The main purpose of mindful eating is to change your relationship with food. Mindful eating is anything but a “diet” — in fact, it’s basically the opposite! Changing the way you eat (as opposed to just what foods you eat) is not just about developing discipline over your food preferences or necessarily losing weight. Instead, it’s really about mastering control over your mind. When using mindfulness around food, you’re present and aware of your appetite as it changes so you naturally control portions, choose healthy options and avoid emotionally eating.
Mindful eating has been used to treat a wide range of eating issues, from the inability to lose or gain weight to binge eating, eating disorders and everything in between — after all, there are so many unhealthy ways to lose weight.
As Susan Albers, author of “Eating Mindfully,” puts it:
When you are eating chips mindfully, you take note of their consistency against your tongue and the pressure of your teeth grinding together. Mindful eating is feeling the food in your stomach and experiencing pleasure — or whatever you feel — from eating it. When you are watchful, you notice how your stomach expands and feels fuller while you are eating. You experience each bite from start to finish. You slow down every aspect of the eating process to be fully aware of its different parts.
When you practice mindful eating, you come to understand your own eating habits by recognizing reoccurring thinking patterns, emotional moods, and various types of hunger levels and cravings that can affect your appetite based on your emotions. So essentially, instead of allowing your feelings to rule your food choices mindlessly, you start becoming more in control of your health by being aware of all that affects your diet and stops you from eating mindfully — you begin the learn the simple steps to losing weight without being hungry.
As you probably already know, overeating and under-eating are both ways to distract you from your worries and help you cope with uncomfortable feelings. This is why many people eat for emotional reasons, rather than because they need more calories or nutrients.
5 Benefits of Mindful Eating
1. Better Control Over Your Weight
Like I mentioned earlier, mindful eating isn’t all about weight loss. The bottom line is that when you tune in to your body’s real needs and put an end to stressful or emotional eating, you naturally start improving your eating habits and likely the weight generally takes care of itself. That’s probably the best side effect of mindfulness around food!
Whether you’re trying to lose weight fast in an unhealthy way, overeating or under-eating, you have lost track of your real bodily cues to hunger and fullness. When you engage in mindless eating, you’re not meeting your body’s needs in some way — whether this means neglecting to eat a variety of healthy foods, eating in line with your real calorie needs or helping yourself cope with stress. It might mean that you eat portion sizes that are too large or processed and heavy “comfort foods” too often, which makes you gain weight. But for some people, not practicing mindfulness around food can also lead them to under-eat or just to eat the wrong types of things.
Either way, ignoring your body’s signals and need for healthy foods can result in weight fluctuations and health problems. Gaining unhealthy weight from overeating processed foods and failing to recognize it or deal with it in a positive way can lead to diabetes, obesity and heightened risk for various diseases. If you’re dieting, skipping breakfast or restricting certain foods beyond what’s healthy, you aren’t getting enough calories or nutrients, which is also harmful.
The good news is that if you’re someone who does need to lose weight, mindfulness is very likely to help. Mindfulness training has been incorporated increasingly into weight-loss programs to facilitate dietary and physical activity changes. Studies have even found that higher ratings on mindfulness-based tests are significantly inversely associated with unhealthy weight status and obesity.
Researchers from the Center for Nutrition Research at University of Paris followed a total of 14,400 men and 49,228 women over 18 years old as part of the 2015 NutriNet-Santé study observing mindfulness and weight. They collected mindfulness data using the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire as well as self-reported weight and height. The results showed that women with higher mindfulness scores were less likely to be overweight and obese. Men with higher mindfulness were less likely to be obese, although the association being overweight and less mindful was not strong enough to be considered significant.
