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Mindful Eating: What It Is and How to Practice It

You’ve likely heard the term “mindfulness,” a trend which has seen increasing popularity in recent years. Mindfulness revolves around the concept of enhancing our observational awareness by being accepting of and fully engaged in the present moment. And it can be applied anywhere: mindful eating, mindful walking, mindful dating, and so on.

In a mindful headspace, we’re able to train our attention to redirect to the here and now, recognize thoughts that arise without judging them, and mentally pause before deciding how to respond to different circumstances.

Mindfulness is a skill that can be practiced and developed. It is through becoming mindful that we can transition from living on “autopilot” (performing tasks with little to no awareness or conscious agency over decision-making) to feeling more present, engaged, and in control of our lives.

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Our increased mental awareness allows us to separate thoughts (positive, negative, and neutral) from actions and behaviors taken as a result of those thoughts.

 
 
Practicing mindfulness has been associated with several positive health outcomes. Several studies have demonstrated the numerous benefits of mindfulness-based interventions such as reducing stress, improving psychological mood and well-being, and increasing life satisfaction.

Through becoming mindful, we can transition from living on “autopilot” to feeling more present, engaged, and in control of our lives.

 
Mindfulness can be explored through a variety of activities in our daily lives. While this is often associated with solitary self-care practices such as meditation, being in nature, and “unplugging” from technological devices, everyday routines (like eating!) are just as much of an opportunity to practice being mindful.
 

What Is Mindful Eating?

Seattle-based researchers in a 2009 paper referred to mindful eating as the non-judgmental awareness of the physical and emotional sensations associated with eating.

This basically means that while we’re eating, we’re a fully present observer who engages our senses to simply notice the different aspects of our meal (such as how the food tastes, how full we feel, or what emotions come up as a result of eating the food).

Everyday routines (like eating!) are an opportunity to practice being mindful.

 
Mindful eating encourages us to slow down and fully experience our food each time we eat.

Though the concept of mindful eating is relatively straightforward, it can be challenging to implement. It’s often a stark contrast to how many of us normally eat, which is usually done while distracted, stressed, or rushed.
 

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On a typical day it’s easy to overlook how fast or how much we’re eating, or to even remember what we ate that day to begin with!

According to Icelandic dietitian Adda Bjarnadottir, there are certain eating behaviors that fall into the category of “mindless eating.” These include:

1. Distracted

Because we live in a fast-paced society, our busy lives often involve a lot of multi-tasking. It’s incredibly common to eat while doing another activity, such as continuing to work, scrolling through messages or social media, or watching TV to unwind.

What often happens in these scenarios is that we end up eating past the point of feeling full (this is frequently referred to as disinhibition), picking foods that are more energy dense than nutrient dense (such as baked goods, candy, and fried foods), or feeling overwhelmed and/or out of control.

2. Externally Motivated

Our decision to make certain food choices often comes from external cues that we don’t consciously recognize. These can be anything from becoming hungry after watching a food commercial, smelling food being prepared, or choosing a quick and convenient food item because we are short on time.

We may also find we have a specific “craving” for a particular food. However, this notion of craving is actually psychological and motivated by external factors. This is different from hunger, the body’s biological need to consume food, and satiety, the physical sensation produced by the body to indicate lasting fullness.

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3. Emotional

Food often provides swift relief from stressors like work, school, commuting or organizing an event. However, the experience can abruptly turn into a negative one if we feel regretful, guilty, or ashamed of the food choices we made to soothe our feelings or cravings.

These troublesome thoughts and triggers make eating a source of distress and we may struggle to enjoy the eating experience.

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How Can Mindful Eating Help?

Mindful eating has been shown to help reduce disordered eating behaviors and improve overall relationship to food.

A study conducted in Australia found that participants who were mindful eaters were less likely to be prompted by emotional cues or struggle to stop eating when full, while subjects at a Canadian university who exhibited mindfulness traits reported higher self-regulation and showed more preference for selecting nutrient-dense food choices.

These findings are part of a rich body of literature which suggests that everyday mindfulness and mindful eating are positive influences on eating behavior.

Learning to practice mindful eating allows us to better identify our internal hunger and fullness cues, recognize the thoughts we have around eating, and have more appreciation for and enjoyment during our meal.

We also are more likely to be relaxed and calm when eating, which usually decreases any physical or emotional discomfort.

 

Follow These 6 Tips to Encourage Mindful Eating:

To effectively practice mindful eating, use these six tips to become deeply present during your meal.

1. Turn Off Distractions

Remove distractions, such as phones, computers, and TVs throughout your meal.

2. Turn On the Lights

Keep your dining area well-lit to see food clearly and engage all five senses when eating.

3. Take Your Time

Eat slowly, chew thoroughly, and swallow before taking more food.

4. Take Breaks

Place your utensil (fork, spoon, knife) down after each bite of food.

5. Observe Sensation

Focus on when you start to become physically full.

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6. Bring Your Awareness Inward

Pay attention to any thoughts that come up while you’re eating.
 

Mindful Eating: The Takeaway

Mindful eating increases our ability to observe our individual triggers and thoughts around our eating behaviors without judgment, which helps us recognize our autonomy and allows us to make changes if we so choose.

Mindful eating can also improve our attitude toward food so that we consider eating an enjoyable experience . . . and who doesn’t want that?

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