What is mindful eating?
Mindfulness means being present in the moment, noticing the sensations, feelings, and thoughts that arise without judgment. It’s both a practice and a way of life that can be applied to all parts of our daily activities, such as eating. Mindful eating means bringing our attention to our food, to ourselves as we eat, and the sensations we feel during our meal. It’s an awareness of our food and the action of eating. We become fully present for the eating experience, enjoying our meals as we practice mindful eating.
The purpose of mindful eating is broader and more meaningful than diets, calories, or weight loss. Those terms are highly popular nowadays, urging us to follow diets, ignore our bodies' needs, and so disconnect from ourselves. The more we follow restrictive diets the less we stop to listen to our body and our mind. Mindful eating is a way of connecting with ourselves through eating, which is vital for our survival.
Do you eat to live, or do you live to eat? You might be very into food, cooking and tasting various cuisines. Or you might think that it doesn’t matter as long as something goes into your stomach today.
Why do we need mindful eating?
Often, eating is accompanied by another activity: watching something, studying, reading, talking to someone, checking our phones, and so on. When was the last time you just ate without doing anything else? Often, we don’t notice if we’re enjoying our food or if we’re full because we’re not actively paying attention. We automatically put pieces of food into our mouth until our meal is finished.
“I don’t even remember what I ate yesterday!” Sometimes we say things like this to indicate that we weren’t paying attention to what we consider the small details of our day, but this sentence tells us more than that. It’s not that our memory is terrible but rather that we don’t pay enough attention while we’re eating and we don’t successfully encode the moment in our memory. Eating can be a joyous experience in which we taste good food and savor the entire eating experience.
How do you practice mindful eating?
Listen to your needs. What do you want to eat? Why do you want to eat? Are you hungry, are you bored, or are you upset? It’s okay to eat when you’re not physically hungry. Without judgment, just notice the motivation behind your eating behavior. Sometimes we ignore our hunger when we're busy, distracted, or stressed, so it’s important to check in with yourself emotionally as well. Our bodies are different and some of us might be more sensitive to certain food groups.
How would you feel about giving all of your attention to the action of eating, to the experience of the meal? Mindful eating is a very simple practice: The only thing you need to do is basically savor your food and notice the feelings that crop up throughout that action.
- Observe the room, the table, and eating utensils. Notice where and how you sit.
- Focus on all your senses. See, smell, touch, taste, and even hear any sounds that come from what you’re eating.
- Take small bites and chew each bite slowly, focusing on the taste and texture of the piece of food.
- Swallow and visualize the food going from your mouth to your stomach.
- Check in with yourself and how you feel. Do you want to eat more or are you satisfied?
- Notice if you’re getting bored or if you attempt to distract yourself while eating. Try to watch your mind's way of working without judgment. Notice if you find it hard to just eat while doing nothing else.
What are the benefits of mindful eating?
Mindful eating can be very helpful when it comes to noticing your body’s needs and attending to them. It encourages you to take gentle steps toward yourself even in other contexts.
Mindful eating is associated with fewer depressive symptoms and greater overall mental well-being. An interesting finding is that individuals who participated in a mindful eating task reported that they enjoyed their food more. You tend to like your food more when you eat mindfully. You’ll be more attentive to your body’s messages and you’re less likely to experience drowsiness because you’ll recognize when you need to stop eating.
A structured review published by Cambridge University summarized findings that mindful eating is most effective creating eating behaviors based on internal bodily cues, rather than external cues. Mindfulness-based practices enhance awareness and insight, enabling us to rely on those internal cues to help us meet our own needs. Mindful eating can also be used in the context of unhealthy eating behaviors, such as eating disorders, in order to help repair relationships with food and eating.
Further, mindful eating has been used in clinical settings to treat obesity and compulsive overeating behavior as it enhances individual psychological capacity to self-regulate and lessen impulsive eating behavior. It’s been found that mindful eating alleviated some psychological distress and established healthy eating behaviors for obese populations.
Our Relationship with Food
Mindful eating can help you be more aware of your relationship with food. Food is a way to satisfy our most basic needs. We may associate food or eating with complex emotions or situations. For example, we tend to eat more and choose foods rich in fat and sugar when we are stressed or anxious. Mindful eating can be a great way to learn more about yourself and your connection to food.
What’s the difference between mindful eating and intuitive eating?
Intuitive eating is an anti-diet approach, created in 1995 by two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. It rejects all external rules based on eating habits. Intuitive eating encourages us to listen to our bodies, honoring and respecting our hunger and fullness. It’s argued that we’re born as intuitive eaters but we’re taught arbitrary rules to decide when, what, and how much to eat. You can begin to trust your intuitions by unlearning these rules of society as you practice intuitive eating.
What intuitive eating and mindful eating have in common is that they both encourage us to listen to ourselves, noticing the feelings and sensations that arise when we think about or consume food. On the other hand, intuitive eating carries this practice forward from a more sociocultural point of view, rejecting diets and rules.
Mindful and intuitive eating lessen the effect of society’s expectations on our bodies and allow us to accept and love ourselves as we are. The scale or the shape of our bodies tells us nothing about our health and we’re so much more than our physical appearances.
Meditation for Mindful Eating
Follow those steps above and continuously check in with your breath and your senses. Compare your feelings before, during, and after eating. Ask yourself how you feel when you’re hungry versus how you feel when you’re satiated. This kind of reflection is a great way to notice how your mind behaves differently depending on its needs. All of your feelings, senses, and thoughts transform and change. Let the experience of mindful eating guide you toward mindfulness in other parts of your life as well, naming and attending to all of your needs.
Meditopia offers a meditation series called “Eating Behaviors” to help you enjoy your food even more.