What Is Mindful Eating? Plus, How to Get Started
Chances are, if you put the word "mind" anywhere near the word "eating," the combination might conjure up some mind-over-matter willpower battles of the past. But the practice of mindful eating is not about dieting and counting calories, meal plans, and shedding pounds. Think of it more like relationship goals for you and food. And like any good relationship, its building blocks are attentiveness, appreciation, and self-awareness. Mindful eating means, as the name implies, eating mindfully, says Liz Moody, best-selling author of Healthier Together and host of the podcast of the same name. "It means not scarfing down food while you're in transit or munching in front of the television," she says. "To eat mindfully you have to carve out time to eat and actively enjoy your food every day."
The process can help break a pattern of eating because of anxiety, sadness, or stress and also makes both meal prep and the act of eating more enjoyable. "Mindful eating refers to the food or environment, eating without distractions, paying attention to the eating experience—how food tastes, the speed at which you're eating. I also love the emphasis on food preparation in mindful eating," says nutritionist Lauren Slayton, MS RD, founder of Foodtrainers and host of the Foodtrainers podcast.
Becoming Mindful About Food
It means shifting your mindset to be fully attentive to food as you buy, prepare, and consume it so you can enjoy and appreciate it rather than filling a void. This starts with food shopping and food preparation. You control what items to buy based on the knowledge of what really feeds your well-being. This can include awareness of the effort and energy of how and where the food was produced and can also add to a larger, positive connection to the world in general.
Know when you are hungry and dedicate time to eat free of distractions or multi-tasking (no more on-the-go breakfasts while commuting, sad lunches eating at your desk, or dinners while binge-watching your favorite shows). Savor the flavors and sensations, and intentionally pay close attention to how the food you consume makes your body feel. Yes, this likely means you'll need to slow down. (Take smaller bites, chew more, and putting your fork down intermittently are some strategies that can help.) The experience of identifying the things that make your body feel good will help you choose healthier foods.
Sound simple? The basic premise is delightfully un-complex, but like any practice, it takes effort. You are likely undoing years of conditioning and subconscious signaling. "The biggest misconception is that people know how to eat mindfully," says Moody. "We've spent years being conditioned by the media, advertisement, and society to change our notions of what we can and should be eating at any given time. Learning to eat mindfully is a slow process of getting back in touch with your body's actual signals."
She says it's right for almost anyone, "but with the caveat that they'll need to do the work initially to get in touch with their bodies' signals and break down years of eating based on messages from elsewhere." Slayton, while not a practitioner of mindful eating in a formal sense, applies tenets of mindfulness in her clients' overall programs. "Many nutritionists, Foodtrainers included, incorporate mindful eating into broader food plans," she says. "If mealtimes are harried and frenetic, if you're constantly eating while attending to other things, if asked to keep a food journal and you have no idea what you’re consuming, I'd suggest mindful eating."
The process makes healthy eating pleasurable rather than anxiety-ridden, which opens up a world of health benefits. However, this is not a weight loss plan. There's no list of foods to avoid—no special equipment or ingredients. "It's not a tool to help you lose weight, but rather one to help reach a weight that's right for your body," says Moody. "If you truly tune into eating when you're hungry and eating what your body wants and needs, you'll notice yourself naturally consuming less, and eating more healthfully when you do, since nutrient-dense foods are the ones that actually make you feel best."
Slayton agrees that weight loss is not the primary objective. "However for many people, when you improve your eating environment or how you eat… there can be weight loss." Eighty percent of her clients do have weight loss goals and mindful eating can be incorporated into a larger overall nutritional plan. "Primarily, the changes are in your mentality toward food," she says. "All of us can benefit from tech-free meals and from connecting to our food via food preparation."
How to Start Eating More Mindfully
Moody recommends three ways to begin. First Focus on reducing stress in your life. When you're in a state of stress—and most of us are—far too often you can't properly digest food, you can't listen to your body's signals, and you definitely can't eat mindfully. Start a meditation practice, say "no" more often, and generally try to pragmatically contend with stress in your life.
Next, Carve out time to eat and only eat—not on your commute, not at your desk, hunched over your computer, not in front of the television. Chew your food. Taste your food. Last, try a few different foods and really pay attention to how they make you feel. Go extreme! Try a green smoothie one day and a fast food burger the next. Which one makes your stomach feel good? Which gives you energy and which makes you want to take a nap? When you stop associating healthy eating with deprivation and start associating it as a tool to live your best life, you've taken a huge leap in your overall health and your ability to mindfully eat.