Mindful Eating: How Bringing Mindfulness to Mealtimes Can Improve Overall Health

mindful eatingOne of the most fascinating things about mindfulness is that it’s a powerful practice that can be applied to almost any area of our lives.

While there are heaps of mindfulness resources on our blog and countless other articles and research on this life-changing tool, one area you might be less familiar with is mindful eating.

Eating is a core part of our day: three-to-four times a day for most of us. But how much thought and intention do we place into our decisions around food and the way we consume it vs. defaulting to unconscious behaviors and routines?

Let’s take a look at how bringing mindfulness and mindful eating to the dining table can offer surprising health benefits.

 

What is Mindful Eating?

mindfully eating an appleThere’s a tendency to think that mindfulness should take place in a quiet room, but the core of the practice translates well to more active areas of daily life with wonderful benefits.

One area you might not have considered applying the practice to could be your eating habits.

In our busy and tech-focused lives, it’s common for our schedules to be overwhelming. It’s not uncommon to forget to eat lunch. Or if we do remember to eat, we scoff our meal down without really thinking if we’re giving our body what it needs.

How often have you eaten a meal, only to still feel hungry afterward? Rarely do we give our brains and bodies the time they need to process the fact that food has arrived or taken the time to enjoy being present at mealtimes.

According to the Center for Mindful Eating, mindful eating incorporates the practice of meditation and consciousness to help you identify what you eat when you eat, why you eat, and to appreciate food as you eat it.

Through practicing mindful eating, you can become more aware of your eating habits – good and bad – and make the changes needed to improve your sense of wellbeing that can be achieved through eating. It’s a way of listening to your body’s cues to understand when you’re hungry, thirsty, satiated, and the nutrients it’s craving.

The principles of mindful eating were initially developed by a team of 19 psychology and therapy professionals at the Center for Mindful Eating. They’re a great starting point for developing your knowledge in this area. The Center has extensive resources, but some general aspects of mindful eating include:

  • Engaging all of your senses when selecting which foods to eat and paying attention to how they look, feel, smell, and taste.
  • Creating time to choose, prepare, and cook meals with intention.
  • Paying attention to how your body responds to different foods physically.
  • Raising awareness of the cues that guide and inform when you eat and when to stop eating.

Someone who uses the practice of mindfulness when eating:

  • Accepts there is no wrong or right way to eat, but there are different levels of awareness relating to the experience of eating food.
  • Acknowledges that everyone’s eating experiences are unique to them.
  • Develops awareness of how their eating habits can support their overall health and wellbeing.
  • Understands the deep interconnectedness that exists between all living beings, cultural dynamics, and how food choices impact these connections.

Mindful eating extends beyond the individual and encompasses the knowledge that how and what you eat has a broader effect on the world (Cheung, 2016).

 

The Benefits of Mindful Eating

One of the most significant benefits of mindful eating is the way it can help you build healthier choices when it comes to food, which has several roll-on benefits. Even generic mindfulness practices can have a significant impact on healthy eating habits (Jordan et al., 2014).

 

1. Weight Loss

One of the more widely reported benefits of mindful eating is weight loss. Mindful eating has been linked to weight management and successful weight loss in men who were categorized as obese (Dalen et al., 2010) and has even had success for women who report frequently eating in restaurant environments where the practice of mindfulness can be more difficult (Timmerman & Brown, 2012).

Another study found that people who eat more mindfully report eating smaller serving sizes of high-calorie foods, supporting their weight management journeys (Beshara, Hutchinson, & Wilson, 2013).

Unlike typical dieting methods, which can create feelings of deprivation, mindful eating encourages you to connect deeply with the physical need for food and the negative impact on the mind and body of overeating the wrong foods.

 

2. Psychological WellBeing and Other Benefits

Mindful eating also helps support psychological wellbeing. Different foods can have a direct effect on our emotional states (Kidwell & Hasford, 2014), so when you approach eating with mindfulness, you exercise greater control over your emotional wellbeing.

Other benefits of mindful eating may include:

  • Identifying emotional and reactive eating patterns that lead to poor emotional health.
  • Nourishment of the body, heart, mind, and soul.
  • Greater awareness of your relationship with food and broader surroundings.
  • Better control and empowerment to make conscious, positive choices.

 

How to Practice Mindfulness with Food (Incl. 10 Tips)

mindfulness with foodPracticing mindfulness with food can take a little bit of work, but making small changes can make a big difference over time.

