What is mindful eating?
You may have heard of the term mindfulness, which means we are living in the moment and paying attention in a non-judgemental way.
There are two different types of mindfulness:
1. Formal mindfulness - This is something we practice with intention and usually for a specified amount of time. Examples include meditation, yoga and tai chi.
2. Informal mindfulness - These are regular tasks that allow us to bring a sense of presence to how we do them. Some examples are practising mindful eating, mindful walking and staying in the moment when we do everyday activities like washing our car or brushing our teeth.
As you might guess, the concept of mindful eating has stemmed from our understanding of mindfulness. Just like meditation or yoga, mindful eating is a particular way of eating that allows us to be really present when we eat.
When we are eating mindfully, we slow down to eat, hone in on what we are eating, what it tastes like, and we become more aware of our internal cues to eat like hunger, fullness and satisfaction. We also notice our thoughts and feelings more closely and how they link with our own eating behaviours.
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What are the benefits?
Although it’s early days in the research, like mindfulness meditation, mindful eating has been associated with a number of health benefits. The health benefits of mindful eating reducing our stress and anxiety, helping to manage our blood sugar levels and diabetes, reduce cholesterol and blood pressure, gut health symptoms, emotional eating and overeating.
The major reason mindful eating is so helpful is because it forces us to slow down our mealtimes. When we pause and pay closer attention to the eating experience, we eat the foods that will nourish us, in the ‘right’ amount and at the ‘right’ time according to our personal needs.
One of the great things about mindful eating is that it gets us away from this idea that we need to diet to manage our health. For most of us, diets result in lots of ups and downs in our weight and in fact, we often end up heavier than when we started - not to mention feeling deprived, at a higher risk of disordered eating and poorer mental health.
There are also emerging scientific studies showing weight fluctuations that happen when we yo-yo diet, can cause inflammation in the body which has knock-on effect of a whole host of physical health issues such as an increased risk of diabetes and heart health concerns.
How to get started?
One of the best ways to get started with mindful eating is to commence a daily mindfulness practice like meditation. This keeps our stress levels in check and generally be less reactive to everyday stuff that tends to rattle us.
The research has shown some great health benefits when including meditation alongside the mindful eating practices so it essentially gives us a more solid foundation for eating mindfully.
There are a variety of meditation apps on the market, which will guide you through the process. For most people*, I suggest a simple breath meditation or a body scan meditation to start with. Although the longer you meditate for, the greater the benefits you’ll get, just starting out with a few minutes a day will still be helpful. The key is creating the regular practice.
Mastering mindful eating - the next steps
Once you have commenced a daily mindfulness practice, the next steps are to incorporate some specific mindful eating activities in your day.
Three foundational mindful eating practices you might like to try are:
1. Cutting out the distractions
When we eat slowly and reduce our distractions, we’re more likely to eat mindfully. Our phones and computers are the biggest culprits, so start by popping your phone away when you eat and taking time out from work at lunch.
2. Checking in on hunger
Before eating a meal or snack, take a pause and try to check in on how hungry or full you might be. Many people find rating their hunger on scale from 1-10 can help, with 1 being really hungry and 10 being extremely full.
As we eat our meal, we can stop halfway and check in again. The studies on mindful eating have shown this process of simply checking in and bringing more attention to hunger and fullness help us to decide whether we should keep eating and if we do keep eating, ultimately when we should stop.
3. Honing-in on our taste buds
One of the core principles of mindful eating is to “eat with our senses”. This includes paying attention to the look, the texture, smell, the taste and the sounds of food when we eat. Now this might sound obvious, but as a society we’ve managed to make ourselves pretty busy and this basic part of eating seems to have gone out the window.
When we learn to eat with our senses, we can savour and appreciate the taste of our foods more. A great example of this is when we eat chocolate. Have you ever noticed the first bite of chocolate is often the tastiest, but we often keep eating more and more to try and chase the flavour? Slowing down and paying attention to the taste of food will often give us more enjoyment from eating our favourite foods like chocolate.
Mindful eating doesn’t mean we have to cut out our favourite foods like diets often do. With mindful eating there are no good or bad foods, just a greater appreciation for eating with some fabulous physical and mental health benefits to boot!
*If you have a history of trauma, make sure to chat with a trauma-informed therapist as some mindfulness activities like meditation need to be adapted to suit your situation.