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10 Mindful Eating Exercises to Support Healthier Eating Habits

I’ve previously discussed why mindful eating is important, and shared a 5-minute mindful eating exercise to help put it into practice. But, the reality is that mindful eating takes more than 5 minutes to master. So, how do you take small steps to practice mindful eating, so it becomes a daily habit?

Like any healthy habit, mindful eating takes practice and repetition. In this article, we’ll look at how to practice mindful eating, and I’ll introduce you to 10 easy mindful eating exercises that will keep you on track to building eating awareness. 

How to Practice Mindful Eating

At the core of mindful eating is bringing awareness and intention to the act of eating. When we do this it gives us more control and choice over what we eat, and why. It can also allow us to enjoy our food more. 

The challenge for many of us is that we eat on autopilot. On a busy, hectic day, eating often is an afterthought. We eat what’s most convenient as we race from one appointment to another. We don’t stop to think, taste, or enjoy our food. It goes from hand to mouth, and it’s gone with little attention, thought or effort. When we eat on autopilot, it’s difficult to recognize our diet patterns, and make a connection between how we eat and how we feel.

Mindful eating is a way of pushing back against this pattern of eating. But, if you’re used to eating on autopilot, it takes time and effort to change. This isn’t something you’ll master overnight. So, let go of perfectionism, embrace the unknown, and commit to practicing. If you do, you never know what you will learn along the way. 

how to practice mindful eating

Be forewarned, in order to master mindful eating you have to slow down, and focus. This runs against the grain of the fast paced, distracted world we live in. So, expect yourself to get distracted. That’s okay. Notice the distraction and then move on.

The following 10 mindful eating exercises can help keep you on track. If you’re feeling frustrated, come back to this list, and focus on one exercise. Each can shift your perspective in a different way, and you may find some to be more impactful than others. Pretend you’re a scientist, and test each one for yourself to find what best works for you. 

Exercise 1) Set the Stage for Eating

Mindful eating starts before you even take a bite. And your setting can influence your eating habits. So often we eat food when we’re distracted with other things. Maybe we eat while watching TV, or while we’re on the go. Sometimes these things are inevitable or enjoyable. But when we constantly are eating in a distracted state, it becomes very difficult to recognize hunger and satiety cues.

Instead, try the following before you eat:

Sit down in a quiet place – Instead of eating in front of the television, or while scrolling through social media, put away the distractions. Sit down at a table or peaceful place without the distractions of technology. 

Observe your surroundings – What do you notice around you? Tune into the sights, sounds and smells around you. Try to notice your surroundings before you begin to eat. 

Notice how you feel – Are you feeling hungry or stressed? Is there something in your surroundings that’s agitating you or distracting you? Try to just observe how you are feeling in the moment. 

Setting the stage for eating is an important part of mindful eating, and can influence our eating behavior. The idea of this exercise it to build awareness for how our surroundings can effect our feelings and behaviors around eating. 

Exercise 2) Get Curious About What’s Driving Your Hunger

Too often, dieting and eating healthy gets filled with rules of what you should be eating vs what you shouldn’t be eating. And when we fail to comply with those arbitrary rules, we often get filled with feelings of guilt. That’s a waste of time.

Instead, try practicing curiosity without judgment or guilt. By leading with curiosity, you can approach your food with fresh eyes and an open mind. 

The next time you reach for a snack, pause and practice curiosity. 

Ask yourself “why am I eating right now?”

Usually, our eating urge can be driven by physical hunger or emotional hunger.

Physical hunger is characterized by:

  • A gradual onset that develops over time as energy is depleted, and intensifies
  • Stomach growling that occurs as stomach muscles contract in response to an empty stomach
  • A sensation of hollowness or emptiness in the stomach, with mild discomfort
  • Difficulty concentrating and focusing on tasks
  • Irritability or mood swings, and anxiety

Emotional hunger is characterized by:

  • A sudden and unexpected onset, that may arise in response to emotions or stressful situations 
  • Absence of physical symptoms such as stomach growling or feelings of emptiness
  • Specific food cravings for “comfort foods” that provide temporary relief from emotional distress. These are often high in sugar, fat, or salt.
  • A desire to seek emotional comfort or solace instead of physical sustenance
  • Triggered by feelings of stress, anxiety, fear, sadness, loneliness or boredom
  • Feelings of guilt, shame, or regret after eating
  • Temporary relief from emotional distress

Ask yourself which one is driving you. This kind of curiosity can help you to better understand your eating cues, and empower you to make choices that better satisfy your needs.