As with any mindfulness practice, it’s about taking stock of everyday events that we usually let pass by, taking the time to act consciously and paying attention to our surroundings and physical presence within them.

I’ve read widely across some of the research and countless blog articles to draw together the below list of ten tips to help you get started with a mindful eating practice:

  1. Start with your shopping list – Before you begin shopping, write up a comprehensive shopping list. Consider the health benefits of everything you put on that list; it’s longevity in your kitchen pantry and nourishment value. Make sure you don’t shop when you’re hungry (which can lead to impulse buys) and stick to your list.

  2. Prepare for success – Think about the week ahead and plan accordingly. It can be easy to turn to junk foods, foods we know don’t bring us a lot of value, or no food at all when we’ve got a busy schedule and haven’t planned for our meals.

  3. Register hunger and act on it – This one can take a bit of practice. How often in the week do you listen to the cues your body is giving you about what it needs? It’s a common mistake that we often think we’re hungry when our body is trying to tell us it’s thirsty (Mattes, 2010). Spend some time getting to understand the cues your body is giving you better and act on them appropriately.

  4. Don’t wait until you’re ravenous to eat – If you skip meals and wait to give your body what it needs, you’ll come to the table ravenous, which usually leads to impulse eating and overeating as you seek to fill the void of hunger rather than eating meaningfully. This comes back to tip number two – always prepare for busy days and make time to eat.

  5. Consider your portion size – Starting with a smaller portion size can help you become more aware of the food that is actually on your plate and increase your focus on what you’re eating, as well as how it’s meeting your hunger needs.

  6. Create a ritual to accompany mealtimes – Research has found that even blowing out the candles on a birthday cake has shown to improve how it tastes (Vohs et al., 2013). Whether it’s saying grace, offering gratitude, or simply arranging your cutlery and napkin in a specific way, a small ritual before you begin eating can have a big difference in how you experience your food.

  7. Eat with all your senses engaged – Turn off the television, put your phone away, save the book for later – when you’re sitting down to a meal, give it your full undivided attention. Engage all your senses with each meal – how does it smell? What are the different textures? What colors are there? How does the food feel on your tongue, in your stomach? Savor the first bite and enjoy each moment.

  8. Take a break between bites – Another way of bringing your attention to your meal is to take a break between bites. Put your utensils down and pause as you complete your mouthful. Reflect on the food left on your plate before continuing with your meal. It physically forces you to slow down and gives you the chance to check in with your body and see how your fullness levels are doing.

  9. Chew slowly and pay attention – On a busy workday, it’s all too easy to inhale your food and move on to the next thing. Mindfulness is about taking this slowly – and that includes the physical motion of eating itself. Make a conscious effort to chew slower than you usually would. You might be surprised by how much you taste and how much quicker you feel full.

  10. Take the time to reflect – Mindfulness doesn’t end with the completion of your meal. Take a moment to consider how you’re feeling now you’ve eaten. Listen to your body and take note of how eating has created different sensations and emotional reactions.

 

How to Use Mindfulness for Weight Loss

As we’ve taken a brief look at already, research backs the idea that mindfulness is successful in helping individuals maintain or achieve weight loss (Dalen et al., 2010. Timmerman & Brown, 2012, and Beshara, Hutchinson & Wilson, 2013).

Longitudinal research has also found mindfulness to be successful in helping participants significantly reduce their Body Mass Index (BMI) compared to a control group (Tapper et al., 2009).

In this study, participants were asked to attend four mindfulness workshops of two hours each helping them understand and use mindfulness techniques to improve their health and wellbeing. Data about their BMI, physical activity and mental health was then collected at baseline (before attendance at the workshops), four months, and six months.

The workshops used by the researchers were in-depth and encouraged participants to explore the emotional and physical purpose of their weight loss journey.

The guiding principles of mindful eating apply when approaching mindfulness for weight loss. Still, I’ve also reviewed the overall content of the workshops used in the above study and developed the following summary:

  • Identify your personal values and whether weight loss supports those values. Is your desire for weight loss personally driven or socially driven?

  • Start to acknowledge your thoughts relating to food as just that – thoughts. They do not necessarily need to be believed or acted upon.

  • Accept that attempting to control feelings and physical sensations relating to hunger will not always be successful.

  • Learn to embrace internal discomfort around your weight loss journey, rather than avoid it.

  • Develop a sense of self that allows non-attachment to negative thoughts and feelings around your weight loss journey. Acknowledge the thoughts, but don’t allow them to dictate how you respond physically.

  • Focus on the importance of your values and attach your weight loss goals to these values.

