Learn about mindful eating and how it can help your mentality around food.
Mindful Eating: What is it and How can it Help
Do you eat when you’re distracted by your phone or watching television? How about when you’re stressed or tired? Off the top of your head, do you know everything you ate yesterday?
Mindless eating stems from a lack of awareness and may contribute to obesity and other health issues, on top of just making you feel bad. But mindful eating brings you to a place of awareness in your body and your mind, helps you reduce binge eating behaviors, and gives you control over your eating habits. Mindful eating is also used to address problems like anxiety, depression, and disordered eating.
Can mindful eating help you lose weight? Sure, but that’s not its primary goal. If you’re interested in feeling better and improving your relationship with food, keep reading.
How To Practice Mindful Eating
Based on a Buddhist concept, mindfulness encourages you to focus on the present moment. From a place of calm, you can recognize and accept your thoughts and feelings. The same philosophy applies to mindful eating — the practice of being fully present with the experience of eating, from the aroma, taste, and texture of your food to how it feels in your body and any thoughts and feelings that arise. When you’re in a place of greater awareness, mindful eating can help you better understand and deal with cravings, problematic thinking, and external and internal cues that might trigger bad habits or disordered eating behaviors.
"A good way to begin mindful eating is to apply this practice to one meal each day and then build from there."
As with any new habit, it’s best to start small. A good way to begin mindful eating is to apply this practice to one meal each day and then build from there. The first step is noticing your appetite: Are you hungry? Ravenous? If you’ve been skipping meals, mindfulness can be a challenge when you’re feeling like you want to eat anything and everything. Mindfulness will help you to acknowledge when your body is hungry, what nourishment it requires, and when that hunger has been satisfied. Sometimes, you may only think you’re hungry because you’ve become accustomed to reaching for snacks when you’re bored, tired, or stressed. As you learn to recognize your body’s hunger cues, you’ll have a better idea if maybe what you really need in that moment is a glass of water, a brisk walk, or even a nap.
In this same way, mindful eating can also help you acknowledge and deal with food cravings, which may become less intense as you pay more attention to your body’s needs in the moment. When you sit down to eat, mindfulness encourages you to pause in appreciation of what you are about to eat, and to bring all of your senses to the table. Your meal should be free from distractions like phones or television screens. And be sure to set aside enough time to eat, instead of grabbing something in a hurry.
You might take a few deep breaths, too. Notice the colors and shapes of what’s on your plate. What does your meal smell like? What are the sounds and tastes of each bite? What does the food feel like in your mouth? Taking small bites, chewing thoroughly, and eating slowly make it easier to truly taste your food and learn what it feels like when your body is full, which prevents overeating. Choosing a smaller portion is also helpful, as is paying attention to your taste buds — when you’ve had enough, you might find that food loses its flavor, because your taste buds have been satiated.
But mindful eating is also about noticing how the food makes you feel. Does what you’re eating make you feel energized, or does it leave you feeling sluggish? What thoughts and feelings come up when you’re eating? Focus on accepting yourself as you are. Mindful eating offers the opportunity to acknowledge any knee-jerk, negative thoughts and replace them with healthier and more conscious thinking. As you expand your mindful eating practice, you might pay more attention to your shopping list and food preparation, too, to bring more awareness to every facet of your relationship with food. Where did each ingredient come from? Who harvested and packaged what you’re putting into your cart and into your body? By relying on mindfulness, this practice helps you develop greater awareness of your physical cues and your thoughts and feelings around food and eating, and deepens your experience overall.
Can Mindful Eating Help You Lose Weight?
With an abundance of food options, and with so many media and other inputs vying for our attention, it’s no wonder that eating has become a mindless, hurried act — meaning that you often won’t register when your body is full. Because mindful eating brings your awareness to the moment, without distraction or urgency, you can recognize your body’s fullness cues and stop eating right away. If you’re otherwise prone to overeating or binge eating, this alone can help you lose weight.
By becoming more aware of the emotional and other triggers that lead you to want to eat even when you’re not hungry, mindfulness gives you the time and space to choose how to react to those cues and cravings. If you’ve tried restricted eating diets in the past, you may be intimately familiar with the fact that they don’t work long-term, and that all too often, you gain back any lost weight within a few years. Stress has been shown to be a key ingredient in overeating, and challenges with cravings, emotional eating, binge eating, and external triggers are also associated with gaining weight back again.
"When you change your approach to food, any judgment or negative feelings you used to bring to the table can be supplanted by awareness, peace of mind, and a sense of calm control. "
But mindful eating helps to reduce that stress. When you change your approach to food, any judgment or negative feelings you used to bring to the table can be supplanted by awareness, peace of mind, and a sense of calm control. And this can increase your chances of weight loss success. The link between mindful eating and weight loss isn’t definitive, however. While a 2015 review published in Psychosomatic Medicine noted significant weight loss for participants in thirteen of the nineteen studies reviewed, a clear link to mindfulness couldn’t be found. But when you’re paying mindful attention to what you’re putting into your mouth and how your body responds, you’re reducing mindless eating and are less likely to overeat.
Is Weight Loss the Goal of Mindful Eating?
The goal of mindful eating is centered more on overall well-being instead of weight loss specifically, and this practice could be right for you if you’ve been struggling with conventional diets and are ready to give up the diet mindset. There are many more positive benefits of mindful eating above and beyond potential weight loss, including helping you change unhealthy eating habits — because when you’re paying more attention to your food, you can more easily spot both positive and problematic patterns around eating and your relationship with food.
"The bottom line is this: Mindful eating can help you lose weight, but its primary value is found in bringing you back to yourself."
Binge eating — which has been linked to weight gain and eating disorders — can be dramatically reduced when mindfulness comes into the picture. Mindful eating may promote heart health and help control blood sugar. Because mindful eating invites you to be conscious and present in the moment instead of being ruled by habit and ingrained reactions, emotional eating and the power of external eating cues — like eating just because everyone around you is chowing down — can be decreased. There’s also the profound impact of simply freeing yourself from thinking about food and eating as much, not to mention reduced stress all around.
The bottom line is this: Mindful eating can help you lose weight, but its primary value is found in bringing you back to yourself. Mindful eating can help you get out of a cycle of bad eating habits. You will feel better and have more energy, and that’s what’s most important. If you’re looking for help getting started, a good resource is the Center for Mindful Eating, which offers a list of coaches and other professionals across the US and around the world. You can look for an online workshop or seminar on mindful eating, and another frequently recommended resource is Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life by Buddhist spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung. The practice of mindful eating may sound simple, and that simplicity can be deceiving, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Start with a single mindful bite, and build from there. With time and patience, you can develop better habits and make mindfulness — around eating and beyond — a central part of your approach to living.
Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Sera Lavelle, is the cofounder of Bea Better Eating and owner of NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy in NYC. To learn more about Bea Better Eating and our mission, please click here.