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Collin McShirley

Well-Being

Collin McShirley: Learning to Eat Mindfully as Simple as Paying Attention, Asking Questions

Has there ever been a time when you stuffed your face with junk food or fast food on a weekly or daily basis? Maybe you felt you were overweight and unhealthy, addicted to unhealthy snacks, fried fatty foods, and were mindlessly overeating?

It is clear that type of eating isn’t healthy. Yet sometimes knowing this still isn’t enough.

I have a history of personal experience with this myself. The actual content of my diet was a big factor, but just as detrimental was how I ate — emotionally and mindlessly.

These eating habits developed over time, after years of eating to socialize, to relieve stress, to make myself feel better, to satisfy cravings. I knew it was time to start changing my eating habits.

I realized how hard it would be to change, simply because eating was filling so many emotional needs, and because I was constantly resorting to the same routines without giving conscious thought to their consequences on both my body and my mind.

I think the biggest change I made was to tune in ... not out ... so I learned how to pay closer attention. I started to become a student of my own diet, of what I ate, the flavors, the textures, and how it made me feel during and after eating.  I started to focus consciously on my eating urges, and the emotions that triggered them.

The key changes I noticed came slowly, but when I started paying attention, and actively becoming more mindful, this became the key habit in my change toward a healthier life. Once I made this change, it became a catalyst for other healthy changes, as well.

So, what is mindful eating?

The concept of mindful eating has a long fascinating history, dating back to its roots in Zen philosophies and other forms of Buddhism, and has been adapted in a more physical sense to the teachings of the body and mind connectedness in Yoga.

Without delving too deeply into the widely accepted physical benefits of general mindfulness here, things like reduced stress, lower blood pressure, better sleep habits and an overall more positive outlook, I’d like to focus on some of the core principles regarding mindful eating itself.

First Steps on Path of Mindful Eating

» Pay Attention — Mindful eating is learning to eat in the present moment. Become a connoisseur of every meal you have the privilege of being able to appreciate, no matter how inconsequential or routine it may be in your day-to-day process.

Relearn how to appreciate the subtle tastes and textures of your food. Even if it’s something you may have eaten before, try to experience this particular meal as if it’s the first time again.

Also, introducing new flavors and experimenting with your meals in small ways can help add to this rebirth of your culinary experience.

» Ask Questions — Why do I feel like eating? Are there any emotions triggering the eating? What am I eating? Is it healthy for me to consume or is it junk food?

Notice the sensation of the food you’re eating. What does it look like? Smell like? Feel like? And, of course, taste like?

Be present both during and after you eat. How does it make you feel as you’re tasting it? As you digest it? Important: How do you feel after eating it?

Be aware if you’re over- or under-eating. Notice if you’re feeling too full or “stuffed”? Or is your stomach still empty after eating?

Be alert to an emotional response. Do you feel a sense of guilt and shame? Do you experience regret or self-criticism?

Always keep in mind that, like anything else, practice makes perfect. This is simply one more skill that can be improved on and mastered over time to help your overall goals of being healthier and more content.

At its core, this really is a form of food meditation, with the goal of deepening your inner consciousness about what you eat, how you eat, and how that connects to your body and mind.

Learning and developing any new technique or form of thought always has its challenges, and at times it may be difficult not to fall back into more familiar routines and habits. But I encourage you to be kind to yourself whenever this occurs, and know that there is always the next meal for you to practice mindful eating again.

Honestly, the greatest secret of adapting this approach to your diet, is that you will actually learn to love food again. And whatever your particular struggle may be, we all know that in the heart of that storm sometimes we forget to appreciate the small things.

I hope that this can help guide your journey back to a place of healthy, happy eating, and a healthy, happy mind.

Collin McShirley, MA, IMF, is certified and specializes in mindful eating, emotional eating, body image and self esteem; she provides coaching services in Santa Barbara, Montecito and Goleta; and she developed the program, “Break Free From Emotional Eating and Learn to Love Your Body.” She grew up in Santa Barbara​, graduated from UC Santa Barbara and received her masters in clinical psychology from Antioch University Santa Barbara. Click here for more information, contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter: @CollinMFTI. Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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