 

Mindfulness with Chocolate: Guided Meditation

mindfulness with chocolateAt first glance, mindfulness with chocolate might sound like a self-indulgent activity.

Remembering that mindfulness has a fundamental purpose of encouraging compassion for the self at its core, the idea of using chocolate in this way can become an enjoyable and valuable practice (Penman, 2011).

Mindspace has created several resources that can be used within schools to encourage the practice of mindfulness, and their resources for guided meditation with chocolate is a great starting point.

Below I’ve summarized their guide:

  • First, select a small piece or bar of chocolate. This can be chocolate you’re familiar with or one you haven’t tried before. Remember to approach the activity with openness and curiosity. Sit comfortably.

  • Consider the wrapping on your chocolate. Does it make a sound when you hold it in your hand? What color is it? What is written on the wrapper?

  • Slowly unwrap the chocolate. Pay attention to how your body begins to respond to the anticipation of eating. What physical sensations arise? How are you reacting emotionally?

  • Resist the urge to eat the chocolate. Instead, examine it in its completeness. What colors can you see? How does it feel in your hand? How does it smell?

  • Next, take a bite, but do not eat it just yet. Close your eyes, and turn your focus to the full sensation of the chocolate on your tongue. How does it feel as it melts? How is your body responding, not just inside your mouth?

  • Begin to move the chocolate around in your mouth slowly. Start to notice how it tastes. How does the consistency feel? How has this changed from when you first placed it on your tongue? What emotions are you feeling?

  • Once you have considered this, swallow the chocolate, paying attention to the sensation as it moves down your throat. Is there a lingering taste on your tongue? How are your emotions reacting to this?

  • Open your eyes. Take a moment to reflect on how you feel physically and emotionally.

As mentioned, it might sound self-indulgent, but taking this time to enjoy this experience can help with the ways we think about different foods. If you’ve always been taught to think of chocolate as ‘naughty,’ you may have started indulging in eating it in secret.

This process can help correct some faulty thinking about how we’ve been taught to feel about food and reinstate our enjoyment of it.

 

3 More Mindful Eating Exercises to Try

The Mindfulness with Chocolate Guided Meditation is a popular mindfulness exercise, for obvious reasons! But you don’t have to use chocolate. Some fruit, nuts, or other small item works just as well, and it’s good to mix up how you practice this meditation.

If you’re keen to try something new, below are three more mindful eating exercises:

 

1. Dinner Table Mindful Eating Script

The below is a short script you can work through to practice mindful eating at any meal.

You can use the full script, or condense it down, practice alone, or with friends and family who might also be interested in exploring mindful eating. It can make for excellent dinner table discussions!

  • At the dinner table, begin with a simple Mindfulness exercise to connect the body and the breath: Sitting comfortably, notice your feet on the ground, slowly moving your awareness up the body to feel all physical sensations. Next, tune into any sounds you can hear or smells you can smell.

  • Next, turn your focus to your internal sensations. Allow thoughts to move through your mind without letting them stick. Acknowledge any immediate emotional responses.

  • Take a breath. Now, tune your focus towards your physical signals for hunger or thirst. What are they telling you? Are you feeling full? If you feel hungry, what is your body craving? If you feel thirsty, what are you thirsty for? Keep your full attention on these sensations until you feel you have the answers.

  • Bring your attention to the food and drink on the table in front of you and imagine you are seeing it for the very first time. What do you notice immediately? What details are waiting to be uncovered? Engage all your senses and notice the color, the shapes, different textures, and sizes. What can you smell? How is your body responding?

  • Before you begin to taste, take a moment to reflect on what the food had to go through to be on the table in front of you. Where did it grow? How long did it take? What environments were required? Allow yourself to feel gratitude towards the process, and appreciation for everyone involved in the journey of your food to find its way to your table.

  • Next, begin to taste your food. Pick one item and explore it, taking in its colors, textures, and unique smells. Notice any emotional or physical responses you might have. Do you have any memories associated with this good? How does it make you feel? When did you first taste it?

  • Turn your focus on how your body is responding physically. Is your mouth watering? Is your stomach grumbling? How does the anticipation of tasting the food feel?

  • Now, place the food in your mouth. Bring your awareness to your mouth as you begin to chew. Notice the flavor and textures. How do these change as you continue to chew? How is your body responding? When you are ready, swallow the piece of food and notice the path it takes from your mouth to your stomach.

  • Continue to keep your breath steady and repeat this process as you eat your meal. If eating with others who are also taking part in the exercise, you might like to pause together to share your experiences.

