How mindful eating can help your arthritis

  • by
  • 20 min read

You eat because you’re stressed and eating makes you feel good.

You eat because you are overwhelmed and you can numb yourself with food.

You eat because you are hungry and food nourishes you.

You eat because it’s noon and it is time for lunch.

You eat because you saw a commercial for your favourite chips and that sounds good.

You eat out of habit all the time. Most of what you do all day are habits. And thank goodness that’s true! Can you imagine how hard it would be if you had to make a conscious decision about everything you did? (The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, page xvi)

Habits are amazing. But they can also be unhelpful or even destructive. The biggest trick of all is that once a habit starts, your brain stops paying attention, until it gets the reward. So how can you wake up from that? (The Power of Habit page 14-19)

A short explanation on how to change a habit

Habits consist of a cue, a routine, and a reward. Something triggers a habit (routine) that gives you some reward. Look back to the list at the very top of this article. Can you see the trigger and reward of eating? 

To change a habit, you need to know what the cue and reward are. Then you can experiment with the routine. Your habits will change relatively easily if the new routine gives a better reward. (The Power of Habit page 62)

What is Mindful Eating?

To talk about mindful eating, we first need to establish what mindfulness is. Jon Kabat-Zinn is one of the big names in the mindfulness world. He developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program which brought mindfulness to modern medicine and helped it become part of the mainstream culture. He’s also written quite a few books, I recommend Mindfulness for Beginners.

[Mindfulness is] paying attention on purpose in the present moment and non-judgmentally

– Jon Kabat-Zinn
Mindfulness for Beginners p. 17

Mindful eating is taking that deliberate, non-judgemental attention to your eating experience. It means paying attention to all the sensations you experience while eating. 

How can mindfulness and mindful eating help my arthritis? 

The mindfulness-based stress reduction program has been shown to improve pain, especially chronic pain. The research tends to show a fairly mild improvement in pain on average. But a little bit can make a meaningful difference. Plus, since it’s talking about averages, there are likely people who have a huge benefit and people who don’t. 

Another review compared mindfulness-based stress reduction, cognitive behavioural therapy (a common mental health treatment) and “usual care” on how effective they were are improving how people rated their pain. Both mindfulness and therapy were better than usual care at improving pain.

Mindful eating asks us to tune into our bodies. This helps us to develop a greater understanding and appreciation for our bodies.

These are all relevant for you as someone with arthritis. There is one more benefit that is relevant to being a human in our North American culture.

MINDFUL EATING REDUCES FOOD STRESS

In my experience, mindful eating reduces food stress. This stress around food and eating is caused by the diet culture that surrounds us. Diet culture is a manifestation of weight stigma – the belief that thin people are healthier and that life would somehow be better if we lost weight. This drive to lose weight is one of the many reasons why we end up disconnecting from our experience of food and eating. And mindful eating helps us to return to our experience.

The ideas of diet culture and weight stigma might be new to you. It’s an idea that deserves greater exploration. I recommend the Body Kindness podcast if you want to explore more.

 For now, I want you to consider that your thoughts and ideas about food, diet, and weight have come from your culture. As you start to explore your physical and mental experiences, you may find that it doesn’t fit with what you currently believe. This can be challenging, but it is also how you grow as a human.

THE SPIRIT OF MINDFUL EATING IS CURIOSITY

The beauty of mindful eating is curiosity. And in that spirit, let’s get down to business and dig into mindful eating. The 5 step framework we are about to explore comes from Megrette Fletcher M.Ed., RD., CDE, in her book called The Core Concepts of Mindful Eating: Professional Edition.

We’re also going to explore these steps through the story of Sarah. Sarah’s story is my story, the story of client’s I’ve coached, and it could be your story too.

Step 1: Observe your experience non-judgmentally 

Eating is a full sensory experience. All your senses are engaged when you eat. When you think of your senses, what comes to mind? Smell, touch, taste, sight, and hearing. But there are even more:

  • Hunger
  • Fullness
  • Proprioception (the sense of where your body is in space. For example, how close your hand is to your mouth.)
  • Balance (For example, children are more likely to be fussy at meals if their feet and back are not supported.)

Mindful eating starts with engaging your the external senses.

How does the food look? What colours and textures do your eyes see? Is it shiny? Is it steamy?

How does it smell? Before you pick up a piece, breathe deeply and savour the aromas of the food.

How does it feel? If it is a finger food, pick it up and feel it against the skin of your fingers. If not, how does it feel in the mouth? Is it hard? Soft? Smooth? Crunchy? Hot? Cold? How does the texture change as you chew? 

How does it sound? Is it sizzling on the plate? Can you hear a crunch as you bite in?

