In today’s fast-paced society, eating can often be something that we do quickly, distracted, and without much thought. But since it takes your brain up to 20 minutes to recognise when you’re full, these habits can be problematic.
Mindful eating is a practice designed to eliminate distractions and bring your full attention back to your food. Research has shown that there are many benefits to mindful eating, including healthy weight maintenance, improved portion control, and a greater appreciation of what we’re eating.
But how exactly does mindful eating work?
Here we’ll explain everything you need to know about mindful eating – including what it is, what the benefits are, and how you can get started.
What is mindful eating?
Mindful eating is a technique designed to help people gain control over their eating habits by tuning into their cravings and physical hunger cues.
In the same way, mindful eating is about increasing awareness of your food and your experience of it. It involves thinking about how food makes you feel; noticing its texture, flavour, smell, colour, and tuning into the signals your body sends out about satisfaction and fullness.
You can also stretch the experience of mindful eating further by practising mindful cooking. Again, this involves focusing your full attention on the act and cooking and focusing on the smells, sounds, and methods you otherwise might take for granted.
What are the benefits of mindful eating?
In today’s society, we’re sometimes faced with an abundance of tempting food choices – in supermarkets, restaurants, and cafes – as well as various distractions like televisions, smartphones, and computers that shift our attention away from the act of eating food.
Mindful eating has many benefits, and experts believe that it can be a powerful tool in helping to tackle various issues like overeating and obesity. It can also increase food satisfaction and help people to free themselves from unhealthy eating habits.
Below, we’ll take a closer look at some of the main benefits of mindful eating.
Mindful eating is linked with healthy weight loss and maintenance
It’s a well-known fact that quick-fix weight loss programmes don’t lead to long-term results. In fact, this study revealed that 85% of obese people who lose weight either return to or exceed their original weight within a few years.
Research has also linked things like binge eating, emotional eating (due to stress, for example), and eating in response to food cravings with weight gain.
However, many studies have suggested that mindful eating can help people lose weight and maintain healthy results by reducing stress and encouraging them to alter unhelpful eating behaviours.
For example, this study found that during a six-week seminar on mindful eating (and a 12-week follow-up period) attended by people with obesity, there was an average weight loss of 4kg.
Mindful eating helps to promote healthy portion control
The slow, intentional act of mindful eating has been shown to help prevent overeating and encourage healthy portion control for a number of reasons.
Firstly, eating too quickly often causes people to overeat because, as research shows, it takes the brain around 20 minutes to send out signals of fullness and tell you that you’ve eaten enough. Mindful eating can help with this because it encourages people to slow down and feel full with less food as a result.
Mindful eating is also centered on eating without distraction – which science reveals is another common culprit when it comes to overeating. Some of the most common distractions include eating in front of the television, eating while reading, and scrolling through your phone during mealtimes.
For example, this study found that people who watched television while eating their meals ate 36% more pizza and 71% more macaroni cheese than those who ate without distractions. This suggests that limiting distractions and focusing solely on enjoying the food in front of you, can make a huge difference to how much you eat.
Mindful eating may help to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression
Research suggests that mindfulness-based exercises like mindful eating can help to improve symptoms of anxiety and depression, and reduce levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). This is largely because focussing on the present moment can steer your mind away from past or future regrets and fears.
Participants of this mindful eating study experienced improved self-esteem, body image, overall quality of life, and less depression and anxiety.
Interestingly, another study also found that people who practise mindful activities have more gray matter in regions of the brain that are important for emotional regulation, mental flexibility, and attention.
Mindful eating can help to prevent emotional eating
We don’t always eat only to satisfy our physical hunger and many of us will have experienced turning to food for stress relief, comfort, or to reward ourselves. And, when we do, more often than not it’s the chocolate, sweets, and junk food we prefer to reach for.
Emotional eating is essentially the act of turning to food to make yourself feel better. However, because emotional eating doesn’t usually fix the issue at hand, it can sometimes make us feel worse than before.
Research has shown that mindful eating can be a useful tool in helping to prevent emotional eating. It’s thought that this could be due to the positive effect that mindfulness exercises have on anxiety and depression by helping to provide a useful coping mechanism.
