Not to be confused with the MIND diet, mindful eating refers to a technique that allows you to gain control over your eating habits. It’s based on a Buddhist concept of mindfulness, hence the name.
With the overabundance of food choices, it’s harder than ever to stick to diets. Many individuals end up overeating as well. Screens play a dominant role in our lives, and we often eat in front of a screen. This distraction takes away from the meal and typically causes people to overeat.
Moreover, it takes 20 minutes (sometimes longer) to for our brains to realize we are full. So if you are distracted and scarfing down food, you will end up eating way more than you should have.
The reason mindfulness eating works is because it causes changes in behavior. On diets, many people think they are changing behaviors, but few really do. Sticking to a plan eventually fails individuals go back to their bad habits. Mindfulness eating forces you to truly think about your feelings and emotions every time you eat. Getting real with yourself when you eat, it turns out, works.
Joseph B. Nelson’s article called Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat, does a great job discussing the origin of the practice and how to effectively practice mindfulness eating. According to Nelson, Jon Kabat-Zinn was the developer and leader of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He defines mindfulness as ‘” paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgementally’” (Nelson 2017).
In essence, mindful eating is an approach to eating that focuses on sensual awareness, not content. Those who focus on carbs, fat, and calories won’t develop the proper eating habits. One of the biggest takeaways from the article is the statement, “Mindfulness is a process-oriented, rather than outcome-driven behavior”. This really hit home on what mindful eating is all about.
Nelson recalls learning mindful eating from Kabat-Zinn and explains the exercise they did with a raisin. While it may seem silly and lengthy, this is the sort of process you should be going through for your meals. Here is the experience Nelson recalls:
- Get a raisin and set it down in front of you. STOP; do not throw a handful of raisins into your mouth. (OK, so there is a rule, but there is a good reason, which you will understand soon.)
- Imagine you have just been dropped off on this planet, and you know nothing about where you are. You have never experienced anything from Earth. With no experience, there are no judgments, fears, or expectations. It is all new to you. Take a few deep breaths and relax.
- Look at the raisin and pick it up.
- Feel its weight.
- Examine its surface—the various ridges, shiny parts, dull parts; really look for the first time at this strange object.
- Smell this object and notice how you react.
- Roll the raisin between your fingers and listen to hear what sound it makes. Notice its stickiness.
- Notice what you are feeling about this object.
- Place the raisin between your lips and just hold it there for a few moments. What do you notice happens inside you?
- Let it roll back into your mouth, but do not chew yet, just roll it around. Is there a taste? Do you salivate? What do you want to do?
- OK, bite down, just once. What do you notice?
- Slowly begin to chew, noticing what each bite brings.
- Chew the raisin until it is completely liquefied before you swallow.
- After swallowing, close your eyes for a few moments to notice the consequence of what you just experienced.
Just reading all the steps gives you a bigger appreciation for food. Personally, I felt the weight and importance of food more when doing these steps. Everyone will feel different, so be in the moment and focus on the sensual experiences. Here are some suggestions to help eat mindfully:
- Before you reach for any food, stop and take a few moments to note how you are feeling. Why did you reach for that particular food? Oftentimes it isn’t about hunger and stopping to realize this can help you choose other options than eating.
- Eat intentionally. Put any distractions like your phone or laptop away.
- Appreciate the food. Think about the entire process that led to that food being in front of you.
- Savor each bite!
- See how you feel after each bite. Do you need more or is it time to stop?
By now you should have a good idea about how to start eating mindfully. I mentioned earlier that weight loss shouldn’t be the driving factor for this approach, but it could be a benefit. Next, we’ll discuss the benefits of mindful eating.
Mindful Eating Benefits
While weight loss shouldn’t be the driving factor for mindful eating, it can certainly be a benefit of the practice. Nelson states that of the 19 studies she reviewed on mindful eating, 13 resulted in weight loss. This is pretty significant, but further research is needed to specifically correlate the two.
The main benefits of mindful eating include avoiding binge eating and turning unhealthy habits into healthy ones. Binge eating often occurs because of mindless eating, so being more present when eating will help resolve this. One study proved the power of mindful eating on binge eating: episodes decreased from 4 times a week to just 1.5 times.
Binge eating is also associated with unhealthy eating habits. Think about the times you binge ate the past week. Most of those binge-eating episodes will involve unhealthy food choices. There are two common cues for unhealthy eating habits. The first is our emotions. We often laugh at TV shows where a character devours a pint of cream after heartbreak. These unhealthy habits transfer over and during times of emotional stress, we reach for those unhealthy snacks and foods. Being more mindful can help you realize that you don’t need that gallon of ice cream.
The second cue is our environment. We are surrounded by a plethora of food and just seeing all this food makes us hungry. Besides sight, our environmental cues include smell. Ever smell something that makes your mouth water? Sometimes we shouldn’t eat but our environmental cues “force” us to eat. Mindful eating can help us make better decisions on the whim.
Mindful eating provides a mental benefit as well. Investing yourself in mindful eating builds character and discipline, giving you more self-esteem. Besides this, these habits will carry over to other aspects of your life, making you a more mindful person in general.
The mindful eating challenge is a great idea for anyone, whether they have good control of eating already or not. Try it for a week and really reflect on how you feel. Odds are you will enjoy how you feel and start to practice mindful eating every day.
Nelson, Joseph B. “Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat.” Diabetes spectrum : a publication of the American Diabetes Association vol. 30,3 (2017): 171-174. doi:10.2337/ds17-0015