Mindful eating is the quality or state of being conscious or aware of what you are eating. Think: Meditation meets yoga meets The Iron Chef. If you’ve struggled with stress eating, impulsive eating, or other behaviors, a number of studies show practicing mindful eating long term can help you improve your relationship with food.
The most valuable takeaways from mindful eating include learning how to distinguish emotional hunger from physical hunger and learning what your personal hunger and satiety (satisfaction) signals are. Learning how to eat mindfully may mean putting your phone away (yeah, it’s hard), unplugging the TV, and closing the laptop. But the payoff can mean better eating habits and health for you. Plus, after enough practice, you might able to describe food better than Nigella Lawson.
Getting in touch with your hunger signals
Practicing mindful eating starts way before you boil water for your pasta or zap a frozen meal. You’ll need to begin to understand your personal hunger signals and whether your body is genuinely hungry.
Know your personal hunger signals.
Are you responding to emotion or are you responding to what your body needs? Often we head for the food when we listen to our minds and what we desire. If we stop and check-in with our bodies before we eat, we can consciously decide why we are eating.
Understand emotional eating
Emotional eating is the tendency to eat in response to both positive and negative emotions.
It’s normal—and totally okay if it’s occasional. But emotional eating on a daily basis (or more) can lead to overeating.
Sometimes parents reward children with food, and that can set up a pattern of using food on a day-to-day basis to celebrate (instead of saving food celebrations for special events like holidays and birthdays). Or, sometimes people comfort themselves with food when they’re bored, stressed, or sad—eating triggers your body to release dopamine, a “feel good” hormone.
If emotional eating becomes a problem, you can begin to unlearn it. Try these steps:
Practice mindfulness when eating.
Identify why you are eating.
Recognize the cycle of your emotional eating:
Something upsets you
You feel an overwhelming urge to eat
You eat more than you know you should
You feel guilty and powerless over food
The cycle continues
How to tell emotional hunger from physical hunger
Comes on suddenly
Feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly
Craves specific comfort foods
Isn’t satisfied with a full stomach
Triggers feelings of guilt, powerlessness, and shame
Comes on gradually; physical hunger can wait
Is open to options; lots of things sound good
Stops when you’re full
Eating to satisfy physical hunger doesn’t make your feel bad about yourself
Mindful eating is designed to help you really understand your body’s cues and why you’re eating, while helping you enjoy food while you eat. It takes practice and dedication. Here are a few action steps you can take to help you polish this skill.
Mindful eating steps before you eat
Moderation is an important part of mindful eating. You are choosing smaller portions to prevent overeating and are more conscious of what you are eating. A few things you can do to help you eat more moderately: Use a smaller dinner plate and fill your plate only once.
Make it a practice of pausing before eating and expressing gratefulness for the food before you. Acknowledge the farmer, thank the person who prepared your meal and think about the nourishment the food will give your body.
A great way to incorporate mindful eating into your life is to use the breath. Make it a practice of pausing before you begin to eat to take a breath. Pause and breathe in and out a few times before starting your meal to help you become more aware and conscious of what, how, and why you are eating.
Mindful eating during a meal
As you prepare and sit down to eat your meal, take notice of the sounds, colors, smells and textures or the food as well as your response to them. Your experience with food is happening more than just in your mouth. Pause with your first bite, before chewing, as if this is the first time you are tasting it. As you practice engaging all of your senses, you may find your tastes change, increasing enjoyment of the “healthy food.”
Let your body catch up to your brain
Slow down and do not eat past full. Consciously choosing smaller bites and chewing them well can help you slow down. Slowing down when you eat, allows your mind and body to communicate what you really need for nutrition. It takes 20 minutes for the brain to register with the stomach that you are satiated, which is why it is easy to overeat.
Easy ways to curb overeating:
Sit down at the table to eat
Chew each bite 25 times
Set your fork down between bites
Savor small bites and chew thoroughly
Take some time to log your meals, movement, and other dailies in the app to track your progress. It gives you time to reflect, and science shows it supports your success.