In this interview, Laurie and Amber Stevens discuss eating with awareness, how you can stop dieting and emotional eating, appreciate and savor your food and how to eat in social situations.
Amber Stevens is a National Board-Certified Health and Wellness Coach, Mindful Eating Instructor and Licensed Massage Therapist. Her award-winning work has helped hundreds of people live a boundless life, free from physical and emotional pain. She is the founder of Boundless Body and Wellness (in Colorado, USA), an International Speaker and Author of Food, Feelings and Freedom: The End to Emotional Eating. Amber is passionate about helping others to end their health struggle, finding peace with food and loving themselves!
This is a transcript of an Instagram live conversation. You can find the full video on Laurie’s Instagram and on soon on YouTube.
I’m here with Amber Stevens today. We’re going to be talking about eating with awareness and mindful eating.
This is a subject that I don’t talk about very much on my channel, but I think it’s a really important one.
I think it’s one that a lot of women struggle with and in subtle ways, and sometimes you don’t even recognize that this is part of the struggle.
So let’s dig in. What does it mean to eat with awareness?
So eating with awareness is really a take on mindful eating and mindfulness is really popular right now. It’s kind of become this buzzword, but there’s not a lot of complication to it.
Really mindfulness means awareness, paying attention to. So mindfully eating or eating with awareness is taking a moment to bring time, energy and space to your eating, to the food that’s giving you nourishment and recognizing it for what it is. It’s also taking that time to give awareness to your body while you eat. So you understand that relationship with your food.
I like to take it a little bit to the next level though, because you can be mindful of any number of things. And that’s not the intent, eating with awareness means that you want to have purposeful awareness of your eating of your food.
Your intention is very much on understanding what’s going into your body and just understanding the experience of food.
We often eat mindlessly and don’t have any understanding of what has happened to us. Just all of a sudden, we had a bag of chips and then we didn’t. Where did that food go?
So bringing some awareness allows you to understand what food you’re eating, what it does for you, how it feels in your body.
Ultimately you can start making the choices that are healthy for you and serve your body. Not anybody else’s just truly yours.
I love this.
Even if you’re eating a beautiful salad or something that we think is healthy, when it comes to eating with awareness, it really brings you back to feeling it in your body and how your body experiences that food and how fast you’re eating.
How you’re experiencing that food, can do wonders for digestion and other things, right?
So our body digests at rest.
We are a 24/7 kind of society and we’re eating at our desks when we’re still working. We’re eating in the car, as we’re driving, in front of the television or whilst reading. We’re eating in places that take our awareness away from the actual experience of the food.
Therefore you can’t eat this beautiful, healthy meal mindfully.
You can also eat an unhealthy meal mindfully, but you’re not going to understand exactly how it feels in your body until you bring your awareness to that.
For some people just having that shift in awareness, they start to realize that they’ve been eating these salads forever, because they’re supposed to be healthy, but actually that much raw vegetables doesn’t feel good in their body.
Same thing with the unhealthy foods they’ve been eating, such as drive-through all the time for their work. Maybe a couple hours later, they feel terrible.
So starting to make the connections of the food source and how it feels with us comes through that mindfulness activity.
That’s so helpful, because in the work that I do with clients, we sometimes do food journals to like take a moment to look at what you’re eating.
It’s also about how you’re feeling afterwards. This is bringing in some awareness as well.
Food journals are a wonderful tool to tie that awareness and actually being able to keep track of it.
Eating without awareness can seem so normal. We tend to grow up with it around our families. When we go out with friends we probably also eat that way.
I like to look at mindful eating in two major ways, while it can help us in any number of ways, whatever our healing journey is and how we want to shift our health. Mindful eating is a big component of that along with just plain mindfulness.
Stress is one of the major causes, if not the major cause of disease and illness.
Mindfulness is a powerful tool to start bringing that stress response down. So mindful eating just ties into that component of how are we getting our stress response down and how are we living this healthier life?
So I like to use mindful eating, to help with emotional eating. Our food and our feelings are really closely tied together. And our emotions are created from feelings. So if you ever have moments in your life that you look back on and some memories are really powerful and other memories are as if somebody is telling you, “Hey, remember when we did such and such? ”
“No, I don’t remember that at all.”
Well, it’s because you hadn’t tied a strong feeling to that activity. So you didn’t really create an emotion with it. Food does the same thing, especially for eating emotionally. If we have a really sad day and we find ourselves eating a tub of ice cream, the next time that we have a sad day, our brain says, “Oh, hey, remember that ice cream, that was useful. Why don’t we do that?”
It starts repeating that it does this because it was useful.
