The combination of eating and watching television has long been an easy way to de-stress in American culture. But a problem arises when you feel compelled to watch television or engage in some form of external stimuli while you eat. Distracted eating is defined as the intentional consumption of food while engaged in a secondary activity, so much so that the meal is diminished or forgotten entirely. It can lead to unintentional weight gain, as well as dissatisfaction with your meal shortly after it’s finished.
Mindful eating is an approach that encourages absolute engagement in the formulation and consumption of your food. This practice is quite different from dieting which is inherently restrictive. Diets can lead to feelings of guilt if you don’t wholly adhere to certain restrictions. Contrarily, you cannot “cheat” on your mindful eating practice. There is no judgement of your food as either good or bad. You can be mindful while eating anything from microwave popcorn to fresh rigatoni, but there are ways to make the practice more meaningful.
1. Cook your food.
Cooking enables you to be better attuned to your body’s hunger signals. This is because when you cook, the ingredients you add are based on nutrition cravings rather than emotional cravings. You have complete control of every ingredient you choose to incorporate into the dish (e.g., the amount of salts and oils that you put in is based on your personal preferences). Processed foods, on the other hand, are often high in artificial sweeteners, additives, and colorants. Companies incorporate these ingredients into because they act as preservatives and encourage overconsumption. This is why it’s easier to binge on processed foods than whole cooked foods.
Mindful eating is not a diet; there is no emphasis on calories or weight loss. The goal is to consume your food purposefully and without judgement, a goal that is much easier to achieve when you cook your own meals. Cooking your own meals doesn’t mean that everything you eat has to be exceptionally healthy. It just means that it’s better to know why you’re consuming certain ingredients rather than doing so on autopilot.
2. Consider the deeper issue.
A compulsion to disengage while eating likely goes well beyond the desire for some quick entertainment. If you feel compelled to wait to eat a prepared meal until you’ve found something to watch, that could signify a deeper issue. The meal and the distraction have become synonymous with each other and their intent is not nourishment or entertainment, but disconnection from your problems. As Americans, we’re expected to commodify every second of the day, and eating alone is not as cost-effective as watching tv at the same time. This culture of excessive multitasking can be harmful because you end up with no time in your day where you’re completely present in the moment.
Acting on autopilot rather than being present makes it easier to eat foods that have no nutritional value. If your intention while eating is to be productive, you might be tempted to eat an incredibly processed microwave meal, even if you believe that it won’t satisfy you. When you choose your foods, consider the motive. Are you responding to an emotional want or a physical need? Relief from your stress isn’t inherently wrong, but depending on food to provide that relief can prove to be harmful.
3. Avoid multitasking.
There are many forms of distraction that one might engage in while eating. All of this takes away from your ability to focus on your meal, moment by moment. Though it’s likely the most possible, watching television is not the only one; reading while productive is similarly distracting; this also goes for scrutinizing the events of the day. This takes away from the importance of the present moment and will leave you feeling just as unsatisfied with your meal as you would be watching television.
When you’re eating, make the effort to empty your mind of any thoughts not related to the food sitting right in front of you. To make this easier, close your eyes, or use your non-dominant hand while eating. It also helps to thoroughly chew every bite of your food while focusing on how it feels in the mouth. It makes it almost impossible for your mind to wander to other topics.
Eating while engaged in other activities is not inherently harmful but it can be if you’re consistently unaware of a compulsion to be distracted. You don’t have to cook every meal from scratch while silently meditating on their origins, but try to implement at least one of these practices whenever you eat. This practice can significantly improve you’re awareness of the value of food as well as the act of being in the present moment.