Mindfulness is a topic that has been gaining a lot of traction lately (for good reason!). The approach is also becoming popular when it comes to eating well and is referred to as mindful eating. Let's deep dive into what mindful eating means, why it's so important, and some practical tips to incorporate it into your daily routine.
Many of us lead fast-paced lives, and if we are not busy thinking about yesterday, we are probably busy planning for tomorrow. When we fixate on the past and future, we are likely not paying a lot of attention to the present. Sounds familiar?
The practice of mindfulness is simply an invitation to step out of the chaos in our minds and zero in on what we are sensing and feeling in the moment without judgment. It's the act of being present. Sounds simple enough in principle, but think about it: when was the last time you felt truly in the present, without your mind racing elsewhere? We are so caught up constantly thinking about our tasks, upcoming meetings, browsing social media or reading emails, that it can be truly challenging to just stop for a moment, and be here and now.
This is no different when it comes to our eating habits. We tend to eat on the go, in a hurry, or simply distracted by watching TV or browsing our phones. The concept of mindful eating is not new among health professionals, but it's important for everyone to become familiar with its concept and benefits. Just like mindfulness overall has positive effects on our minds and how we handle things, mindful eating not only helps us develop a healthy relationship with food and our bodies, but it promotes many health benefits that can help us resolve various symptoms we experience as a consequence to the way we eat (that you wouldn't even think are connected!)
What is Mindful Eating?
In essence, mindful eating is the act of being present and attentive to our food and eating experience, and being aware of our senses while eating. This approach helps our relationship with food by becoming more attuned to our bodies during the eating process.
The intention of mindful eating is to help us understand and enjoy the food we eat.
What Are The Benefits of Mindful Eating?
There is much research associated with the benefits of mindful eating, most notably the pioneering works of Jon Kabat-Zinn (leader of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School). The mindful eating method helps us understand why different diet approaches aren't effective in the long term. Simply put, most diets fail to focus on behavior change.
Since its introduction into dietary behavior change programming, mindful eating has become a successful strategy that improves individual success.
Some of the key benefits include:
Reduced gas and bloating after meals
Reduced stress-eating and anxiety
Improved self-control around foods
Improved nutritional intake
Improved weight loss results
You can experience the benefits of mindful eating almost immediately, so if you give it a shot, a few simple exercises can make a true difference in how you feel. Keep in mind that mindful eating looks different for everyone and will take some time for it to come naturally. However, below I describe 5 simple exercises you can learn to incorporate mindful eating into your daily routine.
Habit #1: The Raisin Exercise
The raisin exercise is a good starting point for mindful eating. It’s a sensual food experience that helps tune sight, touch, smell, and taste; becoming fully aware of the moment. This exercise is designed to introduce your senses into the act of eating, helping you savor and experience the foods you eat.
Give it a try:
Take a raisin and hold it in the palm of your hand or between your finger and thumb (feel free to substitute the raisin with any other food that you have at hand, like an apple).
Sight: Take time to really focus on it; gaze at the raisin with care and full attention. Let your eyes explore every part of it, examining the shape, color, texture, and any imperfections.
Touch: Move the raisin around between your fingers, feeling the texture. Try this with your eyes closed to enhance your sense of touch. Is it hard, soft, sticky, dry? Does it make a sound as it moves between your fingers?
Smell: Hold the raisin near your nose. Inhale the aroma and notice how your body reacts.
Taste: Place the raisin between your lips and just hold it there for a few seconds. How does that make you react? Move it into your mouth, but don’t chew yet…is there a taste? What’s happening inside your mouth? How does that make you feel?
Finally, slowly begin to chew, noticing what each bite feels, and tastes like. Move it around your mouth. Chew the raisin into mush before you swallow. How does it feel as the raisin travels to your stomach?
Sense how your body as a whole is feeling after you have completed this exercise.
Habit #2: Ask "Why"?
The human body creates many prompts to tell us when to take action. One of these prompts can be described as a ‘rumbly stomach’ or ‘hunger pangs’, which tells us that we are hungry, and our body needs more energy. If we don’t respond to the natural ‘hunger’ prompts we may experience low blood sugar levels and feel unwell. Because hunger is a physical feeling, we can satisfy the prompts easily with any type of food source.