Exercise 3) Press Pause Between Each Bite

One of the things that makes the curiosity exercise above so powerful is the introduction of a pause before eating. This one simple pause allows us to question our motivations, practice awareness, and then make an eating choice that serves us best. 

This exercise builds on that practice by adding intentional pauses throughout your meal to check in with yourself. 

Start with a pause before you eat like the one described in the previous exercise.

Then add a pause after your first bite. Notice the taste and texture of the food. How does it feel in your mouth? What are the flavors you notice? Do those flavors change over time as you sit with them? 

Add a pause halfway through your meal to notice how you feel. Ask yourself if you feel satisfied. Do you feel full? Or are you still hungry? Maybe you feel physically full, but you also feel compelled to keep eating because the food tastes so good. Or maybe you feel in a rush to finish eating because you have to get back to work. Whatever it may be, just pause, observe, and move on. 

Pause after your meal. Again, take a moment to notice how you feel. Are you hungry? Overfull? Comfortable?

It’s easy to rush through a meal on autopilot without even enjoying it. By pausing, you can better understand your food choices, notice your hunger and satiety cues, and actually pause to enjoy the taste of your food.

Exercise 4) Tune into Your Hunger and Satiety Cues

Sometimes, when life is really busy, we get really good at ignoring our body’s hunger and satiety cues. In this exercise, you can use the hunger and satiety scale to develop a deeper awareness of your body’s inner cues that tell you when you’re hungry or full. 

Before taking your first bite, close your eyes and assess your level of hunger on a scale from 1 to 10. Do this again midway through your meal, and at the end of your meal. 

  • 1 is Painfully Hungry: You may feel weak, light-headed, physically uncomfortable, depressed, and likely irritable.
  • 3 is Hungry: Your stomach feels empty, may be growling, have a strong urge to eat. This is the best time to eat. 
  • 7 is Satisfied: You feel satisfied and comfortable. You have room for more food if you wanted, but your initial hunger has subsided. 
  • 10 is Beyond Full: feeling stuffed or bloated

Tuning into your hunger and satiety cues can help you develop a healthier relationship with food and avoid emotional eating. The goal is to eat when you’re hungry, at a 3,  and stop when you’re satisfied at a 7. 

You can use this chart to help guide you.

mindful eating hunger satiety scale

Exercise 5) Keep a Mindful Eating Journal

Keeping a mindful eating journal can be a good way to track and reflect on your feelings and experiences around eating. And, it doesn’t have to be complicated. You can start with just a simple handwritten notebook, or keep a document on your phone.

Before each meal or snack, write down a couple notes on where you’re at, your level of hunger, and note any other emotions you’re feeling at the moment – maybe stress, overwhelm, joy. 

After eating, reflect and write down how you feel as well. Do you feel satisfied? Take a moment to recognize how you feel after. What emotions or thoughts do you feel now that you didn’t before you started eating? 

A mindful eating journal can be a simple way to practice curiosity about your eating behavior. It should be a place to observe, reflect and record feelings without getting bogged down in judgement of your eating choices. This can help you identify patterns and triggers related to food.

Exercise 6) Resist the Urge to Judge

Too often we categorize foods into “good” or “bad”, “healthy” or “junk” food. Sometimes this thinking pattern can bleed into our own psyche as well, and we can personalize our eating choices as a reflection of ourselves. 

Maybe we reach for something we think of as “junk” food and shortly after, we label ourselves as “weak” or a “failure” because we couldn’t resist our craving. This behavior turns eating into an emotionally exhausting experience.

And, unfortunately, these thoughts, like our eating habits, often run on autopilot. These self-criticisms can turn into a non-stop inner dialogue, drowning out your inner hunger and satiety cues.

So, when you notice these self-criticisms arriving when eating, or thinking about food, don’t let them carry away your focus. Instead, try the following:

Pause: Take a moment to pause and recognize the thoughts or judgments that arise regarding your food or food choices. Don’t let them run away with your thoughts, just pause and notice them arising. Allow yourself to acknowledge these thoughts without immediately believing or reacting to them.