How does it taste? Sweet? Sour? Salty? Bitter? Savoury? How does the taste change as you chew or bite to bite?

Then we start exploring our internal senses

Notice how your tongue moves the food around in your mouth as you chew. The proprioceptive sense of where your tongue is relative to your teeth – and how, most of the time, you avoid biting your tongue. Notice your tongue, gathering the food together and notice the urge to swallow arise. 

Notice the food travelling down into your stomach. How does it feel?

What sensations do you feel in the stomach? Hunger? Fullness? Satisfaction? Discomfort? Comfort? Notice how those sensations change as you move through your meal or snack.

The Raisin Exercise

Sarah did the Raisin Exercise. She had never really been a fan of raisins – they were okay in trail mix, but that’s about it. As she did the raisin exercise, eating raisins mindfully for the first time, she discovered something new. The raisin had a leathery skin, but inside it was chewy, pleasantly sweet, and a little tart too.

After the exercise, she felt at peace. Calm despite everything going on in her life. She felt refreshed despite the meditation lasting less than a minute.

SIMPLE BUT NOT EASY

This in-depth mindful eating practice is simple but not easy. This phrase shows up time and time again in mindfulness. Mindful eating is simple. Pay attention and don’t be judgemental. But just because it’s simple doesn’t mean that it is easy. 

It can be difficult to pour that much attention into your experience. You have been eating your whole life. Your mind wants to put the act of eating on autopilot – it saves energy. And it’s especially difficult when focusing on food, which is so tied into our emotions.

We judge ourselves based on how ‘good’ we are with our food choices. We feel judged for the food that we choose to eat, often because we were in the past. And food is tied into our issues with body image. 

Side note: Body image and diet culture are important topics. They are intimately connected to mindful eating, intuitive eating, and nourishing our bodies. But the larger discussion will have to come another day. If you are curious and want to learn more now, Christy Harrison, RD and Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN are both good resources.

And yet, despite the effort, the rewards are so worth it.

MINDFUL EATING CAN BE FRUSTRATING

It is frustrating to start a meal with the intent to eat mindfully, only to get distracted and miss it all. It is frustrating to see your attention slip away from where you intended to focus. Yet that is a huge sign of progress and accomplishment! 

Mindfulness is about noticing when your mind has wandered. The practice is to recognize that you have wandered, accept whatever has arisen, release the thought or emotion, and return to your focus. Again, it’s simple, but not easy.

Mindful eating, especially at this stage, is the same as a seated meditation or yoga. It is about learning to keep returning to your object of attention. It is a guarantee that you will get distracted, especially if you are new to the practice, sleep deprived or stressed. But even when you’ve been at it for a while, you’ll still get distracted.

The whole game is simply to notice when you are distracted, and begin again. And again. And again.

– Dan Harris
Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics p 6

Mindful eating is not easy, it’s frustrating at times, but it is so worth it.

Sarah was home on her lunch break, and needed something quick before heading back to work. She decided to cook up an egg – easy and quick – despite the stomach ache she had gotten the last couple times she had eggs for lunch.

She sat down to eat and, remembering the raisin exercise, she decided to experiment with mindful eating her whole lunch. She set an alarm for 15 minutes so that she wouldn’t have to watch the clock while eating. She started with a couple deep breaths and relaxing the tension she noticed in her shoulders.

She shifted her attention to her meal, breathing deep the smells and looking at the specks of black pepper. As she ate she focused on the tastes and textures, refocusing when she found her attention wandering.

She felt the urge to reach for her phone to check the time but reminded herself that she had set the alarm. She finished her meal before the alarm went off so she simply sat back and noticed how she felt. Just like when she did the raisin exercise, she felt at peace. It was such a pleasant contrast to how rushed she felt when she arrived home. When her alarm went off, she headed back to work with a smile.

RELEASE THE JUDGEMENTS

The other part of observing our experience is the quality of “non-judgement.” We judge everything all the time. It is the natural state of being human. It served our ancestors well, and there are times when it serves us well too. Those judgements intend to keep us safe. But they can also backfire. 

When we judge a food as being “good” or “bad” it leads to judging ourselves as being “good” or “bad”. That may sound silly. But how many times have you said something like, “I was bad – I ate junk all weekend.” You have judged “junk” food as being “bad” so you are “bad” because you ate it.

The same goes for “good,”  “healthy,” or “clean” eating. Because if you elevate one group of food, the rest goes to the opposite end of the spectrum. If it’s not good, it’s bad. If it’s not healthy, it’s unhealthy. If it’s not clean, it’s … dirty? If you eat according to what you judge to be “good” you are good, healthy or clean. But if you don’t, then you are bad, unhealthy, or unclean.

