Are you still struggling with weight loss, no matter how low you drop your calories? Do you experience issues with digestion no matter how closely you follow your doctor or dietitian’s recommendations? As an athlete, losing weight is more intricate than simply analyzing the type of food you eat and the way it is prepared.  It’s time we dive deeper into understanding the gut-brain connection to learn about mindful eating strategies for weight loss and improved digestion.

As an athlete, it is critical for you to understand the gut-brain connection because it is one of the greatest secret weapons for success. The human gut and brain connect through the vagus nerve. These two are best buds and they constantly send signals back and forth to each other. Similar to when your best friend is in a bad mood, when the brain is “angry” or “anxious”, the gut will follow suit.

Think about how many athletes run to the bathroom when they are nervous before an event. Have you ever noticed how long the Porta-Potty lines are right before a marathon? Have you ever noticed that athletes who have experienced numerous concussions often develop the worst gut issues? In the world of medicine today, we believe this has a lot to do with the gut-brain connection.

Whether you are working toward weight loss, better performance, reducing fatigue, less anxiety, or improved digestion, becoming more mindful can be a complete game changer. Just remember, eating well is similar to playing a sport. You have to practice over and over and over until the skill becomes second nature. You would never just show up for a game, make varsity, or be an automatic starter if you never practiced a day in your life. Right? So you shouldn’t expect to successfully eat with intention out the gate.

Ready to get started? Check out my best tips for eating mindfully this sports season.

Why You Should Tune In To Your Body

Before you take that first sip or bite of food, tune into your body, I mean really tune in. What do you notice? How hungry are you really? Are you sure that you’re even hungry at all or do you feel like grazing as a result of stress or boredom?  ALWAYS assess your hunger before you begin eating and always think about how you would like to feel after the meal is complete. Is it worth it to you to feel stuffed with brain fog?

Most athletes are pretty good at realizing the second something is off when it comes to sleep, post-workout fatigue, or overall energy levels.  However, they rarely in tune when it comes to interpreting hunger cues. Even if you do notice that you are extremely hungry before sitting down to a meal, is it really worth it to eat so much that you can barely breathe or fit into your pants 45 minutes later?! I don’t think so. It certainly doesn’t help performance in any way, that’s for sure.

Thinking about how you would like to feel before the meal helps to hold you accountable and also helps you more easily stay on track with your health and performance goals.  As young athletes, so many of us are instructed to eat and eat and eat for performance, recovery, etc. you name it. Therefore, it is extremely easy to subconsciously repeat that mantra through our high school, college, and adult years. For most of us, it’s time to break the cycle. One of my best mentors once told me, “if you’re not actually hungry, no amount of food will satisfy you” and she was right.

Offer Gratitude, Really

How many times do we sit down and plow through a meal without thinking twice? Sometimes we crush 3 helpings of food before we even realize what happened. Next time you sit down for a meal, before you go to town, consider offering gratitude before the meal. How did this food get on to your plate? Perhaps a hard-working farmer spent months growing the crops to perfection and maybe your grandmother spent hours cooking the meal to your specific taste. Set a moment aside to be thankful. Don’t take your plate of food for granted! After all, making that connection before your meal can actually boost the hormones and increase enzymes necessary for optimal digestion.[1,2]

It’s Turtle Time

The only time an athlete should ever strive to be slow: meal time. Eating slowly helps to improve digestion and absorption of nutrients.[3] It actually takes approximately 20 minutes for your stomach to signal your brain, which is one of the best tips for weight loss. Why? You will experience satiety much sooner and with a lower volume of food if you simply take your time.[4]

If eating slowly is a major struggle for you, consider eating with your non-dominant hand or set a timer next to your plate to ensure that your last bite is not complete until the 20-minute mark. I have a few athletes who eat meals with chopstix as a way to slow themselves down. You may also find it helpful to physically set your utensils down mid-meal and engage in conversation. This may help you get a better gauge of satiety and will also lead you to savor each bite and to truly enjoy your food. Eating slow will provide you with an entirely new experience at mealtime!

The Clean Plate Club is Old School

Did you grow up in a home where you were told to finish your plate no matter what? Although your parents and grandparents meant well, this is not a healthy habit to carry into adulthood, especially for the active individual.  A general rule of thumb: eat until you are 75-80% of the way full. You can always go back for more if you find that the first round was not enough.

