What Is Mindful Eating?

Updated June 10, 2022
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Mindful eating is the practice of bringing all of your attention to your food by engaging your senses to find true joy in the eating experience. It is an exercise in self-nourishment that has its foundation in Buddhist teachings.

Today, mindful eating exercises are used by people who want to fully enjoy their food. Some people use mindful eating for weight loss. But there are many benefits to this practice that have nothing to do with body weight or a number on the scale. Mindful eating exercises can help you form a new relationship with food and heighten your eating experience at mealtime.

What Is Mindful Eating?

Mindfulness and mindful practices have become a popular trend. But the concept dates back about 2500 years when it originated in ancient eastern and Buddhist philosophy. Buddhist traditions sought to cultivate "sati" a form of mental stability that prevents attention from being captured by distractors. It wasn't until the 1800s that "sati" was renamed by the English, and the term "mindfulness" was born.

Mindfulness

There is no singular definition for mindfulness. In fact, some researchers who study it say that the term is vague and is often used as a catch-all term for any practice that focuses on inward attention and focus. In general, however, being mindful can be thought of as becoming fully aware in the present moment and accepting your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations without judgment.

Today, practices such as mindfulness meditation and mindful journaling are incorporated into mental health treatments in clinical settings. And mindful practices are used by millions of people who simply want to enjoy more focus and calm throughout their daily routines. Mindfulness is also a method for self-calming.

Mindful Eating

One area where mindfulness can be applied is in our relationship to food. Some researchers have found that practicing mindfulness at mealtime can have an impact on how and what we eat and on our enjoyment of the eating process. According to one researcher, mindful eating is "paying attention to our food, on purpose, moment by moment, without judgment."

For example, a typical meal experience might involve grabbing food from the counter or refrigerator, eating it on the go, and washing it down by gulping water from a bottle. But mindful eating would include a heightened sensory experience. You might plate your food to make it visually appealing. Even if you are drinking water, you might put it in a stemmed glass. You take time to enjoy the smell of your food before eating it and then savor the texture and flavor of each bite.

Mindful Eating vs. Intuitive Eating

Another current trend in nutrition is intuitive eating. While the two practices share certain concepts, mindful eating and intuitive eating are two different things.

Intuitive eating is the practice of choosing foods intentionally that serve your body's needs. It is about listening to your body's cues and honoring them with whatever satisfies you. Intuitive eating involves ten specific practices that seek to reject diet culture and respect your body. Both mindful eating and intuitive eating encourage you to enjoy food without guilt or judgment

6 Principles of Mindful Eating

Through the practice of being present with your food and enjoying every bite, proponents of mindful eating believe you can reduce your cravings, lose weight, and improve digestion. These principles can also help you develop a healthier relationship with food.

  1. Choose food that is nourishing for your particular body. Be conscious of where your food is coming from. Would your great-grandmother recognize it as food? Evaluate if it will contribute to your physical and emotional health or detract from it.
  2. Prepare your food in a mindful way. Connect with your food through the process of preparing it. Set aside time to prepare your meals in a stress-free area (as much as possible). Work to put love, nourishment, and inspiration into the food you prepare for yourself and your family.
  3. Remove distractions. Eating mindfully means removing distractions while eating. Avoid watching TV, talking, driving, working, or reading your email. The best way to practice this is to pick a time when you will be eating alone. Some retreat centers offer silent group mealtimes to facilitate being fully present while you eat.
  4. Engage all five senses while eating. Be present with your food. In his popular 'raisin consciousness' meditation exercise, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. shows you how to engage not only your senses of taste and smell when you eat, but also your senses of touch, sight, and sound.
  5. Chew your food well. We often inhale our food without really thinking about it. Try chewing each bite 20 to 50 times as a practice. It may seem difficult, but it might just awaken your taste buds, illuminate how quickly you normally chew and increase your appreciation of your food.
  6. Eat slowly. Try putting your fork down between bites. This way, you will naturally tune in to the feedback from your body about when you are hungry and when you are full.

Mindful Eating and Weight Loss

Sporty woman eating salad on lake pier

There have been hundreds of studies conducted on the practice of mindful eating and its effect on weight loss. But research results have been somewhat inconsistent.

