The first bite is always the best—mouth watering in anticipation, a novel flavor on a clean palate, and the sweet moment when a craving seems to be satisfied—but have you noticed how quickly those feelings dissipate? After the fourth or fifth bite, you likely aren’t enjoying your food anymore. Your thoughts have turned to the chores left at home, work you haven’t finished, or the TV show you’re watching.
When people discuss eating habits, the conversation is largely focused on physical health and wellness: your dietary choices and how much you are consuming. The practice of mindful eating takes a holistic approach, with attention to physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental well-being. Eating plays an important role in our daily schedules and social lives, and yet we don’t enjoy it as much as we could. This essential aspect of our lives has become tainted by the stress of daily life, diet culture that promotes disordered eating, and our propensity to constantly multi-task.
Thankfully, mindful eating is a simple and free method to avoid mindless eating. While it may be simple, it does take practice, discipline, and dedication. However, the benefits are well worth the effort.
What is mindful eating?
Mindful eating is based on the Buddhist practice of mindfulness; it is the cultivation of awareness and gratitude before, while, and after you eat. This mindfulness-based practice encourages full attention to your food in order to completely enjoy the experience and create a healthy relationship with food. Mindful eating has been shown to have positive effects on physical and mental health.
What is the difference between mindful eating and intuitive eating?
Intuitive eating has gained popularity in recent years and is very similar to mindful eating. They both emphasize listening to your body and practicing self-compassion. However, intuitive eating differs in that it was created as a rejection of diet culture—which is a scam—and is in no way intended for weight loss. The focus is on helping those who struggle with disordered eating to find peace with food and honor their body.
Intuitive eating can be practiced in tandem with mindful eating if you are struggling with body image, constantly restricting or trying new diets, and want to improve overall well-being.
Benefits of mindful eating
There are numerous physical and mental health benefits of mindful eating. Some people pay hundreds of dollars to fix some of the problems addressed below. Thankfully, mindful eating is completely free!
1. Improve eating disorders
Mindful eating can potentially help with eating disorders such as binge eating and help with overeating. If you struggle with your food intake and feel out of control when eating, mindfulness could help.
2. Find a healthy weight
Mindful eating is not designed for weight loss, however many people have found that through this approach they have found a healthy weight for themselves. Whether someone is struggling with obesity or undereating, mindful eating may help with weight management.
3. Improve mental health
Mindfulness practices are known to improve mental well-being and even help with serious mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. By slowing down the eating process you allow yourself a chance to relax which can ease stress and positively impact your mental state.
4. Improve digestion
Mindful eating encourages you to eat slower which improves the digestive process. When food isn’t digested properly this can lead to bloating, constipation, weight changes, abdominal pain, and other negative effects.
5. Eat healthier
As you become more mindful of how food impacts you mentally and physically, you will likely opt for healthier options that make you feel better. You will also reduce emotional eating which often drives people to choose high-fat or sugar options. This is not to demonize fat or sugar—everything in moderation—but primarily ingesting high-fat and sugar foods won’t help with good health.
6. Enjoy your food more
Mindful eating increases gratitude for food and elevates the eating experience. You are actually tasting, savoring, and enjoying the meal, rather than mindlessly stuffing it down.
How to practice mindful eating
Mindful eating is an all-encompassing practice that involves mindfulness while preparing the food (or waiting for food to arrive), appreciation while eating, and noticing how you feel after you have finished.
It also helps to establish a daily meditation practice to be more mindful in general. The benefits of mindfulness and meditation extend far beyond eating practices and are excellent for spiritual, physical, and mental well-being.
1. Notice what is behind your hunger cue
It is important to be in tune with your body and understand your hunger cues. Ask yourself if you are experiencing physical hunger or if it is emotional eating. Common emotions that trigger our craving for food are anxiety, boredom, fatigue, or sadness. Oftentimes, we don’t even realize that we are emotional eating, which perpetuates the problem.
