You may think that you’re practicing mindful eating, but most of us are not. In today’s modern world, distractions are everywhere. Many of us frequently finish a meal without even remembering eating it because we were watching TV, scrolling on our phones, or responding to an email. And while enjoying a show with a meal isn’t inherently bad, constant distractions can turn eating into a mindless act, which can lead to overeating instead of eating for physical hunger and enjoyment.
As a dietitian, my goal is to help individuals feel empowered by their food choices. Food is meant to be enjoyed, after all! One of the best (and research-backed) ways to slow down and enjoy food is through mindful eating. Mindful eating is a popular term in wellness, but I often hear confusion over what exactly it means and how it differs from intuitive eating. Consider this article a crash course in mindful eating and how you can incorporate it into your lifestyle—starting today!
What is mindful eating?
Mindful eating is a component of the practice of mindfulness, which is rooted in Buddhist and Hindu beliefs. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in the field of mindfulness, is largely to thank for popularizing the term that is trendy in secular Western culture today. Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Mindful eating is the art of intentionally paying attention to your food without judgement and utilizing all of your senses during a meal. Tuning in (in a non-judgmental way!) allows you to get curious about your eating behaviors and better understand your thoughts and cues that guide food choices. The intent of mindful eating is to focus on how you feel during a meal and to fully savor food in the present moment.
What’s the difference between mindful eating and intuitive eating?
Mindful eating and intuitive eating are two phrases that often get used interchangeably, but they are not entirely the same. Intuitive eating is an approach to eating created by two registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995, which utilizes your body’s inner wisdom to make food choices instead of external food “rules.” There are 10 principles to intuitive eating, which are aimed at helping individuals become more in tune with their bodies. We are all born as intuitive eaters, but this skill often gets lost as we age due to various external factors such as socioeconomic status, chronic disease, and largely in part diet culture.
While mindful eating is certainly an important component of intuitive eating, it is a different approach to food and nutrition. The main difference between intuitive eating and mindful eating is that mindful eating is focused on being present during a meal by utilizing the senses before, during, and after eating. Intuitive eating, on the other hand, is about reconnecting with your body by rejecting diet culture mentality, honoring your hunger and fullness, and respecting your body. For the TL;DR version, mindful eating is paying attention to your food in the present moment without judgment and intuitive eating is a framework with the goal of making peace with food.
What are the benefits?
Mindful eating has many benefits, but it’s important to note that mindful eating is not meant to be used as a weight loss tool. Medically, mindful eating has been shown to reduce binge eating and emotional eating behaviors in individuals as well as reduce symptoms of irritable bowel sydrome (IBS) and help patients better manage Type 2 diabetes. But beyond that, mindful eating can also help with:
- Digestion, since slowing down during meals helps reduce stress, allowing your body to relax during the digestive process.
- Learning or relearning how to enjoy your food by savoring each bite and utilizing your senses at each meal.
- Getting back in touch with hunger and fullness cues, as practicing mindful eating can help you become more in tune with your body’s needs.
How to incorporate mindful eating:
Eating mindfully is all about bringing awareness to each bite of food. While this may not always be possible (I get it—we’re all busy and stressed!), these are some tips to help you incorporate mindful eating into your daily routine.
Pick one meal to practice with
For those new to mindful eating, it may be helpful to choose one meal to practice more in depth. It’s unrealistic to expect to eat mindfully every single time, but the more you intentionally make time to eat mindfully, the more innate it will become. For example, if you can set aside a short amount of time to practice mindful eating in the morning, use the five minutes it takes to eat your morning cereal or scrambled eggs to put away distractions and eat mindfully. If your days are a rush from the minute you wake up until the end of your work day, turn dinnertime into a mindfulness practice.
Take a pause
I know how easy it can be to instinctively reach for your favorite comfort food after a long, stressful day. But before grabbing a snack from the pantry, pause and ask yourself what you’re really feeling. Is it stress? Sadness? Frustration? Boredom? Or are you physically hungry? Taking a moment to identify what you’re actually feeling can help you make a more mindful choice. If your feeling is not related to physical hunger, try a different activity such as calling a friend, going for a walk, or journaling to help process your thoughts and emotions instead.
Remove or minimize distractions while eating
When sitting down for a meal, removing distractions is essential for mindful eating. This means shutting your work laptop, setting your phone aside, and not turning on the TV. This may not be feasible all the time, and that’s OK! But when you are able to remove distractions, try to focus on the food in front of you or the conversation if you are eating with others.
Whether you are eating quickly to move onto the next task, wolfing down breakfast on a morning commute, or you’re simply a fast eater, eating mindfully is all about slowing down. Taking time to pause during meals can look like setting your fork down between bites, stopping to take a sip of water, or taking a deep breath to check in with your body to see if you are still hungry or comfortably full.
Engage your senses
Take a moment to really look at your food. What about it is visually appealing? What does it smell like? Notice how it feels when you take your first bite. What descriptions come to mind? Is it crunchy? Chewy? Smooth? Paying attention to your senses really helps you savor your meal. After all, mindful eating is not about judging your food but rather about being curious and bringing full awareness to each bite.