As concluded by this study, mindfulness training can help people develop the skills needed to be aware of and accept their own thoughts and emotions without judgment – and learn to distinguish between emotional and physical hunger cues. These skills can improve a person’s ability to cope with the psychological distress that sometimes leads to emotional eating.
Other studies looking at women’s eating behaviours and attitudes found that those who show more signs of mindful eating are less likely to display disordered eating behaviours.
Mindful eating can aid healthy digestion
One of the most overlooked and important parts of digestion takes part in your mouth. It’s here, rather than in your stomach, that digestion really starts.
When we eat, the digestive enzyme amylase is produced in our mouths to kick-start the digestion of carbohydrates. Our teeth are also responsible for chewing food into smaller pieces so that the enzymes along your digestive tract can break them down easier.
As a result, poor chewing and eating too quickly can lead to digestive problems like indigestion and bloating. Research has also revealed that not chewing your food enough is linked with decreased nutrient absorption, while chewing properly was found to reduce stress (and stress is another known contributor to digestive issues).
But, mindful eating may help to improve digestion by reducing stress levels, preventing overeating, and increasing the amount of time it takes a person to finish meals.
Mindful eating can increase food satisfaction and gratitude
Research suggests that practising mindful eating can increase awareness of hunger and satisfaction cues and leave you feeling more appreciative of the food in front of you.
This is largely due to slowing down and shifting your attention away from external distractions.
Mindful eating is sustainable and can be practised long-term
Studies have shown that mindful eating interventions have good retention rates – meaning people are more likely to continue practising the behaviourial and habit changes rather than if they were on a diet.
This means that rather than being a quick-fix solution to issues like overeating, emotional eating, and stress, mindful eating can be successfully practised long-term as part of a healthy lifestyle.
4 tips for mindful eating
If you’re just getting started with mindful eating, it can help to ease yourself in slowly – for example, by picking one meal per day to practise.
As you get used to it, mindful eating should become more natural and something you can more easily incorporate into your day.
Below are a few tips to help you get started.
1. Remove distractions
When you’re going to eat, remove all distractions that could shift your focus away from the food in front of you. Switch off your phone and television, and move away from areas like your desk where you may feel tempted to multitask.
If possible, it’s recommended that we sit at a kitchen or dining room table instead of on the sofa. Research shows people are more likely to pay full attention to their food, savour it, and make healthier choices when sitting at a table.
2. Pause and take time to breath
In our busy lives we might find ourselves moving from one task to another without allowing much space for transition. However, taking a moment to close your eyes and practise some breathing exercises before eating will allow your body and mind to settle and shift your focus.
This can also help you to assess any physical sensations you’re experiencing that indicate hunger – for example, stomach rumbling, stomach emptiness, and wanting to eat.
3. Practise gratitude and engage your senses
With the ready availability of food, it’s easy to take it for granted. But before eating, it’s worth taking a moment to practise gratitude for the food on your plate and think about how it got there. Questions like, “who prepared this food for me?” and “who brought the food?” can be useful.
Before taking each mouthful, try to imagine the different ingredients that are making the different flavours, textures, and aromas you experience.
For more tips on how to apply gratitude in your life, you might like to have a read of our article; How practising gratitude can lead to a happier life.
4. Notice how your mind responds to food and tune into your satisfaction cues
Eating slowly encourages you to savour food and notice how it makes you feel. Experts advise eating to a level of comfortable fullness and true satisfaction and taking breaks every so often to tune into these.
When it comes to cravings, it’s also worth taking time to pause and consider whether you’re actually hungry. Could you simply be bored or thirsty instead?
Alongside practise, some people also find it useful to complete an online course or workshop on mindfulness or mindful eating for extra guidance and support. Udemy has a number of courses on mindful eating that you can browse on the learning section of our website.
Mindful eating has become increasingly popular and praised for its many benefits. And once you’ve discovered the many perks for yourself, it’s not hard to understand why this is.
Whether you’d like to maintain a healthy weight, eliminate eating distractions, or simply enjoy greater satisfaction with your food, mindful eating could be the answer to your goals. So why not try it out today?
For more healthy living tips, head over to the diet and nutrition section of our website where you’ll find everything from essential vitamin and mineral guides to ideas for healthy diet swaps.