2. Be compassionate with food cravings
Don’t shame yourself for wanting the Ben & Jerry’s bucket of ice cream, we all know it tastes good! Instead, simply observe the craving without judgment. Use self-compassion when noticing your food choices, it never helps to make yourself feel bad for your cravings.
Instead of seeing food as good or bad, try adopting a more curious attitude. Replace thoughts like, “I shouldn’t be eating this donut, I’m so bad” with an honest reflection on how the food is actually making you feel, stripped of societal influence and deeply engrained fatphobia. Reflections such as “Wow, this donut is really yummy and I feel happy and satisfied” or “That donut was good but made me sleepy” are much more productive. This way you can create a relationship with food that is based on how it makes you feel rather than how it will affect your weight and physical appearance.
3. Serve a smaller portion
Many of us have been trained to finish our whole plate from a young age, but this practice may lead to overeating as we grow older. Often our eyes are bigger than our stomachs as we fill up our plates and if you feel obligated to finish every last morsel, you will end up stuffed. To regulate food intake in a healthy manner, serve yourself a smaller amount of food; you can always go for seconds if you are still hungry.
4. Try deep breathing or a mindfulness meditation before the meal
Practice mindfulness through deep breathing or meditation if you need extra grounding before a meal. It can help you ease stress, and therefore eat less, as well as allow you to focus on the present moment and truly enjoy your food.
5. Don’t skip meals or restrict yourself (aka dieting)
Restricting foods and dieting in order to lose weight doesn’t work in the long run (in most cases)! It also creates an unhealthy relationship with food and your body. The more you restrict yourself the more likely it is for you to binge later on or create a hyperfixation on your food intake that negatively impacts the rest of your life.
6. Practice gratitude
Gratitude is key to cultivating happiness, one way to integrate this practice into your life is by being grateful for your food. Many people are privileged enough to eat clean and safe food, or even have it delivered to their doorstep, and yet it is often taken for granted.
Consider your meal on a wider scale: where are the ingredients from, who harvested or created this, how was it made, and who prepared it? You will realize how much time and energy went into the food, which hopefully makes you appreciate and savor the meal even more.
1. Eat slower
Focus on chewing slowly and taking your time finishing the meal. If it’s hard to eat at a slow pace, try putting your utensil down in between bites.
2. Choose the right eating environment
Avoid eating while standing, driving, or doing other activities. Ideally, you are seated in a calm environment with your spine straight but relaxed, like you are meditating. Your environment impacts you greatly, so ensure that the spot you choose to eat is conducive to relaxation.
3. Savor the experience of eating
Eating is supposed to be an enjoyable experience! Allow yourself to be grateful for the food and focus on the physical sensations that come with each bite. Using all five senses is also a way to fully immerse yourself in the eating experience. What are you smelling? What textures do you notice? What tastes arise? How is the food presented? Can you hear the meal sizzling or are there crunching sounds as you chew?
4. Stay in the moment
This is the most important step, and the key to mindfulness, stay in the present moment! Ground yourself in the present and try not to think about anything else. This means turning off the television, not multitasking, and resisting the urge to scroll through social media as you eat. Your full attention should be on the meal and how it makes you feel.
1. Be aware of your eating patterns
Notice your eating behaviors and reflect on whether you just ate because you were truly hungry or if it was emotional eating. Either is fine, but it is good to see the patterns. Some people even like to keep a food journal.
2. How did the food make you feel?
It is important to stay mindful even after the meal is finished. Notice your bodily sensations and psychological state; are you bloated, too full, energetic, sleepy, or happy? This reflection period is important because it enforces healthy eating as you notice how much better you feel after a balanced, nutritious, and delicious meal.
Disclaimer: This post is not medical advice. Please consult a dietitian, nutritionist, or medical professional if you have specific health conditions. Mindful eating is not intended to replace treatments for eating disorders.