When we do notice the judgements, we often feel like it is a good thing. You might think, “How will I ever get better, healthier, fitter, if I accept my bad habits? I need to shame myself to improve.” Yet, when we start with acceptance and self-compassion, a more balanced lifestyle naturally follows. I have seen it first hand, in my life and for my clients.

The first step towards acceptance and self-compassion is to notice that you are judging. Regardless of whether that judgement is against our food or ourselves. Once we notice the judgement, we can work to acknowledge it and release it. And then we are ready for the next step.

Step 2: Notice whether an experience is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral 

Our brains are hard-wired to avoid unpleasant things. We seek pleasure, yes, but even more strongly, we avoid the pain of unpleasant experiences.

This has worked out wonderfully for us as a species. Humans would not exist today if we didn’t have this drive to avoid injury and hunger. This drive to avoid pain and seek pleasure can be destructive, yet it can also be a source of valuable information.

When you start to be mindful while eating you will notice patterns. It feels better, more enjoyable, more pleasant to eat when you are hungry. The flavours are more vibrant and the meal is more satisfying. It feels pleasant to be comfortably full. To feel like you have had enough.

You’ll also notice that it is unpleasant to get too hungry or too full. Both sensations can be intense and unpleasant.

So it is only natural that you’ll want to eat when you are hungry. You’ll want to eat until you are satisfied and comfortably full.  And there will be other patterns that you notice. Some meals feel more pleasant, more satisfying. Some meals feel heavy or unsatisfying.

BE AWARE OF JUDGEMENTS AND SEEK TO RELEASE THEM. 

As you notice these patterns, judgements will pop up. We need to continue to work to release those judgements. Without this work, you will soon find yourself feeling proud when you decline a treat because you’re not hungry. Or you’ll feel bad or like you failed, when you do have that treat.

This is an opportunity to practice observing your experience and releasing judgemental thoughts.

Although it may feel most pleasant to eat when you are moderately hungry, there will be times when it is nice to have dessert even though you’re full. Or have a treat while you are still feeling neutral (neither hungry or full). This is normal.

There will also be times when you eat until you’re uncomfortably full or you end up feeling uncomfortably hungry. And you’ll want to judge yourself for that. You may even feel like you’ve “failed” or that you “can’t be trusted”. This too is normal. But can we work to release the judgement? Yes, take the information that you’ve learned from this experience. But let go of the judgement.

It is part of normal eating to eat simply because something tastes good. Or to eat for emotional reasons. To eat birthday cake, even though you aren’t hungry. To eat while watching TV. It might not be pleasant to do those things all the time. But it is normal, fine, and even pleasant, to do at times.

Step 3: Identify what you need 

Noticing when something is pleasant or unpleasant is a window towards understanding your needs. This is also where mindful eating starts to blend with your life as a whole. 

When we eat for reasons other than being physically hungry, we are using food to meet a need. (And sometimes the foods we choose even when we are physically hungry are an attempt to meet some other need.)

Yet, when we eat for reasons other than physical hunger, it is usually unsatisfying, or even unpleasant. And when we eat when we are physically hungry, it is pleasant and satisfying. But these are just general statements, there is a lot of nuance to explore.

When we feel strong emotions, we are drawn towards food – especially food that is high in salt, sugar, fat, or all the above.

When we are happy, we want to extend that good feeling with something that is pleasurable. When we are stressed, depressed, anxious, or lonely, we want to counteract or numb those feelings. 

Food is a reliable way to get pleasure or distract our mind, especially those foods high in sugar, salt, or fat (or all three). And it works. This is why emotional eating is so common.

We also use food to cope with pain, boredom, or when you don’t know what you feel.

IDENTIFYING YOUR NEEDS 

To identify your needs, dig a little deeper than the surface of ‘pleasant’ or ‘unpleasant’. Seek to understand exactly what you feel to discover what you need. Why are you reaching for that food? 

Are you stressed because everything is uncertain? You don’t know what is going to happen next or how long this will last.

Are you lonely? Are you craving a connection to another human being?

Are you sad? Depressed? Anxious?

Do you need to have some downtime, instead of pushing through your fatigue? Are you burned out or nearing that point?

Are you tired and need to go to bed?

Do you need to move your body and get the blood flowing? Something intense or perhaps very gentle?

Are you feeling pain in your joints or your muscles?

