If you’re reading this, eating healthy is important to you. You probably make a conscious effort to follow diet recommendations to get the nutrients you need and do your best to adopt healthy eating habits.
And while you feel like you’re doing everything you can to eat a balanced, healthful diet, you often still feel unsatisfied after a meal, overeat, experience cravings, maybe even go on the occasional binge.
Now you’re wondering: does it have to be like this? Do you just have to wait it out until “it gets better”?
We have started to see our body, our health and the food we eat as separate entities which need to be controlled and optimized like variables in an experiment.
In this age of overthinking food choices, overeating and multitasking at the dinner table, it’s time to look beyond what we eat at how we eat.
You can do that by building the habit of mindful eating. This simple yet effective approach can change the way you feel about food and help you take important steps towards the healthy lifestyle you strive to have.
What is mindful eating?
As you might guess, mindful eating is a practice with its roots in Buddhist meditation techniques. These methods focus on cultivating mindfulness, a state where you concentrate on being present and experiencing the moment. When this is done during meals or snacks, you practice mindful eating.
This means you eat slowly and deliberately, being aware of and concentrating deeply on every aspect of the food. This starts with carefully looking at it, taking in its smell and feeling the texture and consistency. When you have a bite, you analyze all the different flavors you detect, the temperature and how it feels while you’re chewing. In short, you experience your food, whether a complex dish or a small piece of fruit, with all your senses.
Becoming aware of every detail of your dish is a big part of mindful eating, but it’s only one variation of the practice. In Buddhist monasteries, for example, monks often eat in complete silence after first meditating in front of their plate.
Similarly, if you participate in a mindful eating workshop, you might be asked to ponder the origin of your food, consider everything it took to grow, transport and prepare it. Only then you eat it and concentrate on this physical aspect.
Even though there are differences in how people practice mindful eating, the overall focus remains the same: to deeply experience the food instead of overanalyzing your choices, their nutritious value or energy content.
How Mindfulness Can Impact Health & Happiness
Mindfulness is a meditation practice which helps you slow down, recognize, and cope with thoughts, feelings and sensations in the present moment.
Mindful eating is the same thing but with food.
Mindfulness and Health
When eating mindfully, you pay close attention to your food. Unsurprisingly, slowing down and avoiding distractions are two main pillars of this practice. They help you shift awareness to the dish in front of you, how much you’ve eaten and how your body reacts to it. And since you’re concentrated, it’ll be easier to identify and differentiate sensations such as real hunger, satiety, cravings, and emotional eating urges.
Developing an antenna for your body’s signals will help you understand and respond to its needs. For example, as you get into the habit of eating mindfully, you’ll learn to recognize when you’re full and stop eating, thereby avoiding the dreaded “food coma”.
Or you’ll notice your body desires a specific food. That could be bananas after a workout or a fruit high in Vitamin C when you’re feeling a bit under the weather.
Connecting with your body will also make it easier for you to identify patterns in your eating habits.
For example, you’ll know when you usually get hungry, how you feel when you’re hungry (faint, cranky, sleepy?) and what might trigger hunger when it’s not time to eat (e.g. walking past your favorite restaurant or seeing a photo of a yummy dish on social media).
It’ll also become easier to identify behaviors like emotional and binge eating, giving you a chance to finally break them.
If you pay close enough attention, you’ll also see how different types of food affect your mood and energy levels. While a sugary treat can give you a sudden boost and leave you hungry, a bowl of brown rice and veggies can keep you energized and satisfied until dinner.
Mindfulness and Happiness
Mindfulness encourages you to slow down, focus and take things as they are. When you’re practicing mindfulness, you don’t need to evaluate or change anything. Look at what is, acknowledge it and see the bigger picture.
Mindful eating embraces this as well since it’s about more than just experiencing food. It includes thinking about everything that went into growing, shipping, storing, buying, and preparing it. Another goal is to develop enjoyment, appreciation, and gratitude for it. This approach turns eating into a pleasant experience rather than just a quick pit-stop.
When you start paying attention to what and how you eat, you’ll start having positive feelings about your food and be more satisfied with your meals. This can help you rebuild a good attitude towards eating and renew your relationship with food, something that’s crucial if you want to achieve your health goals.
Your newfound presence around food and the positivity that comes with it will also spill over into other areas of life. For example, you’ll find it easier to enjoy social settings with food and drinks now that you can be mindful of what and how much you have.
Benefits of Mindful Eating in a Nutshell
As you can tell from the points above, mindful eating has plenty of benefits. Here’s a quick recap of the most important ones.
7 Simple Everyday Mindful Eating Exercises
Like meditation, mindful eating is a skill which needs to be developed over time.
