Become a mindful eater in 6 easy steps

How many times have you inhaled toast or a pizza in front of the TV because you were too tired to cook?

Woman eating in front of TV

Do you hoover up the kids’ leftovers so they don’t ‘go to waste’? What about sneaking in a glass of wine and some cheese and biscuits while you’re cooking dinner?

These are things we’re all guilty of, and they demonstrate how easy it can be to (a) eat mindlessly and (b) let it become a thoughtless habit.

If we’re not careful, mindless eating can sabotage our efforts to lose weight and maintain those losses. Fitness coach and educator Craig Harper explains how to put yourself back in control of what you put in your mouth.

Why do we slip into mindless or unconscious eating?

‘The thing is, we all have a relationship with food,’ says Craig.

‘If that relationship is problematic, we can’t stop eating in the same way an alcoholic can give up booze. But in our culture, we’re programmed to eat in a way that’s not particularly responsible or optimal for our body or our health.’

A study from the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab in the US reveals we make a whopping 200 decisions about food every day, from whether to have an Oreo to what to cook for dinner. And we make most of them unconsciously.

‘We eat mindlessly to avoid stuff, to self-medicate, because the food is there or because it meets some kind of emotional need,’ says Craig.

‘And for some people, certain foods can produce the same chemical response that might be triggered for a drug addict when getting their fix. Food becomes a literal addiction.’

Mindful eating and weight loss

Most of us know what to do when it comes to losing weight, but live in a Groundhog Day-like limbo of eating well, eating badly, being motivated, being demotivated, being in the zone, being out of the zone.

Our problem, says Craig, is being consistent in changing how we relate to food.

‘Australia is one of the world’s most educated and well-resourced countries when it comes to health, but we’re also one of the fattest. We know should eat less and move more. We know we shouldn’t have so much sugar, salt, processed foods. The problem isn’t with knowing. It’s with doing.’

That means actively challenging those cop-out thoughts that allow us to fall off the wagon.

‘No one accidentally eats a cheeseburger! We make a decision in the moment and it’s usually along the lines of, “Bugger it, I’ll start the diet tomorrow/Monday/next week” and we do that for 20 years and before we know it we wake up at 40 and we’re obese,’ he says.

According to Craig there is space between being aware and being obsessive about what we eat, but we need to think of our bodies as irreplaceable.

You can get another house, you can get another car, you can get another job. But you can’t get another body.

"So it’s important we are aware, and that we create habits that give us the best, healthiest, leanest and most functional body we can have."

6 ways to become a more mindful eater

  1. Acknowledge where you’re at ‘It’s not about self-loathing. It’s about awareness. It’s OK to say, “You know what? I eat more than I should. You know what? I eat crap. And I’ve done this for 20 years and I am still not where I want to be with it.”’
  2. Take the emotion out of it ‘We’re emotional creatures and becoming mindful around food is about defusing the process. When you’re emotional around food or your body or exercise, you make dumb decisions that hinder you and disempower you.’
  3. Break the associations Researchers at the University of California say we can associate certain environments with food – like always having popcorn at the movies – which can be powerful motivators to overeat. Recognise the pattern and break it.
  4. Create non-negotiables ‘If you drink wine every night and know that’s not consistent with changing your body, make a rule that you’ll only drink wine twice a week for 10 weeks. Make it non-negotiable, like brushing your teeth.’
  5. Pimp your environment The Cornell University researchers believe the key to eating more mindfully is not to put extra thought into every decision, but rather to set up your environment so the healthy decisions are almost made for you. For example, having healthy food on hand. No junk in the house. Smaller plates.
  6. Structure your life To become a mindful eater, you need structure, organisation and accountability, says Craig. ‘That means using your online diary. You could also recruit a training partner, a dietitian, a doctor, a PT or just a friend who makes you stay on track.’

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