Acknowledge: Acknowledge the judgmental thoughts or feelings without attaching value to them. Simply recognize that they exist without engaging with them or allowing them to influence your behavior.

Practice Curiosity: Shift your focus from judgment to curiosity by exploring why these thoughts or judgments have arisen. Approach your food choices with a sense of curiosity and openness, seeking to understand the underlying reasons behind your judgments.

Ask yourself questions like:

  • “Why do I feel this way about my food choice?”
  • “What beliefs or past experiences might be influencing my judgment?”

Dismiss and Move On: Once you’ve acknowledged and explored the judgmental thoughts, consciously choose to dismiss them and redirect your attention to the present moment. Refrain from dwelling on the judgments or allowing them to dictate your actions.

By following these steps, you can cultivate a more mindful and compassionate relationship with your food and food choices, allowing yourself to enjoy eating without the burden of judgment.

Exercise 7) Savor the Sweet Experience

Nobody has a perfect diet and there’s a place for sweet indulgences on occasion. But, oftentimes we rush through eating these sweet delights without even enjoying the experience.

Sweet sugary foods don’t typically have a high satiety level – they don’t make us feel full. So, I recommend slowing down to savor the sweet experience. By doing so, you will enjoy the experience more, and feel more satisfied when you’re done, thus reducing your need to reach for more.

I’ve previously written about practicing mindfulness with chocolate, but you can follow the same process with any sweet treat, or desert item. Maybe there’s an item you love, and often eat so quickly it’s gone before you know it. 

  1. Choose Your Preferred Sweet to Savor
  2. Sit Down Somewhere Without Distraction
  3. Close Your Eyes And Take 5 Deep Breaths
  4. Notice the Air as it Enters and Exits Your Lungs
  5. Notice What Emotions or Feelings Come Up in this Moment
  6. Open Your Eyes and Examine the Sweet Treat You’ve Chosen
  7. Smell the Food in Front of You and Name the Aromas You Notice
  8. Take a Small Bite and Notice Each Flavor in Your Mouth Before Swallowing
  9. Pause Before Taking Your Next Bite
  10. Continue Eating With Pauses to Reflect on the Taste and Your Own Sense of Satisfaction

Exercise 8) Fiber and Fullness Experiment

We’re always told to eat more fruit and vegetables. And, sometimes people think that juicing those fruits and veggies are just as helpful as eating them. But it’s not, because when we juice a food, we remove the fiber which can improve our cholesterol, blood sugars, and support a healthy gut. Food with fiber also affects our sense of satiety or fullness. And, that’s what this exercise focuses on. 

This exercise needs to be performed on two different days, or at two different times of the same day not following another meal or snack. And, you’ll use the hunger-satiety scale from above. 

  1. Drink 4 ounces of apple juice when you are hungry
  2. Rate your level of hunger/satiety immediately after
  3. On the following day, eat a medium size apple when you’re hungry. 
  4. Rate your level of hunger/satiety immediately after

Lastly, take a moment to reflect on how these two experiences differed. Did they affect your feeling of hunger and satiety? Both of these have the same amount of calories and sugar. Does that surprise you?

This is an exercise that’s adapted from the book The Mindful Diet, which I highly recommend to those who want to better understand their eating habits and learn more about mindful eating. 

Exercise 9) Track Your Food and Feelings

Tracking your meals can be tedious. It’s one of the reasons I don’t like tracking calories. But, at the same time, temporarily tracking what you eat can help build awareness. 

So instead of tracking calories, try focusing on one single thing like fiber, or protein. 

For example, it’s recommended to eat 25-30 grams of fiber per day. Most Americans don’t get anywhere close to that target. Try tracking your fiber intake for a couple of days to see where you land. Then take note of how increasing your fiber intake makes you feel. 

You could also try tracking your protein or water intake. Note how you feel when you have less or more of each. 

Exercise 10) Embrace Imperfection

This is more of a reminder than a specific exercise. Mindful eating is not something you need to do perfectly to get benefit from. You just need to practice it. By doing so, you’ll become more aware of your food choices, and learn to eat in a way that naturally fulfills you. 

So, don’t let perfection get in the way of progress. By approaching each meal with attention, intention, and compassion you’re certain to make consistent progress. 

I guarantee you’ll find yourself eating mindlessly on autopilot from time to time. And, when you do, just observe it and move on. There’s no need to get frustrated. Imperfection is expected.

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