It’s that time of year when we aspire to eat more healthfully—more grains and veggies, fewer trips to the cookie plate in the break room, a modicum of self-restraint regarding that bottomless popcorn bowl. Maybe you want to be healthier, improve your digestion, manage your weight, or just increase your vitality. But it’s easy to feel confounded by the never-ending influx of conflicting nutritional advice.
Instead of looking to the latest health craze to figure out what’s best to eat, try looking inward. Learning to listen to your body’s cues can help point you toward a balanced way of eating that’s right for you, says Annie B. Kay, a registered dietitian and Kripalu Yoga teacher. Kay, the lead nutritionist at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and the author of Every Bite Is Divine, says that eating right starts with bringing conscious awareness to the table. Slowing down and tuning in to all five senses will help you develop an approach to eating that supports your well-being. “At Kripalu, we don’t teach or prescribe one diet. We teach the practice of paying attention to how a particular food or way of eating makes you feel,” says Kay. “It’s a practice. And we become better at discerning the body’s messages with practice.”
So this year, rather than resolving to stick to a new diet plan, why not practice observing and listening to your body? Here are five tips for intuitively eating well, plus delicious, wholesome recipes to start the year off right.
1. Slow Down and Savor
The first and most important principle of eating with conscious awareness, says Kay, is simply to slow down. Remember the old rule of chewing your food 100 times? In Ayurveda the practice is 32 chews for each bite. “Try it and see what your food tastes like at the end,” suggests Kay. “A lot of fast food, when chewed to that degree, tastes like a mouthful of chemicals, whereas an apple or a vegetable will taste sweet.”
Just making the effort to eat a meal more slowly, says Kay, will lead you to pay more attention to the sensory experience of food in a way that affects your dietary choices. “You’ll actually taste what you are eating, and let’s face it, when you really taste processed food, it’s not that good.”
Slowing down and consciously chewing your food has myriad benefits: It can improve digestion, reduce mindless munching in front of the TV or computer, and discourage the impulse to take a shortcut with processed food. Instead, you’ll find yourself experiencing new flavors and observing your reactions to them—the vegetal bite of leafy greens, the juicy sweetness of a raw carrot, the sharp bite of a fresh radish.
“It’s a practice of learning to use your senses again,” Kay says.
2. Get to Know Your Hunger
Hunger is a biological urge with attendant physical sensations: Your stomach rumbles, your energy dips, perhaps you even get irritable. But it’s easy, particularly if you’re in the habit of eating when you’re bored or stressed, to lose touch with what hunger actually feels like. Reconnecting with the sensation of physical hunger is a crucial element of eating with conscious awareness, says Kay, and one that requires the ability to distinguish emotional cravings from physical messages of need.
Kay recommends developing a habit of asking yourself before you reach for a snack: “Am I famished? Moderately hungry? Or am I bored, nervous at this party, or frustrated after my workday?” This initiates what she calls a “body-based inquiry” that puts you in touch with what your body is telling you it needs.
In yoga class, Kay points out, we focus on sensation, and we practice returning our attention to the breath and body when our mind drifts. The result is an enhanced ability to distinguish a deep stretch from a pushing-too-hard feeling or a stressed, shallow breath from a relaxed belly breath. That same principle, says Kay, applies to hunger. “The growl of physical hunger is very different from the urge to eat out of boredom,” she says, “and the more yoga you do, the more obvious that difference is.”
3. Treat Your Cravings With Compassion
As you slow down and begin to pay more attention to what and when you eat, it will become easier to differentiate a craving from a message your body sends to tell you “This is a supportive food,” or “This food may or may not work as well,” Kay says. For example, when the cold months hit, you might find yourself gravitating toward warm, filling fare such as soups, stews, warm grain salads, and sweet root vegetables. (Try these recipes for Red Chard and White Bean Soup and Warm Lentil Salad With Roasted Root Veggies.) But what about those times when what you’re craving is chocolate layer cake or pizza?
Rather than classifying any craving as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, says Kay, you can choose to see it as another opportunity for compassionate self-observation. Listen to your craving without judgment. Whether you consciously decide to eat the food you’re craving or wait to see if the urge passes, the important thing is to stay conscious and connected with what you’re eating.
“Should you get into a situation when you’re overeating all this beautiful, rich food in the wintertime,” Kay says, “it’s an opportunity to step back and say, ‘Oh, aren’t I a fascinating being? Look at what I’m doing; I wonder what that’s about,’ and approach the episode not as a failure or as ‘bad,’ but just as ‘Here’s another fascinating facet of my being.’”
4. Find the Middle Ground
Many Eastern cultures practice the tradition of eating just until gently satisfied. In the Japanese culture, it’s called hara hachi bu. In yoga, it’s mitahara, or eating lightly. In Ayurveda, the rule is to fill the belly one-half with food and one-quarter with liquid, leaving the remaining quarter empty. But Western culture offers fewer guides to eating moderately.
“Moderation is acknowledged as a good thing to have and maybe essential for health, but we just don’t hear much about how to be moderate,” says Kay, who suggests experimenting with what it feels like to eat moderately by leaving a little food on your plate.
Making a practice of eating just until you are gently sated can help you learn how much food is enough and also give you some commonsense tools for choosing which foods to make a part of your regular diet.
“We tend to think that if something is good, then more is better,” says Kay. “But in nutrition we learn again and again that some might be good but too much is simply too much—and may do as much harm as not enough. It happens over and over: We find out something interesting about the latest nutrient, and before we know it we’re chugging it down in large quantities, whereas yoga reminds us to stand in the fire, between the poles of too much and too little.”
5. Make Food an Offering—to Yourself
When it comes to eating consciously, just as important as the awareness you bring to the process of eating a meal is the care and attention you give to preparing it. When she teaches a meditation for conscious eating, Kay begins with selecting and preparing the food. Choose something simple, she suggests—like a sandwich, a salad, or even a piece of fruit. “As you prepare your food, take your time, breathe, and move slowly. Appreciate each ingredient with each of your five senses. What is its color and texture? How does it smell? Does it have sound? Does it have a vibration?”
Pay attention to the colors and textures of the fresh ingredients as you rinse lettuces for a salad, peel an orange, or use your hands to coat vegetables with oil before roasting. And think about the honor you’re doing both the food and yourself with your attention.
Giving your full attention to the raw ingredients of your meal predisposes you to choose whole, fresh, sense-pleasing foods over processed ones. But beyond that, when you make food an offering to yourself, Kay says, the effects of that care benefit your body. “When you think about food as a carrier for prana, or life force,” says Kay, “then the intention with which you prepare food is an essential element of its being healthful.”