Mindful eating is the art of reworking your relationship with food and your body and is thought to have some serious benefits for your health and wellbeing. Here's everything you need to know to understand and integrate this powerful mindset.
Are You Distracted?
One of my favorite “experiments” to try is something I like to call the mandarin orange effect.
When talking to a group about dieting and mindset, I will bring a bag of mandarin oranges (or some other seasonal fruit that people enjoy). Before I even say a word to the group I go around the room and place one mandarin in front of each person. I provide no instructions, no cues, just place the fruit before them and move along.
I’ve done this experiment countless times, and every single time there are a few people who will immediately eat the orange—sometimes before I even finish passing them out to the group. Some will ignore it, and others will stare intensely at it waiting for permission to consume it.
The magic happens shortly after I introduce myself to the room and finally acknowledge the mandarin. Immediately, those who ate it get a look of panic on their face. Likely thinking to themselves, “oh crap, I wasn't supposed to eat that yet”!
I tell the group they have been tricked...sort of.
"I placed the mandarin in front of you so that you could enjoy it. But, I also did it to teach you a lesson about yourself and how you eat".
- Did you notice the orange?
- Did you stop to think about it, why it was there, or whether or not you should eat it?
- Or did you automatically just throw it down the hatch without a single thought about it?
Understanding Our Relationship with Food
It is difficult to understand our relationship with food. Often, it takes moments like these to really understand our eating habits and how we think about food.
There is a whole field of psychology focused on eating and the relationship between what we eat and how we feel. Our feelings about food and our own eating behaviors can be influenced by many factors, including:
- Economic status
If you believe you are someone who would automatically eat the fruit or take too much time to stress over why it was there in the first place, you could likely benefit from practicing more mindfulness and mindful eating practices.
Mindfulness and mindful eating practices may also be an exciting area to explore if you are looking to deepen your understanding of food, and your relationship with your body, and add more tools to your wellness repertoire.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a term that has become more popular in recent years as studies explore its use in the management of disordered eating and potential weight loss effects (1).
Practicing mindfulness encourages us to cultivate conscious awareness towards whatever the focus may be; to pay attention in a particular way, in the present moment, and most importantly, non-judgmentally (2).
Mindfulness practices come in many forms. Meditation is probably the most well-known that many people like to include in their health and wellness plans to lower stress levels, improve focus, and promote self-care.
Mindful eating is another mindfulness practice that anyone can try no matter where you are in your health journey; whether it's meditation or mindful eating, mindfulness encourages us to return to ourselves and connect with the present moment.
What is Mindful Eating?
Mindful eating is the practice of slowing down and eating with intention, increasing our awareness of our relationship with food, our bodies, and overall health and well-being (2).
Eating mindfully means becoming more conscious (mindful) about what you’re eating, how it tastes, smells, looks, and taking more time to be present in the experience of your meal and your life.
Mindful Eating may help you:
- Make better food decisions
- Feel less stressed about your diet
- Promote a more positive outlook
- Build better healthy habits
- Increase self-awareness
Many factors can influence our food choices, mindful eating may help us become more aware of what drives our hunger (emotions, social reasons, cultural norms, etc.) and help us find balance and ease with our diets leading to healthy food choices without judgment.
As you start to become more aware of your hunger cues and what you are eating through mindful eating practices, you may also notice the environment you're eating in, what mood you're in, and who you're around.Think of mindful eating as a mindset, not a diet; fostering conscious awareness for balanced health and wellness.
Mindful Eating and The Mind-Gut Connection
Mindful eating is all about paying attention, connecting to the present moment, and tuning in to how you feel emotionally, physically, and even spiritually. But how are the foods we eat connected to our health and hunger cues?
It’s no secret that we attach a lot of weird feelings and beliefs to our diet and food choices. How many times has something you've eaten made you feel guilty? How many times have you turned to food for comfort? How many times have you been hangry or felt "off" after eating a certain food?
There is a scientific reason behind why we do these things. Our brain chemistry is strongly linked to our gut, a connection called the gut-brain axis.
The gut-brain axis has been defined as the bidirectional communication between our central nervous system and gut microbiome.
