By Aparna Mele, MD
Not just a trendy mental game, mindful eating is a sort of meditation in motion being actively studied for its far-reaching health benefits. This kind of practice, like other mindfulness techniques, emphasizes judgment-free awareness of your thoughts, emotions, and sensory experiences to help you focus on the meal you are eating, using all of your senses, to gain control of your eating habits.
Fundamentally, it involves:
- eating slowly and without distraction
- listening to physical hunger cues and eating only until you’re full
- distinguishing between true hunger and non-hunger triggers for eating
- engaging your senses by noticing colors, smells, sounds, textures, and flavors
- learning to cope with guilt and anxiety about food
- eating to maintain your overall health and well-being
- noticing the effects that food has on your feelings and figure
- appreciating your food
Today’s fast-paced society gives us an abundance of food choices. Between that and the distractions of technology that shifts attention, eating has become a mindless rush job. Beyond completely removing the entire pleasure of eating, it can cause overeating as well. Since it takes your brain up to 20 minutes to realize you’re full, eating too quickly means the satiety signal may arrive too late, ie binge eating.
By eating mindfully, you restore your attention and slow down, making eating an intentional act instead of an automatic one. It encourages people to chew and savor their meal more and this increases your recognition of physical hunger and fullness cues. In this way people can distinguish between emotional hunger and true physical hunger.
It has already shown us in previous studies that asking people to recall in detail what they ate at lunch leads them to eat less for an afternoon snack. Research has supported the idea that the degree of hunger you feel is dictated in part by your conscious awareness, not just by how much food you have consumed. Mindful eating strengthens your recall of what you have eaten as well, thereby controlling your appetite and by extension, your intake.
Mastery of mindful eating may also reduce cravings. A study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine that found that when people practiced mindful eating, they ate less in response to cravings and this had a small but measurable effect on their weight. Because of its emphasis on awareness of thoughts and emotions and their origins, mindful eating forces youto tune into your body and promotes healthier eating habits. It can ultimately increase self-awareness of triggers that tempt you to want to eat, even though you’re not necessarily hungry, and by understanding these triggers, you can distance yourself from them and control your response.
Now that I have convinced you that mindful eating is worthwhile, how to begin the practice? Start with one meal of the day and eliminate distractions by turning off the TV and putting down your phone. Practice eating more slowly and not rushing through the meal. Chew thoroughly, eat in silence, and focus on how the food makes you feel. Self-gauge as you proceed with the meal and stop eating when your stomach feels full. Ask yourself why you’re eating, whether you’re truly hungry, and whether the food you chose is healthy.
Once you have the hang of it, mindfulness will become more natural. Then you can focus on implementing these habits with all of your meals. Welcome to a positive relationship with food!