Psychological and cognitive processes have a strong influence on dietary intake, as you’ve been reading. Another 2015 systematic review of 19 clinical studies involving mindfulness practices for weight loss found that the majority were effective in helping people lose weight. A total of eight randomized controlled trials were evaluated to determine the effects of mindfulness-based interventions on weight among individuals attempting weight loss. Among the eight studies published in peer-reviewed journals, six documented significant weight loss among participants in the mindfulness condition (one reported no significant change; the other one failed to report body mass, which means results could have been even stronger).
2. Less Stressing About Food
Stress can sabotage your diet and fitness goals. Everyone deals with emotional eating to some degree. That’s a part of being human! We all love to eat, enjoy different foods and find comfort in our favorite meals. But some people can manage the natural desire to eat delicious foods better than others, figuring out how to include occasional indulgences in an otherwise healthy eating plan.
Just eliminating emotional eating can impact your weight and health immensely because it stops a vicious cycle. Awareness can help you avoid stressful eating because it teaches you to respond to situations instead of just reacting to them. You recognize your cravings but don’t need to let them automatically control you or determine your decisions.
When you are more in tune with your emotions and how this drives your food choices, you stop eating when you are full and you eat more realistic portion sizes. Also, when you are more aware of stress’s impacts on you, you can stop automatic behaviors that lead to indulging — which for many people results in feelings of shame and then even more stress!
Chronic stress can kill your quality of life as you’ve probably witnessed. Stress-induced eating habits to break include grazing, constant snacking, craving chocolate and other carbs, or sugar addiction. You stop the cycle by noticing problematic thinking about food and start dealing with cravings before just giving in to them, which can lead to further guilt and overeating.
3. More Satisfaction from Eating
Mindful eating reconnects you with your body’s signals and senses. Mindful eating plugs you back in to your pleasure around foods without letting you lose control. While it might seem counterproductive to try and experience even more satisfaction from eating, the more we pay attention, the less food we usually need!
Think about it: When you pay attention to every second of eating something delicious, like warm chocolate cake, for example, usually a few bites do the trick. You recognize it tastes good, you realize how much you’ve already eaten and you remind yourself there’s always going to be another chance to have some again. But you don’t finish the whole plate because it’s in front of you, eat despite feeling full physically, feel guilty or tell yourself “this is my only chance to eat this.”
4. No Need to “Diet” Ever Again!
While weight loss can definitely happen as a result of mindful eating, the real goal is to focus on giving your body what it needs, remaining healthy and, of course, feeling good! When you eat just the right amount needed to make your body function, without giving it too much or too little, you naturally settle at a healthy weight without needing to follow any “diet plan.” Fad diets and one-size-fit-all plans usually don’t work long term because they don’t teach you to manage your emotions and preferences.
Mindful eating is radically different than any fat diet because it’s not about cutting out food groups or starving yourself. It’s something you do for the long term rather than something you go “on” and “off” of, and it teaches you to listen to your own body instead of just external pieces of advice.
5. Better Prevention and Management of Health-Related Conditions
According to certain studies, training in mindful eating can result in better self-management over diseases, including diabetes, digestive issues, eating disorders and more, that require specific dietary plans. For example, a 2013 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition Dietetics found significant improvements in quality of diet, modest weight loss and better glycemic control in diabetic patients after undergoing mindfulness-based training.
The availability of effective mindful eating treatments allowed diabetes patients better control over their own choices in meeting their self-care needs. In other words, mindfulness acted like a complimentary natural diabetes treatment when the diabetic patients became more aware of what they were eating, why they were eating, how much and what they could do to change. They better managed their food intake and blood sugar levels when becoming more attuned to their own habits.
Mindfulness-based approaches are also growing in popularity as interventions for disordered eating, such as binge eating, anorexia or “food addiction.” A 2014 review conducted by the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Rush University Medical Center found that after investigating 14 studies regarding mindfulness and eating disorders, mindful-based training showed positive results comparable to other standard intervention methods. Mindfulness helped reduce binge eating, emotional eating and/or unhealthy weight changes in populations engaging in these harmful behaviors.