However, things become complicated when our mind gets involved. Psychological hunger, as it is known, pushes us towards snacking and overeating. It comes from the emotional desire to eat, with no physical signs that your body needs energy. This is associated with cravings, boredom and emotional eating.
Understand how you are feeling before you eat. Are you eating out of boredom, comforting an emotional state, satisfying a desire, or responding to your body’s physical needs?
Research suggests that boredom is the most common reason for psychological hunger. If you catch yourself craving some snacks due to boredom, the act of removing yourself from the situation that prompted the desire to snack, will satisfy your psychological desire to eat. This can be as simple as going for a walk or changing the playlist or asking ‘why do I want to snack?’. Recognizing your patterns gives you the power to take control of unnecessary cravings and replace them with another behavior. Get up and walk around, distract your mind with something useful, or simply drink a glass of water.
Habit #3: Slow Down
After you start eating, it can take up to 20 minutes for your body to decode the signs of fullness. Slowing down when consuming food will allow enough time for your gut and brain to communicate. This will also help reduce overeating, and aid in better digestion.
Here are a few tips that can help:
Set a timer - Before you begin dinner in the evening, set a timer on your phone for 20 minutes. Take a few deep breaths to center yourself and try to take 20 minutes to eat your meal. Relax, and focus on your food. If you find it difficult to sit down and make a meal last for a whole 20 minutes, put your fork down between each bite.
Pause - If you pay attention, you will notice many people who shovel bites of food into their mouths even before they have swallowed the previous bite. Instead, take the time to breathe between each bite and make sure you have fully swallowed the previous bites before taking your next bite. If you still struggle to pause, leave the table to fetch a glass of water. Or step outside and take three deep breaths, then return to your meal.
Another tip: experiment with using different utensils. A smaller spoon or fork will help you to take smaller bites.
Chew for 20 - Did you know that your saliva plays an important part in digestion? By chewing up your food, you are kicking off the digestion process in your mouth, where it’s supposed to begin. Try to chew 15-20 times before swallowing. This may feel like an eternity right away but keep practicing - your digestion will thank it later.
Habit #4: Remove Distractions
Distracted eating is not uncommon nowadays, as we often eat in a hurry, watching TV or Youtube, or browsing the news. A review of 24 studies by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that distracted eating encouraged people to consume more food throughout the day, and led to a poor relationship with eating.
Applying the mindful eating principle, we can avoid the distraction trap. Instead of eating on the go, in front of the computer or television, or while you are scrolling, sit at a table in a quiet and peaceful environment, where you can give your meal your undivided attention.
This practice will help you to engage your senses and direct your attention to the taste, texture, shape, aroma, and sound of your food. Try to identify the different ingredients and flavors in your meal, focus on how the food feels in your mouth, observe the shapes, colors and textures on your plate.
Habit #5: Appreciation and Gratitude
Gratitude exercise is a core part of any mindfulness practice with proven benefits. Next time you eat, take a deep breath and pause. Take a moment to reflect on everything and everyone involved in the process of bringing your meal to the table. Silently express your gratitude for the opportunity to enjoy a delicious meal, whether it be on your own, or in the company of others.
Remember: it's okay if your mind wanders, it's not easy to focus on the present moment! Recognize it, accept it, and then bring your attention right back to the eating experience.
As you become more practiced, mindful eating will become more natural. You will learn to eat mindfully in a variety of settings, alone, and with others. This will not only help you become more in-tune with your body and aid your digestion, but will empower you to make food choices that bring you both pleasure and better nourishment.
Sources & Further Reading:
Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5556586/
Mindful Eating: A Review Of How The Stress-Digestion-Mindfulness Triad May Modulate
and Improve Gastrointestinal And Digestive Function: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7219460/
An Exploratory Study of a Meditation-based Intervention for Binge Eating Disorder: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/135910539900400305
Today’s Dietitian - Mindful Eating — Studies Show This Concept Can Help Clients Lose Weight
and Better Manage Chronic Disease https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/030413p42.shtml
Eating when bored: revision of the emotional eating scale with a focus on boredom: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22004466/
Eating attentively: a systematic review and meta-analysis of the effect of food intake memory
and awareness on eating: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3607652/