Each of our bodies house complex systems with checks and balances to keep us healthy and fight off disease, including one that gauges our energy needs, controlling digestion, and through a series of hormones, can trigger hunger, fullness, and digestion cues.
Just the thought of eating something can cause your stomach to release digestive enzymes before you even eat anything, like starting to salivate at the smell of something insatiable cooking in the kitchen during the holidays.
At the core level, food is fuel, we need it to survive, we get hungry and we eat, this is basic physiological metabolism.
But we also eat when we experience psychological triggers like stress and anxiety leading to emotional eating which can also affect how we utilize our food and what we crave. So now food is information as our food intake is now connected to our mood, and our mood is connected to our cravings (3).
Mood matters, stress, and anxiety can impact our digestion, leading to heartburn, diarrhea, and GI distress (4).
Don't forget about the feeling of being "hangry." Calories, and specifically carbohydrates, play a role in regulating our emotions, specifically self-control, which is why being short on them can lead to feelings of anger or irritability.
Everything from big to small can impact the way you eat and feel, even your gut bacteria is linked to your mindset and emotions (5).
It's a big rabbit hole to dive down, but the key takeaway is to remember that everything is connected. Mindful eating is another tool you can use to better your health and include in any lifestyle plan.
5 Proven Benefits of Mindful Eating for Weight Loss
If we are not consciously connected to how we feel, our motivation, and our strengths then our actions and choices become mindless. Mindless eating can manifest as emotional eating, binge eating, and overall an imbalanced relationship with food.
It's no surprise that mindless eating is associated with poorer quality of health due to increased calorie intake, unhealthy food choices, and weight gain.
This type of eating can be easy to fall into as we hurry through our day and forget to pack lunch or reach for a snack at the end of the night while watching TV.
And on the other end of the spectrum, strict dieting does some interesting things to our mindset. It is human nature to go towards what is more comfortable, and it is natural for our bodies to want to revolt when we feel restricted (like on a diet).
This drains our willpower, messes with our self-esteem, and makes losing weight that much harder.
So instead of going into your diet with an “all-or-nothing” approach, find a happy middle ground and start to work on your relationship with food. This will do wonders in helping you achieve your health goals and makes the journey much more enjoyable.
Changing the way you think about food, by eating more mindfully, can be an effective approach to weight management for a lot of people.
It's important to note that current research suggests including mindful eating as part of a comprehensive mindfulness program containing elements such as meditation, breathing exercises, and other diet and lifestyle modifications.
Here are some of the top reasons why you should consider eating more mindfully:
1. Mindful Eating Helps Control Appetite
This is directly linked to your ability to recognize when you are full and it is time to stop eating.
When looking at studies assessing how attention affects food intake, researchers also found that being distracted while eating tends to lead to increased calorie intake while paying attention to your food more could cause you to eat less throughout the day.
For most people, it takes about 20 minutes for your brain to recognize that you are full. So if you are eating your food in 5 minutes or less, you likely aren't giving yourself enough time to rely on your natural form of calorie control - your hunger fullness signals.
A review of the research suggests that mindful eating may help you gain more awareness of your body including your hunger and satiety cues by slowing down the process and consciously checking in with yourself, your environment, and your food (8).
Mindful Eating encourages you to slow down and build intention behind your food choices, resulting in more time to digest your food and learn when you are truly satisfied.
2. Decreased Cravings
Mindfulness is also associated with decreased cravings and is often used as an effective approach to treating food addiction (8).
Mindful eating helps us identify the emotion or physiological connected to when you feel a craving or desire; self-awareness is a great first step towards a balanced relationship with your body and mind.
If you are eating mindfully, you tend to enjoy your food more and feel more satisfied. In addition, you tend to make better food choices overall.
3. Better Body Image
Your relationship with food can also impact your relationship with yourself.
Research suggests that those who practice mindful eating tend to be more compassionate to themselves and are less likely to reward themselves with unhealthy food, leading to improved body image and more self-love (8).
So many people go into a diet thinking weight loss will help them feel better about themselves, and for some, it does due to increased confidence, but it’s not the only thing that matters.
Practicing mindfulness can help you cultivate gratitude and self-awareness for the present moment, learning to love yourself in the process.
