Mindful eating: How to do it, and why you should

September 15, 2021 - 13 min read

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What is mindful eating?

Why you should try it: 6 benefits of mindful eating

7 ways to practice mindful eating

Fitting mindful eating into your life

How to use mindfulness to explore your relationship with food

“In today’s rush we all think too much, seek too much, want too much and forget about the joy of just being”

- Eckhart Tolle

What is mindful eating?

Mindful eating is being present with the sensory experience of eating — without judgement or interpretation. When was the last time you ate without distraction? 

According to experts at Queen’s University, we have over 4 thoughts per minute. We even have thoughts about our thoughts! Mental chatter blocks sensory input (like how good that chocolate ice cream tastes!). It can also lead to negative rumination that stops us from enjoying the present moment. Dwelling on self-critical thoughts can have a detrimental impact on our mental health.

A mindful eating practice includes:

- When you eat, just eat (no multitasking)
- Engage your senses
- Stay focused on the sensory experience of eating
- Observe your mind, and when it wanders bring it back to the present moment
- Practice patience and self-compassion
- Tune into your bodily sensations 
- Make food choices that align with your values around health and self-care
- Consider the source of the food
- Observe how food makes you feel
- Develop a joyful relationship with food

Why you should try it: 6 benefits of mindful eating

  1. You might live longer
    Listening to your body’s hunger and satiety cues means you are less likely to overeat. A common Japanese proverb “hara hachi bun me” (eat until you are 80% full) is now backed by science — eat less and live longer.
  2. You might be happier
    When we get caught up in the narrative of our minds, we aren’t enjoying life in the moment. Bronnie Ware’s book The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying lists regret #5 as “I wish I had let myself be happier.” By being present with what’s in front of us, without judgement or interpretation, we gravitate towards a more positive state.
  3. Stress reduction
    Our judgements and interpretations create stress. When we are out of alignment with our internal self-image, we feel stress. The more we ruminate on the gap between our behaviors and our beliefs, the more stress is generated. When eating mindfully, we observe thoughts and judgements like clouds passing across the sky. This has a calming effect on our minds and nervous system.
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  4. Improved digestion
    Thinking about, seeing, or smelling food prepares the body for digestion. This is called the cephalic phase digestive response (CPDR). The CPDR is responsible for a significant portion of your overall digestion. Mindful eating aligns the mind with the body’s CPDR system. This helps prepare the body to break down food and digest nutrients more effectively.
  5. Food tastes better
    And it’s actually been proven! In 2013 researchers did four experiments. Participants tasted food while memorizing numbers of varying lengths. They found that, the more distracted we are, the less intense food tastes.
  6. Weight loss
    Aroma and taste play an important role in making us feel full. Taste buds and olfactory receptors tell the brain what flavors are present and how much of each flavor is present. This helps the brain determine when we’ve eaten enough. Interestingly, In the same 2013 experiment (described above), researchers found multitasking makes us more prone to overeating. 

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7 ways to practice mindful eating

  1. Eat like a one-year-old (just a bit more tidily!)
    Have you ever watched a one-year-old eat? They squish, squeeze and sniff everything.  When the food finally makes it into their mouth, they pause and chew. Each mouthful absorbs their full attention. Remove distractions next time you eat. You can think of it as a meditation practice. Try being fully present with the sensory experience of eating.
  2. Study yourself like a scientist
    Observe your mind while you eat. When it wanders, gently guide it back to the present moment. Tune into your body’s physical hunger/satiation cues. Observe how the food makes you feel (physically, emotionally and mentally).
  3. Practice patience
    Your mind will wander! This is normal and part of the practice. Every time you shepherd it back — your mental muscles grow stronger. Think of it like lifting weights at the gym. The more reps you do, the stronger you become. Just as we don’t go to the gym once and expect to be Superman, eating food mindfully takes patience and persistence.
  4. Eat like a French woman
    Mireille Guiliano wrote a book called French Women Don’t Get Fat. Interestingly, French women cultivate mindful eating habits. They put their cutlery down between bites, they focus on quality over quantity, and they eat at the table with a plate and proper accoutrements. What habits could you create to cultivate mindful eating patterns? Start by completing your healthy nutrition scorecard.
  5. Create an eating sanctuary
    Does your eating place support mindful meals? Is it overly busy with lots of distraction? Take a quick look in your pantry. Does the food align with your values around health and self-care? Think of grocery shopping as the first breath of your mindful eating practice.
  6. Form mindful eating rituals
    Rituals help our minds move from mindlessness to mindfulness. What rituals could you create to foster mindful eating? Try experimenting with:

- table setting
- eating with others
- eating in the same place at the same time 
- combine mindful eating with a gratitude or other mindfulness practice

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Fitting mindful eating into your life 

Switch from mindless eating to mindful eating by starting with one baby step:

  • Start with one bite or sip. Make the first bite of each meal a mindful mouthful.
  • Don’t multitask. Our brains seek constant stimulus. Maybe you are eating even as you read this article! Focusing on one thing (eating) may feel strange at first or even anxiety-inducing. Stick with it! After a few weeks it will feel like the new norm. 
  • Tune into your physical cues throughout the day. Pick a reminder, like going to the bathroom or drinking water. Ask your body what it needs in that moment.
  • Take one breath before you eat. Whether it’s a beautiful sniff of your mindful meal or a single breath before diving into that sugary snack. Taking a breath to pause and connect with your body is a great first step towards a mindful eating practice.
  • Use special occasions to focus on quality over quantity. Savor food in the company of others by discussing the food as you eat. Consider the source of your food and its journey from farm to plate. Give thanks to those who prepared it.
  • Close your eyes when you have the first taste. More than 50% of the brain’s cortex is devoted to vision. Closing your eyes removes distraction and engages your other senses. Make this a mindful ritual – signaling to your mind and body that mindful eating is about to begin.
  • Chew your food thoroughly. My mother was onto something when she told me to chew each mouthful 30 times! Focusing on chewing, brings your attention into the present moment. Start with an initial goal of one well-chewed mouthful per meal.

How to use mindfulness to explore your relationship with food

Humans have trillions of bacteria residing in the gut. These bacteria make up the ‘microbiome.’ Emerging research shows a direct connection between the microbiome and mental wellbeing. Microbiome imbalance can lead to a frayed relationship with food. Add to that, cultural biases around body size and shape - it’s understandable that many of us have engaged in self-blame and self-shame around food. What if that relationship were different? Enter mindful eating! 

Rebuild your relationship with food by picking up one of the following practices:

  1. Keep a food journal for one week. Record what you eat, thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and energy levels. What links do you see between foods and moods? 
  2. Look into intuitive eating, a practice built around eating when you're hungry and stopping when you're full. Notice how your eating behaviors and food cravings are affected by your daily life. Do you have ingrained thoughts about what healthy eating is "supposed" to be that are out of alignment with what makes you feel good?
  3. Develop a self-compassion mantra. We say things to ourselves that we wouldn’t say to our worst enemies! Create a kind phrase that you could repeat to yourself when you notice negative inner dialogue is present. Can’t think what to say? Imagine you are comforting a close friend.
  4. Ask a question to shift your mindset. Emotional eating is often our way of trying to fill another need. When you find yourself eating mindlessly, try asking yourself a question. Some examples are “What do I really need right now?” or “What would my future self want me to do right now?” (Coach’s tip: Questions that start with ‘what’ or ‘how’ tend to be more powerful). 
  5. Imagine food was another human. How would you describe your relationship? Are you best friends? Bitter enemies? Indifferent acquaintances? What are three things you could do to improve that relationship? Put one of those into practice today.
  6. Talk to a nutritionist. Many of us piece together our ideas of what healthy food choices look like from popular diet trends. However, there is really no perfect diet — it's about making choices that benefit your overall health (and sometimes cookies are part of that). Rather than dieting or putting needless pressure on yourself, talk to a dietitian to see what balance of foods is right for you.

Desmond Tutu is quoted as saying “There is only one way to eat an elephant — one bite at a time.” Mindful eating can change your life. Start today with just one mindful mouthful.

References:

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17255-9

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797612471953

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Published September 15, 2021

Kelly Labrecque

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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