Related: The Okinawa Diet: Foods + Habits that Boost Longevity
How Well Do You Practice Mindful Eating?
How do you know if you currently eat mindlessly or mindfully?
You know you practice mindful eating when:
- You’re actually aware of how you eat, what you eat, how much and why.
- You know your body’s true hunger and fullness signals and use them to gauge how much to eat. Your goal is always to help nourish your body and meet your hunger needs without overstuffing yourself.
- You eat when you feel actual physical hunger coming on. This includes a growling stomach, lower energy, maybe a shift toward moodiness. You’re open to eating different foods and don’t just have one specific thing in mind with the feeling that “only this one food will do right now.”
- You enjoy your food by sensing, tasting and savoring it. You don’t resent eating and don’t stress over meal times.
- You make choices based on both hunger level and your current preferences. For example, sometimes you might want a particular taste or even have a desire for a certain texture or temperature. You take this into account before eating so you can find more satisfaction from your meal.
- You pay attention to the process of eating by engaging different senses, such as smelling, noticing your hand picking up your fork, chewing and swallowing.
- You understand your emotional triggers and feelings that can lead you to eat when you’re not actually hungry — this way you can deal with them productively.
- You don’t feel guilty over occasionally eating the “wrong things” and try not to judge yourself. You accept your body and cravings without feeling shame, guilt or loss of control.
- You recognize and observe your own thoughts about food, your body and your dietary choices so you can let go of critical thoughts that can lead to binge eating.
- After eating, you observe how you feel. You recognize which foods work for you and those that don’t so you can adjust your choices next time.
- You acknowledge that you are in control of your food choices and “food is just food,” neither good or bad, until you label it as so.
Emotionally eating is basically the opposite of mindful eating. It’s led by stress, cravings, the desire to change or numb our feelings, or just simply from habit and eating on “autopilot.”
You know you emotionally eat when:
- You eat when triggered by emotions rather than actual true (physical) hunger.
- You continue eating despite feeling full.
- You eat as part of a routine that is automated and habitual but doesn’t require your attention. In other words, you eat “on autopilot” mindlessly.
- You often multitask while eating instead of paying attention and enjoying the experience. This might mean watching TV, cooking, emailing, reading, driving or anything else that takes away your attention.
- You frequently graze on food and snack but skip actual meals that require you to sit down and take your time.
- You ultimately ignore your body’s real hunger signals and physical cues. You might skip certain meals altogether (like breakfast or lunch while at work) because you “forgot to eat,” don’t have time or are in a rush.
- You ignore portion sizes and your appetite, instead eating everything on your plate just because it’s there.
- You feel like you’re almost eating as if in a trance, and once you’re finished, you feel like the meal never even happened.
- You ultimately believe that you have little or no control over food and your own body.
- You stress about food choices, label foods “good or bad,” criticize yourself, and rely on fad diets or other people to determine what and how much you eat.
Signs of Physical Hunger vs. Signs of Emotional Hunger
This one question alone can really help put the brakes on emotional eating: “Am I really hungry?” Another way to word it could be, “What am I really hungry for?”
These might seem like easy questions to answer, but we all know that at times it’s hard to tell! Many things can seem like true hunger, including thirst, boredom, stress, low energy and cravings. Ask yourself this question before digging in and you might be surprised to see the results.
How do we know when we do, in fact, need to eat?
Here are some ways that physical hunger and emotional hunger differ. Remember that real hunger grows gradually, while emotional hunger tends to come on all of a sudden.
Signs you’re experiencing physical hunger include:
- Your stomach growling
- Low energy
- A decent amount of time has passed since your last meal
- It’s roughly the time of day you usually feel hungry (especially true if you typically eat at regular intervals).
- You’re open to different foods instead of fixated on one specific thing. Think about doing “the broccoli test”; ask yourself if eating broccoli or steak sounds appetizing. If it doesn’t, chances are you’re not really hungry and are having a craving instead.
