Mindful Eating in the Time of COVID-19

Today I’m joined by Dr. Ni-Cheng Liang to talk about one of my favorite topics – mindful eating. She has a great perspective on how to be mindful even in the midst of stress and a pandemic.

Who better to write this article than a pulmonologist, cancer survivor, mindfulness teacher, and most recently, a recovering patient from laparoscopic appendectomy for acute appendicitis? My background is vast and I bet one of those things resonates with you. Before you dismiss this article as being written by an ego-maniac, stay with me.

Our Current Reality

Most of you are probably hunkered down at home, practicing physical distancing measures to help flatten the curve- that is delay and decrease the peak incidence of COVID-19 in your communities.  As a healthcare professional, I thank you for doing that.  Fear, anger, frustration, uncertainty, are all normal emotions in these unprecedented times.  And because of the uncertainty of COVID-19, which begets fear, which triggers our sympathetic nervous system (our fight, flight, or freeze response), that when chronically activated has detrimental effects on our overall health, many may be resorting to well-conditioned maladaptive coping mechanisms. 

Thinking back pre-COVID era: what were behaviors that you engaged in to help you cope with life stressors that may not have been beneficial for your health? Overeating? Drinking more alcohol, or using other substances to numb the pain of stressors? Overworking? Binge watching television? With self-compassion, think to more recent times, during the COVID era to your life- have those coping mechanisms permeated into your current home quarantine life?

Eating and Stress

I will be the first to admit that I have a sweet tooth.  And I stress eat.  Meaning I reach for foods that are high in refined sugars (cake, cookies, ice cream) because I find them to be delicious and yes, temporarily comforting, especially amidst everything that is going on in the world right now. And then the guilt and disappointment in myself that comes afterwards is all too real.

If anything, the recent bout with acute appendicitis has taught me, as I write to you from the comfort of my own bed, recovering from surgery, that this is the time to slow down, take pause, and take note. Here in lie opportunities for all of us to revisit and look with compassion, at the maladaptive coping mechanisms that have become so engrained as part of our day to day that sometimes we do not even realize we are engaged in them.

The Opportunity Ahead

I invite you to use the time you have home quarantining to develop a healthier relationship with food. What better time than now to try? Especially when food scarcity is a reality that comes to the forefront for more of humanity, now.

Mindfulness, paying attention on purpose to the present moment without judgement can be applied to eating and drinking as well.  Jan Chozen- Bays, MD, a pediatrician, and mindfulness teacher, author of the book Mindful Eating describes 9 different types of hunger. Are we able to identify which hunger needs to be satiated when you notice that you are hungry?

For instance, if I notice a craving for sweets, instead of reaching for a cookie (or an entire roll of Thin Mints) automatically, I can check in and ask myself what exactly is it that I need, right now, and perhaps the answer is to feed heart hunger, to satiate the desire for comfort with sweet. Am I then better able to make an intentional decision to choose savoring 1 Thin Mint with the 9 hungers over indulging in an entire roll of Thin Mints?  Or reminding myself that I just had acute appendicitis, adhering as much as possible to a healthy diet with some fiber will serve me better than eating cookies, and so I reach for strawberries with a dollop of whipped cream instead, or even something as simple as an apple.

Understanding Hunger

When you have decided that it is time for you to eat, can you check in with the 9 different types of hunger before, during, and after taking a bite or sip?

The 9 types of hunger:

  1. Sight
  2. Heart
  3. Mind
  4. Hearing
  5. Nose
  6. Touch
  7. Taste
  8. Stomach
  9. Cellular

When you are hungry, which of these hungers is the strongest?

Slowing Down

Another easy way to slow down while eating is to put eating utensils down while you chew. And as you chew, can you name all of the different flavors, textures that you are experiencing while chewing?

Slowing down is healthy. Mindful eating has the potential to increase enjoyment in food, curb over-eating, and promote a healthier relationship with food. Try it with a bite of a meal, a sip of a beverage, or even an entire meal and see what you notice. The COVID-19 era that we are all living in can be an opportunity for you to slow down, with mindful intention, providing opportunities for you to choose new, wiser adaptive behaviors for the betterment of your health.

For more information on Dr. Liang, check out her website ncliangmd.com.  She is also founder of mindfulhealthcarecollective.com, where free live Zoom sessions are led by women physician wellness experts 1-2 x a week, along with links to other free meditation resources.

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