Life is busy, and many of us end up eating in front of screens or on the phone. In other words, we often eat “mindlessly.”
Mindful eating isn’t a diet but a way of eating.
It’s the practice of being fully present and aware while you dine — and beforehand, when you’re buying, cooking, and serving your food.
Some people believe that mindful eating can help us choose healthier foods and manage our weight.
Although there isn’t much relevant research, some studies suggest that for some people, it could lead to better overall health and less emotional eating.
Below, we’ll explain how to practice mindful eating. We’ll also explore the research so far to see whether mindful eating works.
What is mindful eating?
The term “mindfulness” has become well-known over the last few years.
In particular, mindfulness meditation, the practice of bringing awareness to our bodies and behaviors, has seen an explosion of interest.
Some potential benefits of mindfulness meditation include supporting mental well-being, improving sleep, lowering blood pressure, and relieving pain.
But we need more high-quality studies to provide evidence for all of these claims.
Still, there’s enough solid evidence that the United Kingdom’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommends mindfulness-based cognitive therapy as a treatment for depression and anxiety.
Mindful eating encompasses the same fundamental ideas as mindfulness meditation.
It also includes developing awareness about how your food was produced and the impact it might have on the environment.
Overall, it’s not about what you eat, it’s about how you eat.
Mindful eating: The basics
We’re not always fully aware of what we’re eating, especially when we multitask during a meal or snack.
The central idea of mindful eating is to bring your awareness to both the food and the process of eating.
There’s no standard set of instructions, but some general principles of mindful eating are:
Having present-moment awareness: As you eat, be aware of the smell, taste, and feel of your food, your internal bodily sensations, and the cues that bring about eating.
Noticing what your body is telling you: Is your brain or another area of your body urging you to eat? Learn to listen to your body’s hunger cues and use them to choose when to start and stop eating.
Accepting food-related thoughts: Acknowledge how you feel about the food. Do you like it? Do you dislike it? There are no right or wrong thoughts — mindful eating is about accepting whatever arises and not judging yourself.
Letting go of goals: Unlike dieting, there are no targets in mindful eating. You’re present in the moment without expecting a particular outcome.
Keeping an open mind: Any resentment or childhood experiences around eating can be observed, accepted, and allowed to pass. Try to approach your meal with a beginner’s mindset, as if you were experiencing the food for the first time.
7 ways to practice mindful eating
Here are some simple tips for including mindful eating practices in your life.
Create a mindful shopping list before you head to the store. Think carefully about what food you want to buy. Avoid shopping when hungry, as you may be less likely to choose rationally.
Stop to consider. Are you actually hungry? Eating can sometimes be triggered by emotional cues rather than actual hunger. For example, stress, loneliness, and boredom can trigger emotional eating. By taking time to investigate whether your brain or body is desiring food, you can start to address emotional eating patterns.
Cook mindfully. Be fully present and aware of what’s going into your meal. You could create a “mindful kitchen” to ensure you have the space to cook and eat mindfully — for instance, by removing your phone and other distracting items.
Sit down to eat with no distractions. Without working, watching TV, or otherwise multitasking, you can give eating your full awareness.
Take time to appreciate your food. Think about where it was grown, how it might have been processed, and how it got from the field to your table.
Pay attention. Use your senses to absorb what’s happening as you eat, including the sight, smells, and textures of your meal.
Take your time. Once food gets to your stomach, it takes up to 20 minutes for the signal to reach your brain. By eating slowly, you can give your brain more time to realize what’s happening. Tips for eating more slowly include chewing thoroughly and pausing between mouthfuls. Also, you can try having smaller portions or taking smaller bites.
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Does mindful eating work?
Measuring whether mindful eating works can be challenging.
Most studies rely on self-reported outcomes. So, the results are based on participants rating how they feel, which can be inaccurate and subject to bias.
And because there’s no official rule book for mindful eating, different studies test different methods. This makes comparing studies difficult.
Another challenge is that everyone responds to foods in different ways — even identical twins can respond differently to the same meal.
When you join ZOE, you’ll learn how your blood sugar and blood fat levels respond to food.
We’ll also analyze your gut microbiome and provide ongoing nutrition support to help you learn how to eat for your body and reach your long-term health goals.
Meanwhile, despite the challenges, some scientists have investigated the effects of mindful eating. Below, we’ll outline some of this research.
Links between mindful eating and health outcomes
Researchers have tried to assess how people who practice mindful eating are different from other people.
A study from 2016 concluded that people with less awareness of their eating habits are more likely to have overweight, anxiety, and lower moods.
The team also found that these participants showed less control over their eating habits.
Another study, published in 2021, investigated the link between eating awareness, BMI, and body composition in 209 adults.
The scientists measured the participants’ weight, height, and waist circumference. And they asked the participants to complete a questionnaire that evaluated eating awareness.
They didn’t find any differences among the males. But the team found that females with moderate weight had higher food awareness scores than those with overweight or obesity.
Links with improvements in diet
Researchers also want to know whether practicing mindful eating can change the quality of our diets and help with weight loss.
In 2017, a review of 12 randomized controlled trials looked into links between mindfulness training, health behaviors, and weight loss. All the studies included adults with overweight or obesity.
The analysis found that mindfulness had no effect on weight loss. But it was linked with less binge and impulsive eating and more physical activity.
The authors included studies that compared people who practiced these methods with people who didn’t. The studies also tracked energy intake or diet quality before and after the intervention.
Most studies didn‘t find a significant difference between the groups.
The review's authors concluded that there was little evidence of mindful eating practices influencing diet quality or the amount of energy consumed.
Overall, scientists still need to do more research. Right now, there’s little evidence that mindful eating can improve the quality of our diets or help us lose weight.
Are there any risks?
Mindful eating is generally safe, but some experts do have concerns.
For instance, some warn that using mindfulness instead of traditional methods to treat complex eating disorders could be dangerous.
While there’s some evidence that mindful eating is associated with less binge eating, it's not an effective medical treatment. It can’t address all the complexities of disordered eating.
If you experience disordered eating, speak with a doctor.
Mindful eating is about bringing more awareness to what you eat.
The idea is that by taking more time, avoiding distractions, and listening to your body, you make better food choices.
Mindful eating isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to weight loss or unhealthy eating habits. But research suggests that it might be helpful for some people.
It’s worth mentioning again that mindful eating isn't a substitute treatment for eating disorders.
Overall, mindful eating is relatively safe and costs nothing, so it might be worth a try. But there’s currently little evidence that it will significantly benefit your health.
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