For instance, a study published in the scientific journal Appetite, found that mindful eating helps reduce portion sizes. Since it takes 20 minutes for your brain to register that your belly is full, when you eat slower and chew your food well, you are likely to feel full on less food.

There is also some evidence that mindful eating can have an impact on body mass index, and body weight. A large-scale research review conducted in 2018 explored the relationship between mindful eating and the treatment of obesity. Researchers concluded that there is enough evidence to support the inclusion of mindful eating in weight management programs as it provides benefits to those who are overweight or have obesity.

But there has also been evidence suggesting that mindful eating doesn't affect your overall food intake. For example, in 2022 research scientists examined the effects of mindful eating on the total food intake of healthy-weight women over a period of three days. A total of 99 women took part in the study and they were randomly assigned to either a mindful eating group, a group that was told to eat without distractions, or a group that was given no instructions on how to eat.

At the end of the three days, scientists found that eating without distraction and mindful eating had no impact on total food intake. They also added that it had no effect on the amount of saturated fat, added sugar, fiber, or fruit and vegetables consumed.

But these findings don't mean that you shouldn't incorporate mindful eating into your comprehensive plan to reach or maintain a healthy weight. Mindful eating has no side effects, like some dietary supplements, diet pills, or restrictive eating plans. In addition, mindful eating elevates the eating experience. If you want your nutrition plan to be sustainable, making it enjoyable is likely to help you reach that goal.

Mindful Eating Benefits

If simply enjoying your food isn't reason enough to try mindful eating, consider these other benefits that you might enjoy as a result of eating mindfully.

Improves Digestion

Studies have shown that mindful eating can improve digestion and overall digestive health. Researchers believe that the practice helps to reduce the stress response in the body to achieve greater homeostasis or balance, which in turn, improves gut health.

In more simple terms, engaging all your senses before starting to eat improves digestion of your food. Have you ever smelled onions cooking in oil or a delicious tomato sauce simmering and started to salivate? This gets your salivary amylase flowing, which is a digestive enzyme that begins to break down the food in your mouth. Chewing your food well, especially whole grains like brown rice, quinoa and oats, helps you to better assimilate nutrients.

Case studies also suggest that mindful eating may be helpful to those with digestive disorders such as acid reflux and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but more research is needed to fully understand the relationship.Reduce Cravings

Promotes a Healthier Relationship With Food

Certain eating behaviors, such as restrictive eating (crash dieting), emotional eating, and binge eating can have serious physical and psychological effects. Researchers have found that incorporating mindfulness practices can help reduce these behaviors and help people to improve their relationships with food.

According to Dr. Jan Chozen Bays, author of Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food, mindful eating is a powerful process that helps you tune in to your cravings and hunger levels. It brings awareness to what you are really craving.

Quick Mindful Eating Exercises

If you're ready to incorporate mindfulness into your eating practices, try one of these exercises.

Food Meditation

First, minimize distractions: turn off the TV, sit at the table, only discuss positive topics, and resist the urge to work or go on the computer, phone, or iPad while eating.

  1. Put your plate in front of you and don't touch your fork.
  2. Look at your food and examine it.
  3. Sit with your food and place your hands over it to feel its energy.
  4. Close your eyes.
  5. Take a deep breath and smell your food. Think about what it will taste like, the love put into making it, and the people who harvested your food and got it to the supermarket.
  6. Open your eyes.
  7. Take a bite, and remember to chew your food slowly and mindfully.
  8. Put your fork down in between bites to force you to eat slower.

Other Exercises

  • Use chopsticks to slow down your eating.
  • Light a candle before cooking dinner or before sitting down to eat.
  • Place flowers at the dinner table to encourage a beautiful environment in which to dine.

Remember that eating with mindfulness is not intended specifically to change what you eat or how much you eat. In fact, it is about eating what you want and enjoying the experience without judgment. You may find, however, that using all of your senses at mealtime helps you to make healthier and more nutritious food choices.

If you plan to use mindful eating for weight loss, try to incorporate the practice into a comprehensive plan with a balanced diet and regular physical activity. You may also want to meet with a registered dietitian to help you develop a meal plan that is not only enjoyable but also will help you reach your goal.

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