How fast do you usually eat? In our haste to get to the next thing on our agenda, many of us are hurrying through our meals. What are you usually doing while you’re eating…besides eating? If we’re honest, most of us will admit that we are often multitasking, perhaps reading, catching up on email, scrolling through social media or the news. You’re certainly not alone! However, these behaviors can contribute to unwanted side effects, such as indigestion and weight gain. Fortunately, the simple practice of mindful eating can help! Read on to learn some of the powerful benefits of mindful eating.
Mindful eating is an approach to eating based on a practice of mindfulness, which emphasizes awareness and non-judgment. This approach has a wide range of benefits and is simple to implement on your own. You don’t need any special training or equipment. This article will help you understand the profound benefits of mindful eating and how to get started right away!
What is Mindful Eating
Elements of Mindful Eating
Awareness is the first element of mindful eating. One of the goals of mindful eating is to bring our attention to the present moment, namely to the act of eating and what we’re doing and experiencing in the moment. To do this, we use all of our senses: taste, touch, smell, hearing, and sight. We can use each of our senses to notice and acknowledge what we sense about both our food and our environment while we’re eating.
This act of bringing our senses into play helps us remain present, rather than being distracted by sounds, devices, compelling thoughts, etc. When we’re present with our experiences, we avoid the stress of worrying about past events or future problems or concerns. In this way, we can eat in a stress-free way while also reducing our overall stress.
Mindful eating also asks us to suspend our judgment. What does that mean? It is common to attach a value judgment to foods that we eat. In other words, we tell ourselves that a food is “good” or “bad,” “healthy” or “unhealthy.” Many of us have been trained to do this by growing up immersed in a culture of dieting. Or perhaps we’ve been told what to eat or not eat by an authority figure, be it a parent, doctor, teacher, etc. While it is important to understand how nutrition affects our bodies and our health, constantly assigning value to food can lead to a cycle of restriction and overindulgence that ultimately undermines our health goals. With mindful eating, we replace value judgments with observations, by getting curious about our food.
The modern world moves at a fast pace. We’re so often mult-tasking, or just rushing to make it to the next thing, whether it’s the next email, meeting, chore or task. Inevitably, this translates into how we approach eating. We may be trying to use our lunch break to knock another item off our to-do list rather than spending some time eating mindfully. Or we might be rushing to make it to lessons or sports practice. Eating too fast contributes to digestive upset, poor absorption of nutrients, stress and anxiety. Mindful eating is designed to help us slow down, thereby improving digestion and our relationship with food!
Benefits of Mindful Eating
Let’s take a closer look at the powerful benefits of mindful eating, starting with digestion.
Digestion starts in the mouth. When we chew, our food is broken down mechanically into smaller parts. Chemical bonds holding food molecules together are broken down in our mouths by salivary enzymes. Thus, when we chew food more thoroughly and for longer, that food is more easily digested downstream, in the stomach and intestines. A good rule of thumb is 30 chews for tougher foods (tough vegetables and meats), and 15 for softer foods (grains, cheese, eggs, fish, etc).
Mindful eating also improves digestion by reducing stress and promoting relaxation while eating. You may be familiar with the saying “rest and digest.” This refers to a relaxation of the nervous system, which promotes contraction of the muscles of our digestive system, among other things. This rhythmic contraction is essential to proper digestion and is optimized in a relaxed state. Eating mindfully promotes this relaxation, which is often absent in our modern, rushed way of eating.
Improved Relationship with Food
It is common for people to use food as a means of reward and food restriction as a form of punishment. This type of relationship with food, however, takes away the control that we should have over our own habits. It makes us victims to the circumstances under which we encounter foods. In other words, if we show up at a party feeling depressed, we will seek comfort in the many foods and drinks present. However, if we can instead approach eating as an act to which we bring our full awareness and attention via mindful eating, we can break this cycle and take back control of our food choices.
You can likely already see how improving your relationship with food can support weight loss or healthy weight management: by being in control of our food choices via a healthy relationship with food, we can eat the foods we want to eat and not feel caught in a cycle of restriction and indulgence, of reward and punishment. How liberating would that be?
Beyond our relationship with food, mindful eating can prevent overeating by helping us tune into our hunger and fullness cues. There is a delay between ingesting foods and feelings of fullness. By slowing down, we give our bodies time to register satiety (fullness) cues so that we can adjust our consumption accordingly. Eating beyond the point of fullness contributes to weight gain. Thus, practicing mindful eating is an effective way to support weight management.
To learn more about mindful weight loss, head over to my article on weight loss challenges.
How to Get Started with Mindful Eating
I recommend devoting one meal per day to an intentional mindful eating practice. Print or write out the 5 steps below and have them handy to where you usually eat. Minimize distractions, such as phones, computers, TV’s, etc. Be patient and with time, this approach will become second nature.
5 Steps to Mindful Eating
It’s helpful to break this practice down into some manageable steps. Below are the steps that I have my clients follow to get started with mindful eating.
- Assess your hunger: Ask yourself am I physically hungry? Or am I eating because I am bored, anxious, depressed or stressed.
- Portion your food according to your hunger: Choose the amount of food that will satisfy your hunger, knowing you can get more if you are still hungry.
- Take 3 deep breaths before you begin eating: Breathe in through your nose to the count of 3, and out through your mouth, to the count of 3. Repeat 3x.
- Slow down: Chew slowly and thoroughly, use all 5 senses, set down utensils between bites.
- Pause halfway through your meal to assess fullness: Pause and decide how much of your meal you need to finish to satisfy what remains of your hunger.
Mindful eating has a wide range of benefits and is a practice that can improve the health and wellbeing of anyone, regardless of age, weight, gender, etc. Getting started is simple and doesn’t cost a thing!
As with any behavior change, it’s important to stick with it and give yourself time to adjust.