For many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t just caused stress. It has also led to the infamous “Quarantine Fifteen,” the weight we gain when we eat to soothe our anxiety, sadness, and boredom.
One way to counteract quarantine weight gain is to eat more mindfully. The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley defines mindfulness as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.”1 Eating more mindfully, therefore, means eating in a way that is conscious and intentional.
How can we cultivate mindfulness in our eating practices?
Learn to use the hunger scale
The hunger scale can help you discern when you are truly hungry, and when your “hunger” is actually about something else, like boredom or sadness.
At any given time, you can use the tool below to rank your level of hunger on a scale from 1 to 10.
1: Empty. I’m so hungry that I’m faint and weak. I will eat whatever is available to me.
2: Famished. My energy level is starting to decrease. I can think of almost nothing except eating.
3: Hungry. I have a strong desire to eat.
4: Slightly hungry. I have a light desire to eat.
5: Neutral. I feel neither hungry nor full. I have the energy I need.
6: Satisfied. I’m not hungry, and I’m aware of the food in my stomach.
7: Full. If I take any more bites, it will make me uncomfortable.
8: Uncomfortable. I feel tired and heavy.
9: Stuffed. I feel bloated, and if I take any more bites it will make me sick.
10: Sick. I’m vomiting or my food is refluxing back into my throat.
Your goal is to remain in the “mindful eating zone” – between numbers 4 and 6 – at all times. If you’ve allowed yourself to actually become hungry (number 3), you’ve waited too long, and you’re more likely to choose whatever is quick and convenient, which is rarely what’s healthy to eat. On the other hand, if you continue to eat until you’re actually full (number 7), you’ve probably taken in more food and calories than what is healthy.
Follow the 80% rule
Closely related to the hunger scale is the principle of hara hachi bu – the idea that you should stop eating when you are 80% full. Elders on the island of Okinawa use the principle of hara hachi bu to maintain their famous longevity.
Ask yourself mindful questions
Are you eating because you truly find yourself somewhere on the hungry end of the scale? Or is your urge to eat more about boredom, sadness, loneliness, or stress?
Do you want to eat because you’ve encountered a trigger? Triggers are experiences that make you want to eat. Maybe you saw or smelled your favorite food. Maybe someone you’re quarantining with is eating.
Ask yourself: am I hungry enough right now to eat vegetables? If the answer to that question is no, chances are your urge to eat is not about true hunger, but rather about something else, like a feeling or a trigger.
Create space for mindful eating
Set aside a spot in your home for eating, such as a dining table, and use that spot only for eating. Don’t eat anywhere else in your home except for that spot; and don’t do anything else in that spot except eat.
When it’s time to eat, turn off the television and all electronics, and go to that spot. When you eat in front of the television, computer, or phone, it’s too easy to lose track of how much you’re eating or eat mindlessly. Having a dedicated spot for eating and removing all distractions helps you to eat mindfully.
Eat your food mindfully
Take a bite of food, and then put your utensils down. Chew the food at least fifteen times before swallowing, then take a sip of water. Only then should you pick up your utensils and take another bite. Savoring your food, rather than wolfing it down, helps you to eat mindfully.
If you still have the urge to keep eating after one healthy serving, wait at least twenty minutes. It takes at least that long for your brain to register the fact that your stomach is full. While you’re waiting, drink a glass of water. There are lots of other things you can do to take your mind off eating while you wait: go for a walk, call a friend, listen to music, dance, take a bath or shower, clean house, etc. Chances are, by the time the twenty minutes have passed, you will no longer feel the urge to keep eating.
Know your reasons
Maybe you want to have more energy. Maybe your clothes don’t fit properly anymore and you don’t want to replace your wardrobe. Maybe you have a health condition that you need to manage. It helps to have a clear reason for wanting to eat more mindfully and to bear it in mind throughout your mindful eating journey.