorders.

Thus, fostering a positive relationship with food—especially during times of stress—can be imperative to preserving long-term physical as well as mental health and wellness.

The practice of mindful eating involves being present and aware of our experiences with food in a nonjudgmental manner. Using mindfulness meditation techniques can help us identify the difference between emotional eating and physical hunger. Many of us have psychological connections to food—we reach for food when we are bored, anxious, lonely, or frustrated—and recognizing this pattern is the first step toward developing alternative coping mechanisms to address these emotions.

Mindful eating encourages the conscious awareness of food choices as well as the driving forces behind those choices and utilizes internal satiety cues. In managing stress through mindfulness, we can often prevent ourselves from thoughtlessly overeating and become acutely honed to the needs of our body. Over time, this can lead to healthier associations and eating habits.

The American Heart Association endorses the mindful eating approach as a stepping stone toward healthier eating habits. Research suggests that mindful eating can help those suffering from binge eating disorders establish healthier eating behaviors.

Additional studies have shown that mindful eating has the potential to positively affect the relationship we have with food and our eating behaviors, which may be influenced by both internal and external cues. Mindful eating—which can be done during any meal—calls for attentiveness to potentially curb overindulgence.

How to eat mindfully

To eat mindfully, give your meal your utmost undivided attention. Remove distractions such as your television, phone, or computer during the meal to help prevent mindless overeating. If you are tempted to overconsume, recognize such temptations as transient thoughts—much like clouds float by in the sky, allow these urges to pass without engaging them.

The practice of mindful eating calls on us to trust our body’s ability to signal hunger and fullness. Before beginning a meal, one can employ a brief deep breathing technique or conduct a mental check-in to consider any psychological stressors that may be present. Identifying these stressors can help prevent emotional eating behaviors.

In mindfulness it is encouraged to contemplate your appreciation of the meal and its nutritional value. Allow a moment for your senses to take in various aspects of the food—such as smells, colors, sounds, textures and flavors.

Consider eating the meal at a slower pace. For example, take a full 20 to 30 minutes to eat. This more leisurely pace allows us more time to realize we are full so we can avoid overeating. To help encourage a slower pace, one can try taking smaller bites, chewing the food for longer periods of time or placing the utensil down between bites of food.

Start small

If overwhelmed when trying to implement dietary changes, it can be easier to start small by using mindfulness techniques with just one meal—whichever time of day works best. Perhaps setting a timer in which you will dedicate five minutes to mindfulness during a meal will help to create a routine.

In applying these small changes, we can set the stage to make a big difference in our lives and eating habits. Establishing an atmosphere of mindfulness allows us to begin the transformation of our relationship with food.

My experience

My journey into medicine was nontraditional; prior to medical school I worked as a chef. I have an associate’s degree in culinary arts. Medical school has challenged me to find ways to use my knowledge from my prior training to help others and construct a self-care routine for myself.

I have discovered that the simple acts of taking the time to meal prep, meditate and sit in gratitude as I eat a meal have kept me grounded as a student. Being mindful of my eating habits and managing stressors can set the tone for the day. Creating a space, even if it’s only a few moments, to be mindful during the day can be fundamental to mental wellness as one progresses through their program.

Throughout the course of medical school, students adapt to many different environments—from didactic years spent in the classroom to the busier pace of clinical rotations. Being conscious of the present moment while acknowledging one’s feelings and the influences that they have on behaviors such as eating can help students manage the stressors from such a challenging but fulfilling lifestyle.

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