It made you feel better and it’s super easy. Food is accessible, it’s convenient. You don’t really have to think about it. It’s in our fridges. It’s not something we have to go hunting and gathering for anymore. It’s just there.
Especially the sugary and fatty foods, which are biologically designed to make us feel better because fat and sugar meant survival. So when we had fat and sugar, that cortisol stress level goes down in the brain, the happiness chemicals like dopamine and serotonin increase and we feel good.
So we start to tie good emotions to the food that created that sensation for us. Now we can get the same response from sugar in fruit as we can from sugar in ice cream. But it happened to be that on that particular day, you ate the ice cream to feel better. And now your body is starting to create a habit out of going to ice cream.
It wants to do this because our body or brain wants the path of least resistance.
So if it can have a shortcut so that while you’re stressed out, you’re trying to think of traffic. You’re trying to think of the deadlines at work, the extra responsibilities you have with your family. Your brain can go to autopilot and say, “Hey, I know you’re really sad and stressed out. Why don’t we just eat some ice cream later or eat it right now?”
It doesn’t have to think about a solution. It has a solution.
So our emotions drive us to eat. That can be any emotion, even happiness. We use food to celebrate. We have birthday parties and we have cake and we have special foods, we go out for retirements and anniversaries.
Food is a celebration and you know what?
It should be.
Food should be a part of our lives at all times. And we should love it.
That’s part of my mission. Everybody loves their food. It’s very essential, right?
It hits all of our senses. It’s one of the few things that you can actually use your sense of taste on. So it should be a part of your life, but it shouldn’t become the coping mechanism that you use to get through life.
We bring mindful eating into it so that you can start to recognize if you’re saying, “You know what? I don’t feel good eating a tub of ice cream every night, but I just can’t seem to break the habit.”
Most people usually say, “I don’t have enough willpower.”
It’s not about willpower. There isn’t this magical thing that people have, or they don’t have.
It’s about the ability to start recognizing that you have the power, you have the choice. It’s not the willpower, it’s the me-power.
But you can’t get there without bringing awareness to the situation. You can not change a situation without understanding it first.
So that’s how mindful eating helps us overcome our emotional eating, because we start to understand that, “Oh, I eat ice cream every time I have a stressful day at work, otherwise I don’t really care for it. Okay. So if I’m stressed out at work, maybe I can come home and go for a walk.”
Instead, we can start creating the solutions that work for us rather than sticking on these autopilot solutions that our brain just decided on at some point.
And oftentimes they created that solution.
When we were young we learned it from watching our parents.
From our friends to our parents, even if they were meaning well, they would say, “Oh, don’t be sad. Let’s go get some ice cream,” or, “Here’s a cookie.”
Or they would use it for bribes. “If you eat the broccoli, then you get the cookie.”
These aren’t necessarily bad things, but they do create habits that we bring into adulthood.
If we don’t bring awareness to that moment and that situation, then we can’t change them. It doesn’t matter how much willpower you try to put behind you.
The other way that I like to look at mindful eating is as a way of breaking diet culture and yo-yo dieting.
Definitely. This can be applied to anything, bringing more awareness to everything we do and the habits that we have.
Yes. You can bring awareness and mindfulness to any situation, at any time.
I like to use it as a purposeful awareness, to really be aware of what you’re focusing on.
I could be really mindful right now about the little shapes and stuff around my screen here, but that’s not going to make a very interesting interview, but I will have been very mindful about that moment.
So you need to have the purpose. What is your attention on there?
Then yes, it’s a beautiful tool. I’ve used it in so many ways in my life. It’s transformed my life.
So moving into the diet idea now.
Diets are shown through much research and studies, that they just don’t work. The reason for that is that diets are external.
You are following some kind of rule book that somebody else wrote. Maybe they’re a very smart person. It’s not to say that there aren’t good concepts that come through diets in terms of how to eat.
But typically they give you a set of rules. Let’s follow this diet for 30 days and then you should be miraculously better and exactly the way you want to be and feeling amazing. And maybe you are for that 30 days, but you didn’t change anything internally.
You follow some external rules for a set period of time. And as soon as that 30 day mark hits your brain goes, “Good job. We did it.”
Sometimes depending on how drastic the diet is, if you’re going from fast food all the time, to now suddenly you’re cooking every meal. Maybe it’s even more drastic where you’re cooking, but only like four foods you can ever have.
That’d be a very drastic diet. Your body is feeling deprived. It wants those other foods. It wants the experience of the restaurant. There’s a lot that ties into how we eat, because of all our senses.
So now that 30 days is over and boom, we’re right back to normal. So we get that yo-yo dieting.
If you’re eating mindfully, you’re not following external rules, you’re following your internal choices. You’re responding to the way food feels and what it does for you.