4. Improved Nutrition
Awareness of what you eat goes beyond enjoying your food. Not only can mindful eating help you eat fewer calories, but it might also help you make healthier food choices too.
Research suggests that those who practice mindfulness when it comes to their diet are more likely to choose nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables, have a higher intake of fiber, and lower intakes of sugar (12,13).
5. Increased Willpower and Motivation
The benefits of mindfulness are even seen without intentional calorie counting. Just tuning in to your body more might help you stick to your diet better.
Removing stress and negative thinking around your food can also free up some of your willpower for other things like hitting the gym and avoiding unexpected temptations.
Positive vibes also fuel your motivation, leading to a better mindset about your health and your goals.
How to Start Eating Mindfully
You can learn mindful eating using a few tricks for slowing down and thinking things through.
Let's go back to the mandarin... I'll wait while you grab a piece of fruit (or try this during your next meal or snack). Take a moment to stop and ask yourself the following:
Why are You Hungry?
Are you truly hungry or is it just that time of day? Or perhaps, there is just food around that looks good.
Take a moment to think about what is driving you to eat at this particular moment and take note of any behavior that is not helping you move towards your goals.
There is nothing wrong with eating when you're not hungry or eating for pleasure, but make sure you are aware of why you are doing it and do your best to make it a positive experience free of guilt and any negative emotions.
Are You Distracted?
Many of us eat on the run, at our work desk, or even in the car. Not only does this mean we aren’t paying attention to our meal, but we don't appreciate it either.
Try making your meal or snack more of an event. Set a table for yourself, go somewhere calming and relaxing (like outside), and leave your phone and laptop behind.
Treat the act of eating as an act of self-care. You are taking the time to provide for yourself. This is your time to show yourself some love and fuel your body with nutritious and delicious food.
Mindful eating practices help us build better relationships with ourselves and others as we slow down and take time to honor our health and wellness.
What Benefits Does This Choice Bring You?
It can be easy to focus on the negative when it comes to dieting and all the things you should avoid, but you shouldn't ignore the positives. In fact, when building a meal plan or transforming your diet focus on what you enjoy eating and go from there!
A great judge of choices that works for you at any given time, could be finding a reason to eat it. Is it a source of protein, fiber, or key nutrients you'll benefit from?
If you're making a choice, does one item have more benefits than the other, even regardless of calories? This is the practice of eating with intention and making choices that improve your overall diet by adding to it.
What Does the Food Look Like?
Smell Like? Feel like? Taste like? Sound like when you eat it? Take note of all your senses involved and try to experience each one.
This is the art of savoring every bite and taking your time which can help you slow down, digest your meal better, and take in this moment of food meditation to its fullest.
How Does This Food Make You Feel?
Pay attention to the foods that make you feel great from the inside out. And choose more options that energize you, don't make you feel bloated or weighed down, and make you feel good about the decision you made.
If you find yourself feeling bloated, sluggish, or irritable after a meal, then you may be experiencing food sensitivities or digestive issues and those foods probably are not right for you. Knowing what you are eating and how you feel can help you make healthy choices and feel energized after every meal.
Did you track your intake?
Keeping a food diary or tracking your food is a great way to keep yourself accountable and practice mindful eating just from writing it down.
Practice these behaviors when you eat. Remove distractions and train yourself to think differently about your food, to take more time for yourself, and to make eating better more of a priority.
There are many different ways to track your calories or macros, and don't feel like you have to commit to this for life.
Tracking your food intake for a minimum of 3 days can help you start to understand how much you eat, what you are eating, and connect it back to how you feel after each meal or snack.
Simple Mindful Eating Practices
Think of mindful eating as another form of meditation. Like any health and wellness habit, time and practice equal results. Here's a list of ways to continue to expand your mindful eating awareness:
- Plan your meals ahead and plan on eating at a set location.
- Slow down your eating process, savoring the food and flavor.
- Pause before making a food choice to notice what you are feeling. If the urge isn't about hunger, redirecting the energy to another activity can help prevent undesirable choices.
- Put away all other distractions at mealtimes.
- Be curious about your food, where it came from, and who grew it.
- Explore gratitude for your food and what it does for your health.
- Check-in with your body after each bite. Have you had enough? Do you need more? How do you feel?
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