by Megan Meyer, PhD, IFIC
Training and racing have always been a huge part of my life. After more than two decades of training for more races than I can count, I think I’ve finessed my race day execution – and, more importantly, the pre-race preparation.
My love of racing began when, in my teens and twenties, I was a competitive swimmer. After college, I decided to switch things up and try running, which led me to sign up for my first half marathon. Naturally, soon after, I combined my running and swimming skills to become a triathlon junkie.
Somewhere between my evolution from triathlete to full marathon runner, I realized something. Not only were the things I was eating during race season affecting my race day performance, but they were also fuelling a year-round food obsession and not a healthy one.
After hearing about mindful eating, a practice that embodies many intuitive eating principles, like eating when you’re hungry and not observing food restrictions, I decided to try it. It wasn’t long before I noticed my energy levels improve and my strength increase. More importantly, my mind was free from counting macros and daydreaming about food.
If you’re looking for a way out of the restrictive eating habits often accompanying competitive sports, you’re in the right place. In this article, we’ll explore mindful eating in more detail, including the benefits of mindful eating and how you can get started.
WHAT IS MINDFUL EATING?
While the concept of mindful eating can be difficult to grasp, in practice, it’s relatively easy. Mindfulness is, quite simply, the practice of continuously drawing your attention to the present moment, as opposed to running through life on autopilot.
Practicing mindfulness can encompass more than just your eating habits. But mindful eating for me looks like eating when I feel hungry, intentionally chewing my food, and allowing myself to eat food I enjoy instead of aiming for a perpetual calorie deficit.
WHY PRACTICE MINDFULNESS IN EATING?
In addition to the physiological health benefits of mindful eating – like improved HDL cholesterol and lower BMI, practicing mindful eating has been shown to impact mental well-being positively.
The diets and other restrictive eating practices that athletes commonly use to improve their physical appearance and performance can lead to obsessive thoughts about food.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met up with other athletes, and all we do is talk about the food we will eat once we complete our workout. Food is the main topic of our conversations 99.99% of the time.
Mindful eating can help to moderate food obsession and the negative impacts it can have on your psyche. Multiple studies show the efficacy of mindful eating in improving depressive symptoms, low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, and disordered eating.(1)(2)
CAN YOU LOSE WEIGHT WITH MINDFUL EATING?
In an effort to lose weight, many people turn to restrictive dieting practices like limiting calories or running on an empty stomach. While these methods might work for some, there is no one-size-fits-all for weight loss, and in some cases, they do more harm than good.
Since mindful eaters are encouraged not to track calories, eat whenever they’re hungry, and treat themselves to ‘unhealthy’ foods like pizza, you’d assume they’d gain weight. But studies are proving this school of thought to be untrue.
Research shows that athletes who follow mindful or intutive eating principles like eating when hungry and not adhering to food restritions have lower BMIs than those who practice restrictive dieting. Best of all, these weight-related mindful eating benefits come with the addition of improved psychological health. (3)
WHAT ARE THE STEPS TO MINDFUL EATING?
Knowing what an example of mindful eating is will be essential if you want to begin adopting these principles in your own life. In this next section, you’ll find some simple steps you can take to eat more mindfully.
1. PAY ATTENTION TO INTERNAL HUNGER CUES
When I’m focused on training, I notice myself missing meals or skipping snacks. Although I feel hungry, I ignore important internal cues, which leads to more binge eating later on in the day. My body desperately seeks calories and nutrients to replenish itself after my workout.
A change as simple as eating when I’m hungry has helped me address my binge eating habit, with studies supporting the efficacy of mindful eating in treating binge eating disorder. (4)
2. GET INTENTIONAL ABOUT WHERE YOU EAT
After a training session, I often find myself rushing to work with food in my hand or eating a quick snack standing in my kitchen. Other times, I crash hard on the couch and watch TV while I devour whatever food is nearby. Both of these habits lead me to eat mindlessly, without recognizing the foods – and how much of them – I’m putting in my body.
If you’ve adopted a similar eating pattern, getting intentional about where you eat is an easy way to develop a more conscious eating style. Get in the habit of portioning your food on a bowl or plate and sit down at your dining room table to eat.
3. START WITH SMALLER PORTIONS
It can take the brain up to 20 minutes to receive the signal that the stomach is full. Eating too quickly or starting with too large a portion are two ways you set yourself up to overeat.
Instead, start with a smaller portion size than you’d usually take, maybe 60% of your regular serving. After eating this first portion, you can do a mindful eating meditation or simply take a few minutes to allow your brain to catch up with your belly.
After listening to your body, you’ll better know whether you need the remaining 40% of your serving. You’ll likely be surprised by how often you don’t!
4. ELIMINATE DISTRACTIONS
Before becoming a mindful eater, I used the time I took to eat as an opportunity to watch TV or catch up on emails. This disconnection from food is one of the main causes of overeating, as we no longer pay attention to our fullness levels.
Slowing down and using my senses when eating helped me become a more mindful eater. I used paying attention to the smell, texture, temperature, and taste of my food as a way to be more present while I ate. This level of presence allowed me to be more in tune with my body and helped me manage my binge eating habit.
5. CHEW YOUR FOOD THOROUGHLY
When you think about digestion, you might imagine the process that goes on in your belly after you eat. But chewing your food is an underrated but essential part of the digestion process.
For a long time, especially when I was under a time constraint or eating while standing, I wasn’t chewing my food thoroughly. Little did I know chewing your food more thoroughly can improve nutrient absorption and decrease hunger between meals, making it easier to feel fuller for longer after eating. (5)
Some experts recommend chewing your food 32 times, while others suggest aiming for your food to achieve an oatmeal-like consistency before swallowing. Adopting one of these methods, or creating your own, is a great way to effect big change without much effort.
6. REMEMBER, YOU DON’T NEED TO “EARN” YOUR MEALS
When you come from a background of tracking macros and calories in and out, it can be easy to fall into disordered eating habits. Most common is feeling like you have to earn your meals through physical activity.
One of the biggest shifts I noticed through practicing mindful eating was no longer feeling the need to use exercise as a punishment for the food I’d eaten. I began treating food as a form of self-care, and when I did that, it was easy for my physical activity to follow.
If your obsession with food is getting out of control, adopting mindful or intuitive eating practices can help. Not only are they useful in improving your performance on race day, but they make everyday life in between races more satisfying.
In this article, I shared with your my favorite mindful eating practices, like eliminating distractions and eating when I feel hungry. But they don’t stop there! With plenty of books and other online resources, you can find all the information you need to started your own mindful eating journey.
Creating a new relationship with food using these guiding principles might take some time, and it’s important to remember there’s no rush. But bringing pleasure back into eating as the end goal is a great target.
Megan Meyer, PhD is the Program Manager of Health and Wellness Communications at the International Food Information Council (IFIC). At IFIC, she is committed to communicating science-based information to media, health professionals, outside organizations, and consumers on topics related to nutrition and health.