So rather than this book telling you, you can never eat carbs again. You can start deciding how carbs feel in your body and how much carbs feel right in your body. How quickly are you burning the energy from carbs? And which ones do you like to eat?
Carbs are all fruits and vegetables. There’s a lot of varieties to put into your body. It doesn’t mean you have to eat everyone. And it also means you don’t have to exclude every single one to be healthy and feel better.
So through mindful eating, when you start tracking how you feel and why you’re eating, then you come up with your diet.
It’s not a diet, it’s not an external book that you’re following. It’s not your hairstylist’s diet, it’s yours. It’s what makes you feel alive and joyful.
I mean, I eat pizza. I eat cheeseburgers. I eat ice cream. I eat a little bit of everything, but most of my diet is food that feels good in my body. It’s easy for me to digest, but I don’t allow myself to feel guilty when I eat a brownie or a cheeseburger, because they’re not eaten often. They’re not the staple of my diet, because I made that choice.
I don’t at all feel deprived about it. So it was very free and dieting can feel like you have to do this thing.
People follow the diet and then they break a rule. So they might as well just go back to the way they’re eating. They just give it up. It’s all or nothing.
There’s no all or nothing in mindful eating. You get to set the pace at which you move and decide what works for you.
How do we make that switch to being more mindful and to eating with awareness? I’m also curious if you recognize, “Oh, my body does not feel better when I eat x, y, z. Or when I have too much of x, y, z.”
Yet people still struggle to make the switch to decide, “Oh, I’m going to do something else instead, or I’m going to have something else instead.”
So where do we go from there?
So the first thing to do for mindful eating is to simply give yourself a space and the time to practice some mindfulness around your food, which just simply means slowing down.
So rather than grabbing your food, this used to be me, by the way, I used to have a corporate job and I just wanted to get all my work done so I could head home. I grabbed my food and I’d just sit in front of the computer and type, type, type, shoveling food in my mouth.
There’s absolutely nothing mindful about that. And that’s kind of the first step in being able to recognize what your eating patterns are right now.
If you’re that person, like I was, and you’re sitting in front of that computer, can you actually step away and take a lunch break? Even if it’s 10 or 15 minutes, can you step away and find a conference room?
I find a quiet place. Outdoors is even better, but allow yourself that space.
Then before you even take your first bite, take a nice deep breath. Tell yourself, “This is my time to be eating.”
We’re a society of doing.
If you’re going to do something, do eating. Don’t do work with eating, do eating.
So slowing down, take a deep breath, allow yourself a chance to smell the food. I like to do the whole hand wafting thing and get all the aromas in there.
Then take that bite of food and really savor that flavor. Move it around in your mouth. Chew it, allow for the experience to settle in and let all those taste buds live enough and then allow the experience of swallowing and feeling it into your belly.
Try to eat that way. As much as you can of your meal.
Let’s say you do only have a 10 minute lunch and you won’t have a chance to eat for another six hours. You know that you need to get a good amount of food in your body for the day.
Start easily with just that first couple bites, eating slowly, tasting, and savoring. Then you can go back to more of a normal pace of eating.
What you really want to tune into the most when you’re eating is how hungry and how full you are.
You want to stop when you’re pleasantly full. When we eat mindlessly and we just shovel food into our mouth, we don’t have any recognition of what full is until we are overly full. Then our body’s yelling, “Whoa, cut it off. That is too much food,” but at that point we don’t feel comfortable. We’re probably a little sluggish and tired from the digestion process.
That’s not where we want to be.
So while you’re eating, trying to recognize, “Am I still hungry? Am I feeling full?”
When you’re full, stop. That means that your body has said, “That’s enough food for me.”
This being able to recognize hunger and fullness cues, is what we’re born with. We know when we’re hungry, but we also know when to cut it off.
This is something that we train out of ourselves and we lose over time, but we can get back to it. Just allow yourself to tune in and recognize it. And then allow yourself a little pause.
If you want to, set a timer on your watch, your phone or your computer, just give yourself an hour to pause and check in.
How is your body feeling right now? Did you eat what you wanted to? If you wanted more energy, do you still have energy? If you wanted to get rid of the brain fog, do you feel like you’re thinking more clearly?
So give yourself a chance to pause. I do like writing things down when you’re first learning this stuff, because then you can start to see, “Oh, you know what? Every time I eat hummus, I get really gassy.” So maybe hummus isn’t the best choice.
But then you get a wonderful chance to work with someone like me as a health coach or a nutritionist to say, “Well, what is it about the hummus? Is it the beans? Is it the garlic? What is it that’s making you gassy?” You can take it to the next level. Right now we’re just trying to bring that awareness of associating, how your body feels with that food.