YOU ARE THE EXPERT OF YOUR BODY

Only you can know what needs are unmet. But that doesn’t mean it is easy. You may need to use many tools in your toolbox to figure it out:

  • Seeking help from a trained mental health worker to build up your skills in identifying how you feel
  • Talking it out with a trusted friend
  • Journaling
  • Finding a quiet place to let your mind wander
  • All the above, or something else entirely 

Identifying your needs in the moment

Sarah had been learning about mindful eating and continuing to practice during at least a few meals a week. She noticed she had gotten into a habit of eating chips in the evening. She’s busy with work all day and in the evening, she’s focusing on her kids. After they are in bed, she just wants something enjoyable to wind down with.

But she has noticed that she nearly always eats more than what would have felt good. Plus she thought the salt might be making her retain more water, which could make the stiffness in her hands worse in the morning.

She tried not having anything. But then she ended up grumpy, snapping at her husband, because she was trying to force herself not to think about the chips – so not relaxing. One night, she decided to take out her journal and brainstorm some possible ways to meet her needs. She wants a treat and something calming.

She remembered that she had a really nice tea cup in the back of her cupboard that she loves, but never uses. So she tried having her favourite peppermint tea. it was a nice treat to use her favourite tea mug, but she realized that she was also hungry. When she added an oatmeal cookie she had baked with the kids earlier in the day, she found the perfect combination. After about a week, she noticed her hands seemed to be a little less stiff too!

Sarah had already moved on to step 4.

Step 4: Aim to meet your needs compassionately 

Emotional eating works. Food that is high in sugar, salt, and fat is cheap, so it is available to almost everyone. We all eat for emotional reasons at times. And sometimes that is the most caring thing you can do.

Sometimes the emotions or mental turmoil is so intense that you need a life raft to get yourself to safety. Food can be a great source of comfort. It can take the edge off the intensity you are feeling. Then, once you feel a little safer, you can work to identify what the hell was going on inside your mind.

Or you might not have access to what you need right now. Food can help you cope until you can do something about it.

Other times there is something you can do that will meet your needs better than food. 

WHEN EMOTIONAL EATING ISN’T WORKING

For example, if you are reaching for food because you are lonely, calling a friend would be more effective, and more kind to yourself. And your friend would likely appreciate the call as well.

This is where mindful eating impacts our life beyond our relationship with food. The same tools we use to help understand how food is affecting us can help us understand all our habits and actions. The calm, non-judgemental, compassionate energy you feel while eating mindfully spills over to the rest of your life.

Which leads into Megrette Fletcher’s final step in mindful eating:

Step 5: Advocate for yourself and others ethically

Mindful eating and following your intuition is a beautiful way of taking care of yourself. A way to meet your needs with compassion. So many people feel like self-care is selfish. But it is not. We need to respect *ourselves* as much as we respect others. To live any other way is to embrace narcissism (putting yourself above others) or martyrdom (putting others above yourself).

Yes, there are periods of a day or a life when others must take priority. But we must not forget to also take care of ourselves.

Whether it’s your dog waking you up to go outside many times in the night. Or a baby that needs to be fed, changed, and soothed back to sleep. Or a friend or relative who is ill and needs your care. Or your work is hectic and there are metaphorical or literal fires to be put out.

In these periods of life, mindful eating can be a refuge. A chance to ground yourself in your physical sensations. You have to eat anyway. Why not take the opportunity to care for yourself?

There are also times in your life when you must make yourself the priority, even at the expense of others. Usually because you have recently gone through a period when you didn’t take care of yourself. It could be either because you couldn’t or you didn’t make it a priority.

But we can always strive towards greater balance. To be able to advocate for ourselves and others.

What is the kindest thing you can do for yourself? What is the kindest thing you can do for others? These questions are intimately linked.

It’s about respect. Respecting yourself equally as you respect others. And respecting others as you respect yourself. 

It’s not easy to come to that place. You have stuff from your past that makes this challenging. And there will be stuff in your future that you’ll have to work through all over again. Yet this place, where we put ourselves and others on a level playing field in our minds, it’s where the most satisfying life is.

Final Thoughts 

How you eat is a window to how you live. It is a practice arena for your life as a whole. It is a way to bring your life values home and put them into action.

Megrette Fletcher lays out her 5 step framework in Core Concepts of Mindful Eating Professional Edition. She shows how mindful eating leads to an intuitive sense of how to care for yourself. It puts mindful eating in the context of our whole life and our relationship to others.

  1. Observe your experience non-judgmentally
  2. Notice whether an experience is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral
  3. Identify your needs
  4. Aim to meet your needs with compassion
  5. Advocate for yourself and others ethically

And it can start very simply. Savouring and fully experiencing one meal, one snack, one hot cup of tea. Start small, and see where the ripples lead. You have to eat anyway, why not take care of yourself while you do?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *