Perhaps you’ve heard of mindful eating, and you’re wondering what it’s all about. More specifically, why is mindful eating important? Is it something you should consider trying?
In a world that is constantly distracted and focused on the next task, it can be difficult to focus on anything for more than a few minutes, even our own food. In our fast-paced society, it’s easy to mindlessly shovel food into our mouths without paying attention to what we’re eating or how we’re feeling. I believe that this is one of the biggest challenges to healthy eating, that is too often overlooked.
How can we possibly change our diet for the better, if we’re not even paying attention to what we’re eating and how it makes us feel? We can’t. So, let’s take a closer look at why mindful eating is so important in our distracted world.
Table of Contents
What Does it Mean to Eat Mindfully?
To better understand mindful eating, I think it’s important to first define mindfulness.
Mindful.org defines mindfulness as “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”
So, if we apply this definition to eating behaviors, mindful eating starts when we intentionally pay attention while we eat. Notice I said while we eat, not what we eat.
Focusing on How We Eat Before What We Eat
Our society is way too fixated on “good foods” and “bad foods”. Nutrition and fitness professionals constantly spew recommendations about what you should be eating, or what you shouldn’t be eating.
But, while the content of your food is important, we seldom pay enough attention to the process of eating and the thoughts, feelings, and situations that guide our food choices.
To summarize, we’re often told what to eat. But we’re not often taught how to eat.
Why Mindful Eating is Important
When practicing mindful eating, the goal is to be present and aware of the experience of eating, without judgment. It begins by pausing and slowing down to observe as you eat.
By doing so, we can more easily recognize:
The physical sensations of hunger and fullness cues
Emotions that we feel before, during, and after eating
Thoughts or stories that we tell ourselves about food, our bodies, and our worthiness
All of these factors play a role in our relationship with food. And by paying attention to them, we give ourselves the opportunity to make more intentional choices about what and how much we eat.
Examples of Mindful Eating in Action
To better understand the importance of mindful eating, it might be helpful to look at a couple of examples.
Example 1 of Mindful Eating
Imagine the following situation:
Jack opens the fridge door and finds himself searching for snacks. Before mindlessly reaching in for a snack, he pauses to see how his body feels.
In the process, he notices that he doesn’t feel hungry. And rather than feeling hunger pangs, he feels stressed out. He realizes that he’s looking for something to soothe him, not nourish him. So, he closes the fridge, takes a few deep breaths, and then ponders what might actually soothe him at this moment.
By listening to his physical hunger cues and bodily sensations, he realizes that he actually just wants to move. So Instead of reaching for the leftover pie, he decides to take a short brisk walk outside.
Ten minutes later he returns from his walk, feeling energized, relaxed, and satisfied. And by doing so, he avoids the temptation of emotional eating when he’s not actually hungry.
Example 2 of Mindful Eating
Here’s another situation you might be able to relate to:
Jill finishes work after a long, stressful day. She was so busy she skipped her lunch break. As she searches the pantry her hunger cues are screaming at her, and instinctually she wants to reach for anything and everything she sees: the cookies, some crackers, some leftover Halloween candy, chips… maybe some cheese from the fridge.
But before she reaches for anything, she pauses to ask herself, “what’s going to satisfy me the most right now?”
She knows that she’s going to be making dinner soon, but she needs something sufficient enough to satisfy her hunger before dinner is ready in a couple of hours.
Combining mindfulness with her nutrition knowledge, she knows that:
Her body is craving sugar because it’s a quick source of energy
Mindlessly grazing on sugars and starches will likely lead to overeating without satisfying her hunger
By pairing a starch with some protein and fiber she’s most likely to get an energy boost and satisfaction without overeating
So, she eats one slice of cheese with a couple of crackers and then decides to pair some apple slices with some peanut butter. After eating this snack, she notices her body relax with satisfaction.
She will still need to eat dinner. But, rather than mindlessly eating low-quality foods until dinner time, she’s able to make healthier food choices that satisfy her hunger, while reducing overeating.
The Power of Eating Mindfully
What did you notice about the mindful eating examples above? Did you notice how mindful eating shifted automatic behaviors into intentional choices?
In the first example, the person wasn’t controlled by their emotions or thoughts. They were able to pause, take a step back, observe how they felt, and make a decision based on what they needed at that moment.
The second example is similar. The person was able to listen to their hunger cues while also applying their knowledge about food to make a decision that would satisfy them.
In both examples, the people who were practicing mindful eating made choices that supported their health and well-being. They weren’t making automatic decisions based on emotions, thoughts, or cravings. Instead, they were making choices based on what their bodies needed.
4 Basic Steps to Mindful Eating
And all that power is rooted in a few basic steps, that we are all capable of:
Listening to ourselves
Getting curious about what we notice
Intentionally making a choice that’s in alignment with what we notice
How Does Mindfulness Contribute to Healthy Eating?
At this point, it should be becoming more clear to you how mindful eating techniques can contribute to healthier food choices.
Helps you become more aware of your eating habits and understand your food choices
Teaches you how to listen to your body’s hunger cues
Replaces guilt with curiosity and awareness
Turns automatic actions into intentional choices
Restores control over food choices and eating behaviors
Can help you lose weight without rigid rules or calorie counting
All of these benefits are rooted in the fact that mindful eating helps you foster awareness. When you’re more aware of why you’re eating, what you’re eating, and how you’re feeling before and after eating, it becomes easier to make healthier choices.
Letting Go of Guilt
One of the most important things about mindful eating is that it teaches you to let go of guilt. Too often, diet culture fills people up with shame. If we fail to follow a diet, or we eat the “wrong” food we feel like we’re a failure. We feel like we’re weak, or even hopeless.
But, with mindful eating, the goal is not to judge your decisions. The goal is to observe your hunger cues and eating behaviors without guilt. Instead, mindful eating invites you to get curious about your actions, without judging them.
So, here’s another example:
Let’s say I ate an entire package of cookies on my drive home from the store (I’ve certainly done this before). It might be tempting to shame myself and tell myself I have no self-control. I may even tell myself I’m lazy and unworthy of love. Sounds extreme, I know, but we can be pretty nasty to ourselves.
But, if I pause, and choose to examine my situation without guilt or judgment, I might notice the preceding actions that triggered me to binge eat that box of cookies. If I review my day I might recognize that I slept poorly the night before. I also notice that I then skipped breakfast, only drank a cup of coffee, and had a small lunch in the afternoon. By the time I got to the store, my body was feeling depleted of energy, and the box of cookies didn’t stand a chance.
Trading Judgement and Guilt for Curiosity
Can you see the difference here? Instead of judging myself, I can look at the situation with curiosity to better understand how my earlier actions influenced my eating behavior.
Judgment and guilt are useless because they distract you from the problem. The problem is not you!
In the example above you can see how the problem was actually rooted in several behaviors that eventually put me into a very challenging situation where I was lacking energy. So the problem wasn’t me, it was the situation I had put myself into. Examining the situation, I can see how poor sleep and a lack of nutrition throughout the day put me in a difficult situation.
By letting go of judgment, and guilt I can use mindful eating to better identify where I’m getting stuck, and make adjustments, instead of assuming the problem is an inherent defect in myself.
Why is Mindful Eating So Hard?
If mindful eating is so good for us, why is it so hard? Well, if you think about it, mindful eating is somewhat counter to our instincts, and the survival of our ancestors. In the past, it was helpful to eat as much as possible when food was available, because there was no guarantee that food would be available tomorrow. And if you were to pause before each meal to practice mindful eating, you might actually lose out on that meal, which would put you at a higher risk of starvation.
But, our ancestors lived in a very different world than we do today. In their world, they didn’t have unlimited access to highly palatable foods and they also didn’t live with as many distractions competing for their attention.
In our world, we’re constantly bombarded with distractions from technology, television and social media, making it difficult to focus on anything for more than a few seconds. We also often engage in these activities as we eat, which it even more difficult to notice our own hunger and satiety cues. And, when it comes to food, we have unlimited access to processed foods that are engineered to delight our taste buds. We’re constant barraged with food advertisements, and we we can have almost anything delivered to our doorstep with the click of a button.
In other words, mindful eating is difficult because:
Our evolution has hardwired us to want to eat when food is available
Highly palatable foods of low nutrition quality are constantly available
We are inundated with distractions constantly
Is Mindful Eating Our Next Evolution?
Based on the inherent challenges outlined above, you can see how we evolved to be mindless eaters. But we did so because it helped us to survive when food was less plentiful.
But today, mindless eating does not serve us anymore. When abundance and choice is plentiful, it actually benefits us more to learn how to be selective. That way we can make choices that nourish our bodies, and that make us feel good both physically and emotionally.
With mindful eating we can retrain our brains, and rewire our instincts around food so they better serve us to thrive in a world that’s drastically different from our ancestors. In this way mindful eating helps us evolve to thrive under our current circumstances.
5 Tips to Start Practicing Mindful Eating Today
Just like any other skill, eating mindfully takes time and practice to develop. But, if you’re willing to put in the effort, mindful eating can be a powerful tool to help you improve your relationship with food, and develop healthier eating habits. And, it doesn’t have to be complicated.
So, how can you practice mindful eating? Here are 5 tips to help you get started.
1. Make time for meals: In our busy lives, it can be easy to wolf down food without really paying attention to it. Instead of eating on the go, make time to sit down and savor your meal. This doesn’t mean you have to spend hours cooking or eating; even a simple sandwich can be enjoyed mindfully if you take the time to savor it.
2. Pay attention to your food: Once you’re seated and ready to eat, take a moment to really look at your food. Notice the colors, textures, and smells of what you’re about to eat. This will help you appreciate your meal more and also aid in digestion.
3. Put away distractions: Turn off the TV, put down your phone, and close the laptop. It’s important to be fully present when you’re eating so that you can focus on the experience.
4. Take small bites: This one may seem counterintuitive, but it’s actually helpful in two ways. First, it allows you to taste your food more fully. Second, it helps you to feel satiated faster because it takes the body longer to digest smaller bites.
5. Chew thoroughly: chew each bite of food at least 20 times before swallowing. This may seem like a lot, but it allows you to really savor the flavor of your food and also aids in digestion.
A Simple Concept With Big Benefits
Mindful eating is a simple concept, but I believe it can have a big impact on your health and wellbeing. That’s why I believe it is so important for people to learn.
By taking the time to focus on your food and pay attention to your body’s hunger and fullness cues, you can develop healthier eating habits that will serve you well in the long run. Not only does it allow you to be more selective in your food choices, it also can help you you to more fully enjoy your food choices. With a little practice, mindful eating can be a powerful tool to help you evolve and thrive in our current food environment.
Have you tried mindful eating before? What do you think? Let me know below in the comments.
If you want to put mindful eating into action, try out this 5-Minute Mindful eating Exercise (with Chocolate).