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Alyssa Simpson RD, CDE, CLT
Alyssa Simpson

RD, CDE, CLT​

What Is Mindful Eating and How Can It Improve Your IBS Symptoms? My 3 Top Tips.

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Mindful eating

We’re in a hurry. That’s a generality of course. But really, most people are in a hurry. And we’re not focused on what’s happening in the moment.

We’re thinking about:

? The problem we need to solve

? The person who irritated us yesterday

? The plan we’re cooking up

? The meeting we have tomorrow

? The future of the family member we’re worried about

In this frantic, fast-paced culture, it’s hard to stay in the moment.

Fortunately, there has been a trend in the past few years to do just that:

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of being present in the moment. Notice I said practice. It’s not as easy as it sounds. But mindfulness practices are worth the effort. They help with things like depression, anxiety, and even eating disorders.

Let’s do a quick mindfulness exercise. I want you to close your eyes for about 30 – 60 seconds and just notice how you feel. Are you cold or hot? Are you hungry or full? Do you need to go to the bathroom? Do you have any aches or pains that you hadn’t even noticed?

That’s mindfulness. It’s tuning in and being aware of what’s happening in the moment.

How do you practice mindfulness?

Practicing mindfulness can come in many forms. Here are a few things you can try:

? Ask yourself, “what do I need right now?”.

You might be surprised by what comes up.

? Set an intention for your day.

I’m not talking about setting a goal, or adding an item to your to-do list. Think about how you can better take care of yourself or what you can do to feel more fulfilled. Think in terms of something like, “I will treat myself with kindness today.” Or, “I will notice the little things that bring joy.”

? Add a pause between activities or actions.

Try taking a deep breath before you answer your phone or start your car.

? Try a mindfulness meditation.

You can find guided mindfulness meditations on YouTube. Or you can download an app like The Calm App or Headspace. Mindful meditation can be simple and short. No need to get in the lotus pose for hours. Sitting in a comfortable chair and listening to a guided meditation for 5 – 10 minutes absolutely counts.

? Walk mindfully.

When you walk to your car to drive to work, instead of thinking about your to-do list or worrying about the meeting with your boss, look around. Notice what’s happening outside. Is it cold, hot, breezy? Do you hear any birds? Do you see any signs of the season?

? Practice mindful listening.

Next time you’re having a conversation with someone, try to really focus on what they’re saying. It’s so easy to let the mind wander or start thinking of what we want to say next when someone else is talking.

? Practice mindful eating.

You may be wondering what any of this has to do with digestive health. A lot actually. Digestive health — especially conditions like IBS that are often closely tied to stress and anxiety — can greatly benefit from mindfulness.

And of course my favorite mindfulness practice is mindful eating. We’ve been talking the past few weeks about intuitive eating — getting in touch with your body’s cues to help decide what, when, and how much you eat.

Mindful eating is a fantastic companion to intuitive eating.

What is mindful eating?

Mindful eating is the exact opposite of what most people do.

Let’s face it — most of us multi-task when we eat. We’re sitting at our desks working, watching tv, driving our cars, or even walking around — all while eating.

Have you ever sat down in front of a good movie or show with a bag or chips or a bowl of popcorn only to look down later to realize the food is gone, but you weren’t even aware of eating it?

Eating is something we can do while our minds are focused on other things. We know we need to eat. And unless food feels like the enemy because of IBS symptoms, most of us enjoy eating. But if we’re not intentional about it, we rarely ONLY eat. We eat and drive. Eat and work. Eat and read. Eat and watch tv, etc.

Mindfulness is about focusing on the moment and being present to what you are doing. Mindful eating is focusing on your meal.

I encourage my clients — especially the ones struggling with IBS symptoms — to try some mindful eating practices. Mindful eating can help you:

✔ Tune into your body so you know when you’re hungry and when you’re full

✔ Calm your nervous system, which improves your digestion.

✔ Slow down your eating, which also improves your digestion.

✔ Fully experience and enjoy your food. A better relationship with food can help IBS symptoms.

✔ Reduce the likelihood of binge eating so you’re not overloading your digestive system.

✔ Become aware of when you’re eating for reasons other than physical hunger.

If you’re ready to give mindful eating a try, I recommend starting slow and simple. Turning off the tv while you eat may not sound like a big deal, but many people have a pretty intense emotional attachment to eating in front of the TV.

And to stop eating in your car or at your desk may require significant schedule or even priority changes. So, it’s okay if incorporating mindful eating feels challenging. But bringing in a few mindful eating strategies at a time can be quite manageable — and make a big difference.

My top 3 mindful eating tips

Mindful Eating Tip #1: Pay attention to your food.

At your next meal, take a moment before you start to experience your food. Just notice:

What colors are on your plate?

What textures are you about to experience?

How does your food smell?

Is it hot or cold?

Mindful Eating Tip #2: Notice your hunger.

Many of us just start shoveling the food in without really noticing how hungry we are. So before you eat next time, just take a moment and notice your hunger.

Where do you fall on the hunger and fullness spectrum?

  1. Famished
  2. Pretty hungry
  3. Neutral
  4. Satisfied
  5. Uncomfortably full

This will help you clue into whether or not you are eating for reasons other than hunger. I’m not saying it’s wrong to eat for other reasons. We all do. But it’s a good thing to notice. And there are times when you might decide to choose something other than food to cope with an emotion or stressful situation.

I suggest you take a moment both before and after you eat to see where you land on this scale. But it’s important to do it without passing judgment on yourself. Food isn’t a moral issue. Eating when you’re not that hungry or eating until you are uncomfortably full don’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t mean you lack discipline or self-control. This scale just provides information. So be careful about the stories you tell yourself around your hunger.

Mindful Eating Tip #3: Chew.

Your grandmother was right on this one. Chewing your food well is really important. When most people think of digestion, they think of what happens after you swallow your food. But a lot happens before that.

When you chew your food, you start the process of digestion both mechanically and chemically. Your teeth tear the food into smaller and smaller pieces. And the enzymes in your saliva begin the chemical breakdown of the food that will continue in your stomach and intestines.

Plus, chewing your food well will help you be more aware of both what you’re eating, and how much.

Incorporating intuitive and mindful eating practices into your life can make a difference with IBS symptoms and other digestive issues. But if you really want to improve your symptoms, it takes more than just this one practice.

Improving IBS symptoms takes a multifaceted approach. You need to:

✔ Get to the root cause of the symptoms.

✔ Identify food sensitivities, allergies, and intolerances.

✔ Pinpoint nutritional deficiencies and supplement accordingly.

✔ Utilize appropriate therapeutic diets like the Low FODMAP Diet.

✔ Address non-food issues such as stress and anxiety.

It can be a lot. But that’s why I’m here! In my practice I create a personalized approach for each of my patients to make sure that we are doing everything we can to improve their symptoms in a way that helps them retain the activities and lifestyle that’s important to them.

If you’d like help on your IBS journey, I’m here for you!

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