Mindful eating is an increasingly popular practice. It involves being truly present with your meals and tuning in to all five senses while eating. Listening to the crunch of an apple. Tasting the depth of flavor in a sandwich. Noticing the feeling of salivation as you eat a piece of chocolate. Oftentimes, we eat on-the-go or squeeze in a quick lunch while working. We are generally very disconnected from the eating experience and out of touch with our body's sensations. When people start practicing mindful eating, they may do so with the intention of getting healthier and even losing weight. But is that contrary to the foundation of mindful eating? In this article, we'll share what mindful eating is, the benefits of mindful eating and whether it can be practiced while trying to lose weight.
What Is Mindful Eating?
The concept of mindfulness originates from Zen Buddhism. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as "paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally." When applying this to food, it means being intentionally present with your eating experience without judgment. With food judgments being so common in our diet-culture-steeped society, inviting in a spirit of non-judgment can take practice. Practicing mindful eating may require reflection on your own food rules and deeply ingrained food beliefs. Many of us grew up with harsh food rules that are only deepened by the polarized way in which food is discussed in our society. When we are conditioned to categorize foods as "good" or "bad," it can be difficult to approach food nonjudgmentally. However, doing so has the potential to greatly improve your relationship with food.
Health Benefits of Mindful Eating
Mindful eating can have numerous benefits on mental and physical health. It can help improve digestive health, as found in a 2019 review in Integrative Medicine, since stress and gut health are very interconnected. It can also promote self-trust, as you are making food decisions that feel good for you rather than relying on a diet's external rules and restrictions. In short, it can help you grow in your connection to your body. Mindful eating is also a promising component of treatment for eating disorders, chronic dieting and binge eating, but more research is needed to clarify the existing findings.
Mindful Eating and Weight Loss
At its core, mindful eating is not about weight loss. It is about the present-moment experience, not the outcome. It is an opportunity to approach weight with a nonjudgmental stance. Dalina Soto, M.A., RD, LDN, owner and founder of Your Latina Nutrition, says, "I would suggest looking beyond the 'weight loss' and focusing on the real health behaviors that you can achieve, such as understanding your body's hunger and fullness cues, having more satisfying meals and promoting mental health." Become mindful of what has conditioned you to believe thinner is better. Become mindful of what you hope to achieve from weight loss. Is it health? Confidence? Desirability? All of these can be addressed without centering on weight. Research, including a 2018 review in SAGE Open, has shown that focusing on health-promoting behaviors rather than weight helps improve health outcomes regardless of weight change. A Health at Every Size approach has also been shown to improve psychological markers of health, including self esteem, depression and body image.
How to Practice Mindful Eating
Practicing mindful eating may sound great, but where do you begin? A good place to start is setting aside time to truly focus on the meal experience. If it's possible for you, try setting aside 30 minutes for your meal. This may sound like a lot, but it can help you relax knowing you've dedicated this time to this practice. Notice the texture, flavor and temperature of the food. Notice how your body feels while eating the food. Soto says, "I would recommend trying to be as present as possible in the meal. If you are with family and friends, no phones or distractions. Focus on enjoying the moment. If alone, focus on tasting the foods, feeling the textures and savoring it. This doesn't have to be at every meal, but the more present you can be, the more enjoyable the meal and the more you can understand your body's cues." If starting with food feels too challenging, you might start by practicing mindfulness meditations and then apply those skills to your eating experience.
If you're feeling stuck on decentering weight, you might start by incorporating foods that often feel off-limits for you. Be mindful of how you feel eating the food. Maybe it brings up fears. Maybe you feel out of control with the food. Continue to allow yourself to eat it. It can promote habituation—a process of reducing the power a food has over you by allowing yourself to eat it regularly—and allow you to move along with your day. When you let go of food restriction, you help your body move toward its set-point weight range—the range it naturally wants to maintain if you are eating without restriction and moving your body regularly.
Mindful eating has the potential to greatly improve your physical and mental well-being, including your relationship with food. Remember to bring in a spirit of non-judgment toward both your food choices and your weight. When we can make peace with food and our bodies in this way, we can reduce daily stress and promote better self esteem.