Ask an Expert: Mindful Eating

Laura Iverson-Bastiani chops beans and strawberries at her kitchen counter

August 27, 2021

by Autumn Thatcher (MSC '15)

Mindfulness has been trending hard for a few years now and understandably so. Humans are downright stressed out. Stress can manifest itself in nearly everything we do, including eating. The Fitness, Wellness, and Recreation Department’s Laura Iverson Bastiani, MS, is an eating psychology coach who holds numerous certifications in fitness and nutrition, including being a certified sports nutrition and certified medical exercise specialist. Laura talks about mindful eating, how it can help our overall well-being, and why it’s not as daunting as it might seem.

What is mindful eating?

Autumn: “What is mindful eating?”

Laura Iverson Bastiani, MS: “Mindful eating is simply the act of bringing awareness into the present moment before and during a meal. The eater is bringing their awareness into how the food really tastes, smells, and feels. As a result, mindful eating can impact food choices. For example, many people will pop a handful of chips or candy into their mouth without really thinking about it. Mindful eating would first require a short pause to think about:

  1. Am I hungry?
  2. What am I really hungry for?
  3. If it’s not physical hunger, then what am I really craving?

“That last question can really open a whole doorway because we often eat for reasons other than hunger. This line of questioning could make the eater realize that they are actually tired, bored, or putting off doing a task.

“But really, mindful eating is just a technique that helps us enjoy and appreciate what we are eating. Humans are unique in that we chew and taste a wide range of food. The enjoyment we get from food impacts how well we digest and assimilate it. Our brain also needs us to pay attention to what we are eating to register the sensation of feeling full. It is common to eat popcorn as we watch a movie and, before we know it, the popcorn has disappeared. We know we must have eaten it all because we have the evidence. Our stomach might even feel quite full, but because the brain wasn’t engaged in the action of eating it can feel like it never happened.”

Autumn: “How does mindful eating differ from other types of diets or ways to eat?”

Laura Iverson Bastiani, MS: “Mindful eating is different from other diets because it doesn’t involve diet at all. Mindful eating can be done with any food and any way of eating. Mindful eating can even be done with chocolate cake. In fact, I highly recommend only eating chocolate cake mindfully so that every bite can be enjoyed.”

Putting Mindfulness into Practice

Autumn: “What if you simply don’t have time to sit and mindfully eat? What if you’re running late or between classes or appointments and you just need to eat something? What about if you are standing and trying to eat your dinner while feeding small children? Is it possible to make mindful eating something that doesn’t feel like work or setting another goal for yourself?”

Laura Iverson Bastiani, MS: “We have to be realistic and let go of the all-or-nothing mentality. It’s unrealistic to think that we will eat mindfully 100 percent of the time or that every meal will be candlelit. Just having some awareness to at least know we aren’t being mindful is, in a way, being mindful. You can eat standing up or walking and still be mindful. You are just thinking, ‘I am walking, I am chewing, I am eating a granola bar. This granola bar isn’t very good. Tomorrow I will bring something better.’

“Being mindful doesn’t have to take a bunch of time and effort. Start by seeing if you can just set your fork down between bites. Don’t pick the fork back up until you’ve swallowed the previous bite and so on. From there you start to add in the occasional breath. You slow down. You can still do that even if you are standing or walking."

Your Relationship with Food

Autumn: “Does our environment play a role in our relationship with food? If so, how can we improve our relationship with food?”

Laura Iverson Bastiani, MS: “Our relationship with food can be extremely complex because it takes into account nearly every interaction we’ve had with food since birth. As we grow up, we are constantly getting messages from authority figures that range from, ‘Wow, you eat a lot’ to ‘You need to eat more’ and so on. These message stack up and, when combined with our own experiences, we form a belief of ‘who we are as eaters’ (that’s my favorite expression). 

“Our environment can definitely play a role in our relationship with food. People who grow up with scarcity may feel the need to hold on to or ration food. They also may feel like there is urgency to eat as much as possible when food is present even if they aren’t hungry. It can get complex, and we are all very different, which is why I love the work I get to do as an eating psychology coach. Or, if you are talking about our immediate physical environment, that plays a role in our relationship with food, too. If we are in an environment that isn’t very relaxing, our body will be tense, and we produce fewer digestive juices. This will usually lead to a stomachache or bloating. Stress and eating really don’t go well together. Sadly, we often live very stressed-out lives and much of the stress is being created right in our own mind. That is where mindful eating can come in and be a very useful tool.”

Autumn: “What is a relationship with food and why does this matter to one’s wellbeing?”

Laura Iverson Bastiani, MS: “A relationship to food generally describes how we think about and interact with it. Our relationship with food does impact our well-being because food/diet can be a major source of stress.

“Can I just put a plug here that if anyone has a stressful relationship with food to reach out to me? I am a certified eating psychology coach, and I specialize in ‘unwanted eating behavior,’ which includes obsessing over food, binge eating, and chronic dieting. My goal is to help people find freedom with food so that food is no longer a source of stress. Deciding what to eat and eating in general should be a fun and pleasurable experience, and I can help make it that way.”

Everyone Is Different

Autumn: “What else should we think about when it comes to eating?”

Laura Iverson Bastiani, MS: “There is no ‘one right way of eating.’ As humans, we are all different and complex and there isn’t a way of eating that is perfect for everyone.”