 

2. The Two-Plate Mindful Eating Approach

Mindful eating has been linked to weight loss, and if it’s a tool you’re considering using in your healthy eating journey, this next exercise could help.

The Two-Plate Mindful Eating Approach is particularly beneficial for those dining situations where you might not have a lot of control over what ends up on your plate, in a buffet restaurant, for example. Often we don’t want to compromise on our social life for food, and this exercise can help you find the balance with both.

Here’s what’s involved:

  • Next time you find yourself in a situation where you’d like to control your portions and focus more consciously on what you’re eating, pick up two plates. One for you to eat from and another you use as your ‘serving’ plate.

  • Fill up your serving plate with the food you would like to eat.

  • Take a moment to pause before you begin serving yourself. Bring your focus back to your breath and ground yourself in the moment. Pay attention to your physical sensations in response to the food in front of you.

  • Move some of the food from your serving plate to your ‘eating’ plate. Don’t overload your plate, and listen to your gut as much as possible. Which foods seem most appealing? How much of them would you like to eat?

  • Begin by cutting up the food on your eating plate, pay attention as you do, focusing on the different colors, smells, and textures. As you do this, repeat the mantra ‘I am about to eat.’

  • Now work your way through the food on the plate, taking comfortable, deliberate bites. Once more, focus on the different sensations – physical and emotional – as you eat your food. You can also repeat the mantra ‘I am eating.’

  • Once you have finished eating this initial plate of food, pause. Bring your focus back to your body and your breathing. How do you feel? What sensations are my stomach and gut giving me? Am I still hungry or thirsty? Do I really need to eat any more?

  • If your body is telling you it is still hungry, repeat the steps above. If you feel satiated, you can have the remaining food on the serving plate taken away.

 

3. Where Does My Food Come From? Reflection Exercise

This is a great mindfulness activity to use with children to help them (and you) become more mindful and aware of where food comes from. Practicing gratitude is a core component of mindfulness, so it makes sense that incorporating this into mindful eating can help us become more conscious and grateful for our meals.

Here are a few ways to explore the concept:

  • Start by having a more general conversation with your children about their thoughts on food. Discovery questions could include:
    • Where do you think your food comes from?
    • How does your food grow, and what do you think it needs to help it grow?
    • How did your food get to the supermarket?
    • Why do you think it is important to think about these things?

  • Use some of their responses to fuel your next activities. You might like to do some research yourself before this, or you might want to use it as a learning opportunity you share. Exploration activities could include:
    • A visit to a local farmers’ market to ask the farmers and produce sellers where they live, how they grow their favorite foods, and how long it takes.
    • A visit to a fruit orchard to pick your own fruit and explore how fruit grows, what seasons it’s best to eat in, and ask questions to the staff.
    • Plan to make more meals from scratch, such as sauces, cakes, and biscuits to explore the ‘making’ aspect of different foods.
    • At your local supermarket, check where your favorite foods are from in the fruit and vegetable aisle or on the back of packets – is it local or grown far away?
    • Start a vegetable patch in the garden or an herb garden indoors to explore growing things yourself.

  • The next time you have a meal, encourage ongoing reflection, and keep the conversation going. If eating fruit and vegetables you’ve picked or grown, practice a moment of gratitude or celebration.

Here is a massive list of 58 Science-based Mindful Eating Exercises.

 

A Take-Home Message

I hope after reading this article I’ve helped you to explore some of the initial questions posed at the start and provided thought-provoking answers too!

What I love about the concept of mindful eating is how it can help us to recentre and refocus on the part of our day that we might otherwise not give a second thought to.

Like a lot of people, I’m certainly guilty of quickly grabbing a sandwich and munching on the go without really considering my physical and emotional needs when it comes to eating.

Bringing a little mindfulness into the picture can help us find deeper fulfillment and gratitude for our eating habits, which can equally lead to a more robust sense of health.

Have you practiced mindful eating, either for yourself, with friends and family, or with clients? What exercises did you use and how well did they work? Or if you decide to give any of the exercises mentioned in this article a try, do let me know in the comments.

 

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About the Author

Elaine Mead, BSc. Dual Honours, is a counselor, passionate educator, writer, and learner. Since completing her degree in psychology, she has been fascinated by the different ways we learn - both socially and academically - and the ways in which we utilize our experiences to become more authentic versions of our selves. She is currently completing her diploma in Cognitive Behavioural Coaching & Mentoring.

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