The Cabbage Soup Diet. Keto. The Zone. Atkins. Weight Watchers.
For anybody who has ever wished to lose weight, the choices and possibilities are endless—and often contradictory. Is fat bad, or is it the key to attaining a healthier size without feeling deprived? Are carbs evil or are they something that can be enjoyed in moderation?
Now, there is talk about "mindful eating." But what IS mindful eating? Is it a diet, or something different? And could it be the key to helping your employees make healthier food choices?
What Is Mindful Eating?
Lily Hills, award-winning author, international speaker, and creator of The Mindful Eating Method, explains, "Mindful eating is essentially bringing your full presence to your food and your body as you’re eating. It’s eating in harmony with your physical appetites versus your emotional appetites, paying attention to your body when it says it’s hungry and when it says it’s satisfied."
Contrast this with the way many of us eat, either mindlessly or emotionally.
Mindless eating is eating with basically no input from the brain. We’ve all experienced those times when we quickly scarf a burger while running errands or finish off our kids’ leftovers while standing over the sink. Mindless eating can also involve following the strict rules of a regimented diet plan, where we robotically eat what we’re "allowed" to eat, when we’re allowed to eat it. Afterward, we barely remember eating it, and certainly don’t remember details about the food itself, whether we enjoyed it, or how it made us feel.
Emotional eating, on the other hand, is all about the brain but completely leaves the body’s needs out of the equation altogether. This is when we experience stress, or boredom, or some other negative emotional trigger. And instead of dealing with those emotions, we cover them up with the temporary high created by eating something unhealthy. Unfortunately, the high tends to be short-lived, followed by a resurgence of the negative emotions which are now exacerbated by having eaten something we feel we shouldn’t have.
What Are the Benefits of Mindful Eating?
Whether someone is eating mindlessly or emotionally, the result is the same: There’s no connection with the body and its needs.
In principle, mindful eating changes all that, encouraging people to start listening to what their body needs, to be conscious in their food choices, and to truly be in the moment while they are eating.
The results can be multifold:
- Fewer instances of eating past the point of fullness (or stopping while still hungry)
- Less emotional eating or eating out of boredom
- A greater appreciation for food and nutrition
- Less focus on weight loss and more focus on nourishing the body
All of these benefits can add up to a healthier relationship with food and healthier choices overall, increasing employee wellness.
Is Mindful Eating Just Another Diet?
Mindful eating differs greatly from diets. In general, a diet tells you what to eat, when to eat it, and how much of it to eat, but it completely ignores your mindset and why you’re eating the way you are.
Mindful eating, on the other hand, is very much an emotional and mental process. When eating mindfully, you focus on your body and your emotions and how they affect each other.
"Oftentimes, at the root of emotional appetites are unresolved issues. Maybe we’re having difficulty at work, or our kids are going through struggles, or we don’t feel connected to our partner. And that increases our emotional appetite," says Lily. "So part of the key to quiet that appetite is to quiet the mind and get to the root of those emotional issues. This is part of the reason why diets generally fail—people think it’s all external: ‘If I just cut back on my calories or eat these specific foods, I’ll lose weight.’ But without being mindful, without recognizing and processing the negative, untamed emotions that trigger you to eat, you’ll always be fighting against yourself."
Mindful eating also differs from diets in that there are no "good" or "bad" foods. There are no rules saying to avoid chocolate cake. Instead, mindful eating says, "Are you eating this cake to enjoy it? Or are you eating it because you are seeking false bliss and an escape from negative emotions?" If you do decide that yes, you want to enjoy a piece of cake, put it on a nice plate. Focus on every mouthful and its taste and texture. Check in with yourself often to see how your body feels: Are you satisfied?
"Mindful eating is pleasurable," says Lily. "You’re eating when you’re genuinely hungry and stopping when you’re satisfied, so your taste buds are alive and receptive. You’re not eating to distract from negative emotions, so you can fully be in the moment and really experience and savor the taste of what you’re eating. It’s very much about loving your body, listening to it, and not letting your negative thoughts harm it."
How to Encourage Mindful Eating in the Workplace
A fun exercise to introduce employees to mindful eating was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the original developer and leader of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. In this exercise, he asks people to eat one raisin, but to examine it closely and be mindful about the entire process. Here is how the practice of mindfulness works during this exercise:
Nonjudging: The first challenge is to be aware of, and then set aside, any judgments about raisins or our experiences with them.
Patience: Eating mindfully takes time and patience. It’s not throwing a handful of raisins in your mouth and gulping them down. Instead, let the experience unfold and sit with the discomfort of your impatience.
Beginner’s mind: Approach the raisin as a baby would when seeing it for the first time. Feel it, smell it, take a taste, and take note of what you experience.
Trust: Accept your experience as true for you. Your responses and reactions to the raisin are yours, are valid, and are worthy of note.
Non-striving: There is no expectation of a particular outcome or goal. Be in the moment and appreciate the experience solely for what it is without thinking of what will happen as a result of it.
Acceptance: Notice and accept what happens, whether positive or negative. Be present with your enjoyment or lack thereof.
Letting go: Release past expectations and attachments that you’ve associated with this food. Treat every experience with food as the first time.
Get employees to note their thoughts and experiences afterward, and only to share them if they wish. They may find themselves surprised by the feelings that arise in them during the exercise; encourage them to sit with those feelings in a mindful way and explore what is at the root of them.
It’s also worth noting that if your company wishes to encourage mindful eating, it must give employees the space and support in which to do so. A 20-minute break in a crowded and noisy lunchroom makes mindfulness difficult if not impossible. Instead, consider instituting more flexible lunch breaks if possible—perhaps employees can opt for a 40-minute lunch on some days if they make up the time elsewhere, and can then have the time to seek out a more serene spot to enjoy their meal. In addition, having a support network or one-on-one coaching available can play a major part in helping employees connect with and process their emotions in healthy ways instead of suppressing them with food.
"Getting over a long-term challenging relationship with food requires Navy SEAL-level training of the mind,” says Lily. "You need to dive deep into the root of your issues, dive deep into self-love, and completely retrain your mindset."
Considering that eating is such an integral part of our everyday lives, it is definitely worth exploring the benefits of being more mindful with our food—appreciating and experiencing it in a way that creates harmony, not havoc.
By introducing mindful eating as part of your corporate wellness program, you can provide employees with a powerful tool to help them develop a healthy and more mindful relationship with food, nourishing them more completely.