Signs you’re experiencing emotional hunger, or cravings, include:
- Experiencing boredom, stress or anxiety that can trigger cravings.
- Feeling like you “need a break” or you’re exhausted. You’re tense and feel like you need a release.
- You might also be trying to draw out a pleasurable experience, including bonding with other people over a meal.
- A sudden feeling or the sense that you “need to eat” despite feeling no physical signs of hunger in your stomach. You might even have feelings of nervousness like uneasiness or shaky hands.
- Desire to eat again despite eating enough recently.
- You’re not open to different foods. The foods you are eating aren’t satiating you — you can’t seem to get enough or feel satisfied.
- Cravings for certain foods (especially those high in sugar, fat or salt like chocolate, ice cream, etc.).
Related: Intuitive Eating: The Anti-Dieting Approach to Losing Weight
11 Tips for Practicing Mindful Eating
Ready to get started with practicing more mindfulness around eating? Here are some simple tips to help you make some positive changes regarding your eating habits.
1. Reduce stress and acknowledge your feelings.
Being mindful about eating really relies on better management of your emotions and stress levels. Figure out how you can control stress in your life by practicing various relaxation techniques, including exercise, mindful breathing, healing prayer, meditating, journaling, massage therapy, and taking advantage of various essential oil benefits and uses. Schedule time to relax so you make sure it’s a priority just like everything else. Remember that stress reduction techniques can be effective even when you practice them for short periods of time (for example, try these common exercise hacks to sneak more activity into your busy days).
2. Keep a food diary.
This should record not only your food choices, but also your emotions. It helps you make the connection between the two. Notice what triggers you to eat. The presence of food? Commercials that advertise comfort foods? The desire to soothe stress or fill boredom? Record as much as possible, including supplements and even sleep. These are all important factors in determining what drives you to emotionally eat; for example, lack of sleep could mean lack of weight loss, higher stress and more cravings.
3. Become more aware of your “eating on autopilot” tendencies.
When do you find yourself eating while not paying attention? Is it while working, watching TV or feeding your kids?
4. Ask yourself, “Do I want to eat something just because I see it?”
Eating is sometimes triggered by mere presence and proximity to you or seeing other people eat. Notice if you eat something because someone else is having it — a friend, a colleague, a family member — or just because it’s served or offered to you.
5. Make a point to fully tune in to your meal and engage all of your senses.
Smell your food, observe its colors and textures, chew well, and take your time. Smell and the looks of food are both very powerful determinants of whether you eat something or not. Your perception of pleasurable eating is in part based on the aroma and sight of your food, so make sure you capture all of it.
6. When eating, just eat.
Don’t engage in other behaviors that require your limited and precious attention.
7. Slow down while eating.
Try to eat your meals over 15–20 minutes to let your body catch up and alert you that you’re full. Take sips of water between bites, put your fork down or speak with whomever you are eating with without chewing at the same time.
8. Observe the way you eat.
This includes your speed, level of tension, thoughts and mannerisms. See yourself from a distance, as if watching yourself in a movie. Do you eat very fast and like you’re rushed? Do you feel guilty even while eating a food? Are you picking up one bite while another is still in your mouth?
9. Question your current eating “routine” or schedule.
You might find you eat automatically based on the clock but not in accordance with real hunger. For example, maybe every night around 9 p.m. you snack while watching TV shows. Ask yourself if you are really hungry or simply routinely and emotionally eating.
10. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Remember that you always have control over cravings that inevitably come up at one time or another. Learn healthy ways you can bust stress effectively, let go of an urge or fight a craving without necessarily having to respond to it with food. It’s OK to feel uncomfortable and needy without needing to mask the emotion by eating.
11. Practice patience and self-compassion.
Being judgmental and critical only leads to more stress and emotional eating. Lose the criticism and guilty self-talk, and instead focus on progress, not perfection. Learning to practice mindfulness takes some effort and time, but it’s so worth it!