When we make eating a habit rather than an experience, we lose consciousness of what it means to fuel our body. What does that mean exactly? A few things...
Lifestyles, food tribes, and diets all focus on the amount and choices of food. That includes paleo, vegan, keto, Atkins, Whole30, juice detoxes, LCHF, even merely counting calories and counting macros—all create habits and regimen. None of these lifestyles are intrinsically bad, in fact all of these have proven benefits beyond weight loss and body recomposition, reaching into areas of illness prevention and disease reversal.
It’s when we eat with only weight loss in sight, or we eat based on math instead of satiety, and we lose consciousness of what our bodies actually need and want. We forget to embrace the experience of food and we lose out on the true pleasures of eating. Mindful eating is turning your focus back to the experience.
Ben Decker, the author of Practical Meditation for Beginners, defines mindful eating as “a form of meditation in which you slow down the process of eating, allowing yourself to experience it fully.”
Like many activities we do on a daily basis—breathing, walking, driving, showering—eating is something we often do mindlessly, distracted by other demands on our attention.
Mindful eating means slowing down and paying attention to:
- What you’re eating: the taste, temperature, texture
- Whether you feel full or hungry
- The process of chewing and swallowing
- How your food looks: the color and portion size
- When and how often you’re eating
Health benefits of mindful eating
Mindful eating has numerous health benefits—when you’re paying attention to your eating habits, you’re more likely to eat the right amount of food for your body, digest your food more easily, make healthier eating choices, and even better, manage health risks such as diabetes and weight gain.
Mindful eating also increases the satisfaction and pleasure you get out of food. As Decker puts it in his book, “Mindful eating can help us experience ... pleasure in deeper, more gratifying ways.”
Ben Decker's list of mindful eating benefits
We don’t often link food to meditation, but by applying mindfulness meditation techniques to the experience of eating, we can reap major benefits. In Practical Meditation for Beginners, Decker lists seven primary benefits of practicing mindful eating:
- Awareness of how much you need to eat. Eating mindfully can help you avoid eating too much—or too little. Your body naturally sends fullness and hunger signals to your brain, but eating distractedly, dieting, and regularly eating larger portions than your body needs can obscure those signals. As the Huffington Post notes, “Mindful eating plugs you back into your body's cues so you know when to stop and start eating.” This naturally means you eat less.
- Awareness of why you are eating. Ever found yourself in the kitchen late at night, making your way through a bag of chips or a tub of ice cream, only to realize you have no idea why you’re eating in the first place? When you’re mindful about your eating habits, you’re less likely to engage in binge-eating and emotional eating, according to studies.
- Greater meal satisfaction. Actually paying attention to what you’re eating can make your meal more enjoyable. Imagine that! Mindful eating means engaging all your senses and really taking pleasure in the food you’re eating.
- Better diet-related health. In a study of adults with Type 2 diabetes, eating mindfully was just as likely to result in positive health effects, such as weight loss and lower blood sugar levels, as a change in diet. Mindful eating is associated with lower blood glucose and weight stabilization, resulting in better long-term health outcomes.
- Increased mindful attention skills. As with all forms of meditation, mindful eating allows you to hone your “attention, present-moment awareness, and recognition of and mastery over the wandering mind,” as Decker notes in his book.
- Better eating choices. Habits take away choice. Mindful eating helps you override automatic behaviors and allows you to really think about what you are eating, and why, and then make more healthful and satisfying choices.
- Improved digestion and nutrient absorption. Your digestive system involves a complex interplay between hormone signals and your nervous system. When you’re full, it takes about 20 minutes for those signals to register in the brain. Eating more slowly and chewing thoroughly lets your body focus on digestion, helps you stop when you’re full, and allows more nutrients to reach your body.
It’s one thing to know the benefits of mindful eating, but it’s another to actually incorporate mindful eating into your own life. Start small with these tips, building habits that help you eat without distractions.
7 habits to practice mindful eating
- Put down your phone. Make mealtimes a no-electronics zone. Put your phone away, turn off the TV, and pay attention to the food you’re eating—even if it feels awkward at first. Use mealtimes to spend quality time with yourself or your friends and family.
- Make mealtime a ritual. Cooking, setting the table, offering gratitude for the food, pouring the water or wine, cleaning the table—when done with awareness, this routine can become a pleasurable ritual. Use a fancy bowl, make a dinnertime playlist, or set a place even if it’s only you, and make dinnertime into something special.
- Put your fork down between bites. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but putting your fork down slows your eating and lets you focus on one bite at a time, instead of turning mealtime into a plate-to-mouth conveyor belt.
- Spend time focusing on your senses. As you eat, use meditation techniques to slowly cycle through each of your senses, noticing what you’re seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting.
- Make mealtime fun with new recipes. Turn on your favorite tunes and make mealtime into a party with new ingredients and foreign recipes that will surprise and delight your taste buds.
- Read the ingredients list. Know what you’re really eating—use mindfulness to evaluate what’s actually in your pantry and make smart choices.
- Snack mindfully. Instead of throwing a handful of trail mix into your mouth, first evaluate whether you’re really hungry, or whether you actually might be bored, thirsty, sad, tired, or upset. If you are actually hungry, eat your snack one piece at a time, whether it’s almonds or popcorn or fruit, paying attention to each bite.
Meditation isn’t just something you do after yoga or at the end of a stressful day—it’s a practice you can incorporate in small ways into your daily eating habits, for big health benefits. Instead of hopping on to the next fad diet train, give mindful eating a go, for better health, more pleasure, and greater awareness.