And you can also eat and start understanding that, ”Okay, I’m bringing way too much food for my lunch,” or “I’m ordering way too much food for my dinner. I actually don’t need to eat this much.”
If your goal is to lose weight, you might automatically start losing weight just because you’re recognizing that you can stop when you’re full.
Part of this also means being willing to take home leftovers or being willing to leave food on your plate. If you grew up around a household that never wasted your food, that’s a habit that has to be broken, and that can be really hard. You just have to set the intention that this is how I’m going to eat.
If you can set the intention to follow a diet for 30 days, you can set the intention to eat mindfully, but this is something that you take with you.
I have been practicing mindful eating for three years now. Now it’s just second nature. This is my new habit. This is how I eat and experience food.
At first it was very different. I did have to make myself stop, sit and take that moment to say, “I’m doing mindfulness.” Now that doing becomes, “I’m being mindful.”
It just starts to become the new norm.
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I love it. It reminds me so much of the Japanese tea ceremony. You’re having a cup of tea, but the whole process is slowed down to where every little moment leads up to that cup of tea.
Then during that moment it’s slowed down so much that you really notice and savor every little moment.
As you were saying you smell the food, you feel it going down your throat, you chew it, you taste it in your mouth. Some of these things, by habit, we don’t do.
I make the habit to chew very well, but I can see that generally this is not something that people do.
We generally chew about four or five times and swallow. That’s stuff that needs to be chewed more. The softer stuff is maybe chewed once or twice and then swallowed, which isn’t good for overall health for several different reasons.
The main one is that our digestive system actually starts in our mouth and we pull a lot of nutrients through our mouth. So the more you can chew, the more nutrients you get and the healthier your body is.
Chewing breaks your food down. By the time it gets to your stomach and your intestines, your stomach and intestines aren’t working so hard.
If you’re finding that you’re often frequently bloated and gassy, look at how many times you’re chewing your food. If you can break it down more by chewing, you put less burden on your stomach and intestines to do the rest.
Sometimes that alone can take away the bloating.
So true. It’s just slowing down with the whole eating process alone. That sounds lovely. It sounds very doable, but what if you’re eating with a partner, what if you’re at a dinner party or what if you’re in a scenario where it seems even harder to sit down and slow down.
Right. It’s interesting. It is a little harder, because you are with somebody and you’re having a wonderful time and you’re usually talking and socializing. So that situation can be a little bit harder, but it’s still very possible to just kind of take a pause, breathe in the aromas and take a moment to just look around.
If you’re at a social engagement with a lot of people, you don’t have to grab your food and start eating right away. You can take your food, you can look around and appreciate the setting and where you’re at. Then take that in and savor it, in that same kind of slow pace.
One good thing about having a conversation with somebody else is that it’s not very easy and it’s certainly not polite to talk with food in your mouth. So you’re kind of forced to pause between bites, because you’re having conversations.
It’s great to take a bite, allow yourself to kind of savor it, put the fork down and let it go. Continue a conversation when there’s a good pause, pick up your fork and have another bite.
There’s no race, there’s no hurry, enjoy the whole environment and experience that you’re having with it.
Do remember that you are still trying to understand how food feels in your body. It’s really easy to overeat on social occasions, because usually there’s almost a potluck style. There’s appetizers everywhere. There’s food, there’s choices and it all looks amazing.
We just load up our plates. Sometimes when we do that, when we put a lot of food on our plate, our brain starts to recognize that plates work as one serving. It’s really not. It’s a lot of servings. So if you can also plan ahead a little bit to say, “All of this looks good, but I’m going to start with these two items first. Then I’ll go back to the appetizers and I’ll try one of these.”
Always tuning into how full you’re feeling. So start with the thing you really want to eat first, because you want to have room for that and then work your way down to the stuff that looks good, but you could pass on it, because if you fill up, you don’t have to worry about, “I never got that thing. I really want it.”
So in some things it’s great, you’re kind of forced to slow down, because you’re in an environment and the distractions are hopefully good distractions.
Hopefully you’re releasing happiness chemicals by being next to somebody.
That’s all so helpful. I love it. Thanks so much for coming on.
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Laurie Villarreal, FNLP, CHWC, FNS, LMC, CPT, RYT
Hi, I'm Laurie, a functional nutritionist and health coach, athlete, dog-mom, and biohacking adventure-lover. After having struggled for years to find lasting solutions for my own debilitating hormone-related symptoms, I created my online practice to begin helping other active, driven women get the support they need. I now help women around the world elevate their health, energy, business and life by optimizing their hormones with personalized nutrition and lifestyle tweaks. Together, we discover new tools and strategies that keep you showing up at your best so you can play even bigger in your life and work.
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