Mindful eating is a practice that can be taught, learned, and mastered to ultimately allow you to create a healthy and enjoyable relationship with food. This article will teach you a simple 3-step process to help you get started on what can turn out to be a life-changing way of relating to food.
The first step requires you to PAUSE, just hit the "pause" button for 2 seconds. The second step is to ask yourself (it's the same question every single time, so it's easy to remember), "How am I feeling right now?" And the third step, to get started with the practice of mindful eating is using the answer to that question to help you make a decision.
We will go into the details of each step and how it all works, but getting started is as easy as 1-2-3!
What is Mindful Eating?
Before we dive into the how-to of Mindful Eating, it's helpful to understand exactly what IS mindful eating as there can be a lot of room for interpretation.
There are many definitions available but the crux of mindful eating is bringing full awareness and attention to food choices and the experience of eating in the moment of choosing and eating without judgment.
Mindful eating is based on a Buddhist practice called mindfulness which is a practice of bringing your attention and awareness into the present moment from a witnessing perspective and not attaching judgment to the thought or the moment.
Mindfulness is a form of meditation that can be practiced and applied to any moment or life situation. There is overwhelming evidence showing people who practice mindfulness or who are treated with mindfulness-based therapy modalities have experienced benefit and relief of symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, and chronic pain. 1
When mindfulness is applied to the behavior and habits of eating, an act that we as humans engage in every day, multiple times a day, the benefits have also been shown in the literature, which can set the stage for motivation towards eating behavior change. 2
The Benefits of Mindful Eating
Eating mindfully is not another fad "diet" or a short-term solution to a problem. Rather, it can become a long-term practice to help you pay attention to the emotional signals that guide your eating habits.
When you become more aware of the emotions that trigger a certain eating habit, you will have more success in changing that habit if it does not serve you.
The benefits of mindful eating are many and can include but are not limited to:
Decreases mindless eating which can lead to unwanted weight gain
Helps you notice the cues of hunger and fullness so that you don't overeat or binge eat
Creates a healthier balanced relationship with food and eating behaviors
Can help you land at a weight that feels most natural and comfortable for your body
Can be used as an adjunct to treat eating disorders3
Develops a greater appreciation for food and the experience of every meal and snack
Release feelings of guilt and shame around food and cultivate food freedom
Mindful eating helps us bring awareness to our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations associated with them before, during, and after the eating experience.
In other words, it brings us closer to connection with ourselves, similar to the experience of meditation. And the benefits of meditation have been robustly researched with huge amounts of evidence for positive outcomes. 4 5 6
How to Practice Mindful Eating
It's highly likely that you have read many articles about mindful eating before reading this one. Many of us have all heard the how-tos of mindful eating, sit at a table for your meals, slow, down, activate your senses, savor your food, chew thoroughly, etc—there are countless ways to eat mindfully.
However, before you can put those practices into action, the decision has to be made to even do it in the first place!
So really, there is a decision that has to be made to do the practice of eating mindful before even diving into the details of the experience of eating.
We will certainly get into the nitty-gritty of mindful eating practices but first, we have to learn how to go through the decision-making process to get there.
This chart simplifies the 3-step decision-making process to bring awareness to the moment rather than proceeding on auto-pilot and help bridge the gap between knowing you should practice mindful eating and actually taking the action steps to do it.
The 3-Step Process to START Practicing Mindful Eating
Anytime you catch yourself thinking about food or starting to go for food, follow these steps:
Step 1: Pause
Taking just a split second to PAUSE creates an opening for contemplating how the next moments will play out. Without the PAUSE, many of us will continue on auto-pilot with our habits in response to emotional situations. Take a deep breath and move on to Step 2.
Step 2: Ask
Ask yourself this question: "HOW AM I FEELING?"
It is the same question every single time, "HOW AM I FEELING?"
Without judgment, name the feeling or emotion that comes up, is it boredom? Sadness? Joy? Stress? Frustration? Irritation? Anger?
Say it out loud, let yourself hear your own voice say it. "I am feeling stressed out right now"
Then you ask yourself this follow-up question: "AM I ACTUALLY HUNGRY?" Answer that question for yourself, and then go to Step 3.
Step 3: Listen
If the answer to the question "Am I actually hungry?" is YES, then it is time to eat. Do not ignore this natural hunger signal. Ignoring your internal cues of hunger can cause uncomfortable physical symptoms such as shakiness and sweating due to low blood sugar and lead to overeating later.
Then it's time to pick a healthy delicious meal or snack according to your meal plan if you have one and move onto the actual practice of mindful eating.
Now, if the answer is "NO, I'm NOT actually hungry", then it is NOT time to eat. Then you move on to what is called a "Non-Food Control."
This is something that you have decided beforehand to use as a "control" or alternative to the act of eating when you are experiencing strong emotions that lead you to habitually turn to food as a source of comfort for that emotion.
For example, if you are feeling frustrated because you are hitting a roadblock at work and things are not flowing smoothly, instead of snacking when you are not hungry, your "non-food control" can be going for a short walk to get some fresh air and clear your mind.
This technique can work with positive emotions too. For example, if you are feeling joy and happiness at an occasion for celebration and find yourself gravitating towards the sweets and alcohol when you are actually not hungry or if you are trying not to eat sweets and drink alcohol, your "non-food control" can be to engage in authentic connection with someone at the party and be curious and get to know the other person.
However, if you are choosing to indulge in a conscious empowered way, that's great, move on to the next section!
Diving Deeper into Mindful Eating
Now that you have decided that you are going to eat something in response to the signal of hunger rather than in response to an emotion (or having a conscious indulgence), let's dive deeper into the exercise of mindful eating!
When you eat mindfully you will notice details about your eating experience that you may not have paid attention to before. There are many tips, advice, and suggestions on how to practice mindful eating and you can do them all or just pick a few key practices and focus your attention on them.
Here is a list of many but not every single mindful eating exercise as there really is no one way it should be done and it is all about creating your own unique experience of eating.
It may not be feasible to practice mindful eating at every meal but start by trying it for 1 meal of the day.
Carve out time and sit down at a table for your meal or snack, don't eat on the go
Take a moment to bring your awareness to the present moment, take a few deep breaths
Activate your senses
Sight - look at your food, notice the colors, the different textures, notice the plate that it is being served on, offer a moment of appreciation and gratitude for the nourishment you are about to consume.
Smell - take a few deep inhales of your food, notice the different smells, notice how the smells blend together. Notice how the smell of the food begins to activate the salivary glands in your mouth. Smelling your food also releases digestive enzymes in your gastrointestinal tract before the food even gets there.
Taste - take a bite, chew slowly, notice the texture of the food on your tongue, notice the temperature of the food. Savor the flavors of the food and notice how it makes you feel, without judgment, just witness what comes up for you.
Put your fork down between bites, this naturally slows down the rhythm of your eating. Slowing down the pace of eating will allow time for the cues of fullness or satiety in the brain to catch up with what is actually happening in the stomach. Try to stretch out a meal to 20-30 minutes.
When your food is about halfway gone, take a PAUSE. Check-in with yourself. Ask yourself "Am I still hungry?" Try to give yourself a 5-minute break from eating, which may seem like a really long time, but it can take 10-20 minutes for the brain to recognize the feeling of fullness after a meal. If you are still hungry after your check-in, continue eating, however, you may find that you are starting to feel full and may not need to finish the whole meal.
Mindful Eating and Weight Loss
To be clear, mindful eating is not a diet, it does not encourage restrictions or strict elimination of certain foods. However, when mindful eating is practiced on a consistent basis, oftentimes, people find that it can lead to weight loss as a by-product of the practice.
Mindful eating is also a very effective tool to help sustain weight loss once your body has found a comfortable weight to settle at where you are content and satisfied with your food choices and your body is getting the nourishment it needs to maintain that comfortable weight.
That comfortable weight will be different for everyone, based on your unique biochemistry, lifestyle, and genetics. Instead of focusing on a certain "ideal" of what a body shape should look like based on societal influences, the media, or misguided messages from our environment, you should focus more on how your food and lifestyle choices make you FEEL.
If you make food and lifestyle choices that give you more energy, positivity, and motivation, your mind and body will develop an innate trust in itself to land at a healthy weight perfect for you. And if weight loss is a side-effect, that is just your body's way of telling you that you are hanging onto something that needed to be let go!
If you are trying to lose weight for health reasons, give this 3-step process a try to get you started, it might be a challenge at first, but the more you practice, as with anything, the more it will become second nature and a part of your daily life.
The Takeaway: Mindful Eating and Gratitude
Eating food is a basic human need, essential for survival. However, the way that many of us interact with food, is also a huge privilege. If you have access to healthy high-quality foods or delicious diverse cuisines and restaurants, you are extremely fortunate because the reality is, not many people do.
Therefore it is important to acknowledge the good fortune of abundance and not take it for granted.
Gratitude for your food begins long before you sit down for your meal. It begins on the farms that produce the food and the workers that harvest it. It begins at the market where you buy your food, or in your backyard where you grow your food.
Gratitude and respect continue as your handle your food and cook it and ultimately nourish yourself and your loved ones by eating it. Eating mindfully and gratitude go hand in hand and the more it is practiced the richer the experience of eating becomes.
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Papies, E. K., Pronk, T. M., Keesman, M., & Barsalou, L. W. (2015). The benefits of simply observing: mindful attention modulates the link between motivation and behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(1), 148.
Hepworth, N. S. (2010). A mindful eating group as an adjunct to individual treatment for eating disorders: A pilot study. Eating Disorders, 19(1), 6-16.
Saeed, S. A., Cunningham, K., & Bloch, R. M. (2019). Depression and anxiety disorders: benefits of exercise, yoga, and meditation. American family physician, 99(10), 620-627.
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Nijjar, P. S., Connett, J. E., Lindquist, R., Brown, R., Burt, M., Pergolski, A., ... & Everson-Rose, S. A. (2019). Randomized trial of mindfulness-based stress reduction in cardiac patients eligible for cardiac rehabilitation. Scientific reports, 9(1), 1-11.