Eager to get started? Here are some simple mindful eating exercises you can do during your next meal.
Keep in mind that these exercises will take time to get used to. That’s why doing everything at 100% from the beginning is not the goal. It’s getting started and building your “mindful eating muscle” over time.
1. Slow things down
Remember how your grandma told you to chew each bite fifteen times before swallowing? Now is the time to listen to her. While you might not want to count every single bite, do take the time to chew slowly and deliberately instead of gobbling your meal up and swallowing it almost whole.
If you usually eat in ten minutes, set yourself a timer for fifteen minutes and slow down enough to eat five minutes longer. Easy? Try 20, 25 or 30 minutes!
Maybe you don’t have enough time to spend thirty minutes slowly masticating your sandwich. That’s fine. You can take the first five bites slowly and eat the rest as you usually do. Or finish slow on the last three mouthfuls. Whatever works for you.
2. Enjoy the silence
Meals are a great time to connect with friends, family and coworkers. But having a great conversation distracts you from your food. If you want to develop the habit of eating more mindfully, eating in silence regularly can help.
Feel awkward being the only one at the table not talking? You could practice silence instead of calling or texting someone next time you eat alone. That way you can tune in to yourself and focus on your meal.
This exercise can be fun for families too. If you want to practice eating in silence but don’t want to miss the chance of hearing about your kids’ school day, make it a game to stay quiet for five minutes at the beginning of the meal. Whoever can do it wins. The one who talks gets to do the dishes.
3. Share your mindfulness experience
If eating in silence isn’t your thing, you can talk about what you’re eating. Pay close attention to what you like, be it the texture, taste or temperature, and share it with the people at your table.
Hearing what others notice about their food will often make you take another look at your dish and you might come across something you didn’t notice before.
This is also a great activity to do with kids. It will help them develop a sense of what they enjoy and why. It’s also a chance to practice new food-related words with them so they can better express their experiences.
4. Ditch technology
Speaking of distractions… you were probably expecting this one. Yes, I’m asking you to ditch your phone, TV and other electronic devices you often reach for during lunch.
As we spend more time on screens, mealtimes are a great chance to get away from them. Use this time to enjoy your meal and take a break from the stress of your job.
Think about it honestly: if you don’t immediately get back to an email, will you get fired? Will you have other opportunities to stalk your friends on Facebook and Instagram after you finish eating? See what I mean?
5. Pause and listen
As you eat, stop and pause every so often to see how your body feels. Are you full? Is it making you tired? Do you want more of something? By checking in with yourself, you avoid overeating and you’ll learn to understand how food impacts you.
You could realize which foods leave you bloated, sleepy or energized. Maybe (heaven forbid) you’ll notice that chocolate doesn’t make you as happy as you thought. Or you might even witness your taste buds changing and that you now prefer healthier options over unhealthy foods.
6. Accept and embrace your choices
A lot of guilt and negative feelings about eating come from not owning our food choices. We tell ourselves we’re no longer allowed candy bars or French fries and when we do have them we feel bad and beat ourselves up.
As you begin to eat mindfully, you’ll learn to make your food choices more consciously. Rather than catching yourself eating something you “shouldn’t” halfway through, you can make a deliberate decision before.
If you see something you decided to cut down on or remove from your diet, but you really want it, take the time to ask yourself: how will I feel if I eat this now? If the answer is happy, energized and satisfied, then own it, eat it – and don’t feel bad about it.
If you know you’ll feel guilty afterward, make the decision not to eat it. Taking this short moment to pause and reflect can be the difference between upholding or breaking your eating resolution.
7. Build a habit
Integrating mindful eating into your daily life might seem daunting at first, especially if you are used to eating quickly. That’s why it’s best to start small. Look at your day. Where could you add a few extra minutes to a meal to practice being mindful? Maybe during breakfast? Or is that too stressful and you prefer dinner?
Pick a time that suits you and try any of the exercises outlined above. Maybe test a few of them and stick with the one that’s easiest for you. You can always graduate to the ones you find more difficult later.
Be patient with yourself as you build this habit and stick with it consistently. That way, before you know it, eating mindfully will have become a habit like any other.
Changing how you feel about food is hard since habits are deeply ingrained in us. But practicing mindfulness around food regularly will help bring about gentle change.
The important thing is to go at it slowly and forgive yourself for getting off track. Remember: it’s not about doing it perfectly but getting started and slowly making a lasting transformation.
Over time you’ll see the positive impact of a mindful eating practice in your life. From a better relationship with food, more enjoyment, and satisfaction during and after meals as well as a newfound connection to your body, the benefits are plentiful.
Which of these ideas do you like best? Feel free to share with us your struggles and how mindful eating has impacted your life in the comments below.