Eating beyond capacity can lead to a rapid increase in weight, cholesterol and blood sugar. By no means should you be throwing away your food, but there is no harm in saving half your plate of food in the fridge to enjoy a few hours later. Better yet, freeze the portion in a glass container and reheat for lunch or dinner later in the week. Not only will this help sustain a healthy metabolism but it will also help you save a little cash. #winwin

Keep it Consistent

One of the best ways to ensure that you are able to stop eating around 80% capacity at meal time, is to make sure that you are eating at regular intervals throughout the day.

Take a step back and think about the last time you skipped a meal whether on purpose or accident, did you end up devouring an extra large portion when you finally had the chance to sit down to eat? The answer is probably yes whether you realize it or not. Set a timer on your phone to eat every 3-4 hours when awake. Whether it be a meal or snack, this significantly helps to reduce the risk of overeating. Take it up a notch by making sure to include protein, healthy fats, or fiber at meals or snacks. This is one of the best ways to squash hunger and the urge to binge.

Take Five

In just 60 seconds, you can transform your metabolism by taking 5-10 deep breaths as you sit down to eat. Breathe deeply through your nose for a count of five, pause, and then breathe out through your mouth for a count of five. Repeat this activity until you feel calm and relaxed before beginning your meal. As my yoga teachers have taught me, you may find it beneficial to keep your hand on your belly to help you connect with a deeper breath. Feeling relaxed at mealtime will improve digestion and decrease your chances of post-prandial pain and bloating.

Do you ever take digestive enzymes to help improve food absorption and reduce bloating?

Going slow and taking your time is also essential to give digestive enzymes time to work. In fact, this is such an interesting topic that we wrote an entire post on understanding how long it takes for digestive enzymes to work in order to achieve optimal effectiveness.

Eat with Intelligence

You’ve heard me say this before and you’re about to hear it again, a calorie is not just a calorie!!! Food is medicine and I mean that quite literally. Food fuels every cell in the body and even has the ability to alter gene expression. Garlic is an anti-fungal, ginger can help decrease inflammation, avocados fuel the brain and so on and so forth.

Food is the most powerful tool on this planet given to humans. The moment you start thinking this way is the moment you will begin to appreciate each meal in a completely new way. You may find that you suddenly start to taste each bite and you no longer feel the need to shovel down a plate and run out the door.

Savor it Baby

How many times do you actually sit back, relax and taste every bite of food that you eat? Probably not as often as you should. Next time you take a bite, pay close attention to the little party that is going on inside your mouth. What is the texture and aroma like? Is it sour, sweet, salty, bitter or savory? Whatever it is, be sure to enjoy it!

Be Present

Avoid eating on the go and try not to ever get in the habit of eating standing up! Make sure you are sitting in an upright position for meals as this aids in digestion as well as relaxation. You may find that eating standing up allows you to eat twice as much as you normally would without feeling full. Turn off the TV and put your phone on silent. Eating with distraction often leads to poor food choices and overeating.

Journal like it’s Going Out of Style

If you’ve never done it before, record your meal experience in a journal. Recording can be as simple as jotting down a few notes using a pen and looseleaf sheet of paper. Or, if you would like the convenience of being able to track on your phone, you can download an app like YouAte Food Diary & Tracker. This is a simple and free mindful eating diary. If you have undesirable symptoms when eating, it may be best to spend just a couple bucks for the MySymptoms Food Diary & Symptom Tracker which will help record your experience in fine detail.

Make note of what you ate as well as the quantity. How did you feel before and after you ate? Perform a mental scan of your body from head to toe. Any headaches? Swollen joints? Mucous production? What was digestion like? Any bloating, constipation or diarrhea? What was energy like after you ate? How was your sleep the night before? You may be surprised to see how many clues to your overall health that journaling can provide.

Resist Your Inner Demons

It’s time to get rid of the negative self-talk and self-criticism. It’s time to resist judgment. Speak to yourself the way you would want your very best friend to speak to you. Eat with compassion, respect, admiration, love, and gratitude toward your body. After all, this is the body that allows you to run, swim, shoot, catch and throw each day.

When negative thoughts creep into your mind, acknowledge these thoughts and then quietly dismiss them as they have no business living in your space of zen. It is ok to be aware of any guilt that comes up for you around certain foods. Again, acknowledge and dismiss. Your food choices do not define who you are as a human being. Calm your mind, slow the chatter, and be present in your body, knowing that you can have complete control over your thoughts and actions when it comes to food.

What is your favorite way to eat mindfully? Share your thoughts with us below!