Mindful Eating: Nourishing Your Body One Bite at a Time
By: Michelle Pearce, PhD
Would you be skeptical if I told you there’s a better way eat and lose weight?
With the existence of hundreds of diets, and a new one proposed nearly every week, it’s not hard to become wary of yet another claim about how to eat right and lose weight. Nor is it hard to give up hope. One in three people in the U.S. are on a diet, a number that is even higher among people who are overweight. And, sadly, most of them fail.
Even when dieting is successful, 50% of people gain the weight back after 12 months or less. No wonder we give up or are fed up with yet another weight loss claim. Yet with 70% of Americans obese or overweight, we desperately need to find a way to take better care of our bodies.
Thankfully, psychologists have figured out a more effective way of eating and managing our weight. It’s not a new diet or a weight loss gimmick. Nor is it about prioritizing one type of food over others or banishing a food group from your plate. In fact, it has less to do with what you eat than with how and why you eat. This more effective way of eating is called mindful eating.
Mindfulness has been defined as purposefully paying attention, in the present moment, without judgment (Jon Kabatt-Zinn, 1990). When we eat mindfully, we pay attention by directing our awareness to our experience of eating.
Focusing on the here and now of eating is not how many of us normally eat. Think about what you are typically doing when you eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Are you watching TV? Driving in your car? On the computer? Looking at your phone? Engaged in conversation? Thinking about what’s next in your day? Ever had that moment when you look down to find an empty plate or bag of chips or candy bar wrapper and not have the faintest recollection of consuming all that food? This is mindless eating, and it’s how most of us eat most of the time.
In contrast, with mindful eating, we pay attention to how we are eating and why we are eating, as well as to what we are eating. When we eat mindfully, we pay close attention to details such as the taste, textures, and sensations of food. We are in tune with our body’s reactions to the food we are feeding it. We might also reflect on where the food came from, who prepared it, and who is eating with us.
There are many benefits of mindful eating. When we slow down and savor each bite, we not only enjoy our food more, but we also give our brains time to hear the “I’m full” signal from our stomach and brain, which can help with weight loss and maintenance. We also improve our digestion, leading to less discomfort, gas, and bloating. We no longer need restrictive diets (or rebound binges and increasing waistlines) because we’re not depriving ourselves.
Just the opposite, in fact. Now we are paying attention to what our body needs and then meeting that need in a loving and honoring way. As a result, we make healthier choices about what types of food to eat, how much to eat, and when to eat. This way of eating creates lasting change instead of the frustrating pattern of yo-yo dieting.
How to Eat Mindfully
Now that you know what mindful eating is and how it can benefit you, let’s look at specific ways you can begin to cultivate the practice of mindful eating. Recall our definition of mindfulness: “Purposefully paying attention, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” We’ll look at each component of this definition separately and see how we can apply it to our experience of eating.
Like achieving any other goal in life, we have to set an intention to do so. This is the first step: deciding, on purpose, that we want to cultivate a habit of mindful eating. This is a one-time decision, but we need to purposefully come back to this intention bite after bite and meal after meal in order to develop a habit of slowing down, paying attention, and being present when we eat. Notice the intention we set is not to follow a diet or to lose a certain amount of weight. The intention is to create a different relationship with our bodies and the food we eat.
2. Pay Attention
After setting an intention to eat mindfully, the next step is to pay attention to your body, the food you eat, and your experience of eating. You also want to pay attention to the food choices you make before they are on your plate. This means paying attention to the food choices you are making when you’re in the grocery store, or in a restaurant reviewing a menu, or at a party surveying the buffet of food laid out before you. You also want to notice your typical eating habits and any particular rules you have around food (e.g., I must finish everything on my plate).
Here are a few questions you can ask yourself in order to pay greater attention to your experience with food:
- How hungry am I on a scale of 1-10?
- Why am I hungry (or eating) right now? Am I truly hungry or am I tired or stressed or bored. If I’m not truly hungry, what else could I do to deal with this feeling? If I am physically hungry, what does my body need most right now?
- How do I know I’m hungry? What about full? What signals does my body give me?
- How can I get the most enjoyment out of this bite or this meal?
3. In the Present Moment
Eating happens in the present moment, although typically our minds are anywhere but present. When we are worrying about the future or ruminating on the past, we miss the opportunity to connect with and nourish our bodies and to make wise choices. We also lose the opportunity to enjoy our food. Here are a few things you can do to stay in the present moment when you eat:
- Refrain from doing anything else when you are eating a meal or a snack.
- Slow down. Put your fork and knife down after each bit. Or challenge yourself and eat with chopsticks.
- Chew slowly. See how long you can take before you swallow.
- Notice the temperature and texture of the food and how these sensations change as you chew.
- Check in with yourself as you eat. Is your hunger level decreasing? Do you want more or less of a particular type of food? Do you like the taste of the food you’re eating?
- If you’re running short on time, you can try any or all of the above with the first five bites of your food.
This final step may be the most challenging. We all have an inner critic, and for those that have struggled with their weight or body image, this inner critic may have become particularly loud and mean over the years. The goal of mindfulness is not necessarily to silence the critic; it is to no longer be controlled by the critic, to no longer pay it attention or give it power. Rather than a time to beat ourselves up, eating becomes a nourishing and positive experience. Here are a few things that can help you eat with less judgment.
- Cultivate a state of gratitude. Perhaps silently give thanks for the food before you, or take a moment to reflect on where this food came from and all the steps taken to get this food onto your plate.
- Choose compassion. Decide to be your greatest ally, no matter your weight, size, or shape. If you wouldn’t talk like that to someone else, refuse to talk that way to yourself.
- Understand that eating healthy is more than willpower. Set yourself up for success by creating an environment that supports your decision to be healthy. For instance, pay attention to the choices you make in the grocery store, so that you don’t need to “redecide” every day what to choose from your pantry and what to avoid.
- Ask yourself these questions from psychologists Wolever and Reardon’s excellent book, The Mindful Diet: “Is this food worthy of me? Is the reason I’m eating, and the way I’m eating, worthy? Do my choices align with my values and support my health?”
Remember, mindful eating is a skill that takes practice, but it’s a skill well worth taking the time it takes to learn. May you enjoy the experience of mindfully nourishing your body, one bite at a time.
If you want to learn more about mindfulness and how to cultivate a healthy lifestyle, check out our new online one-year graduate certificate program: Integrative Health and Wellness. Dr. Michelle Pearce, Assistant Professor at the Center for Integrative Medicine, is the Program Director and also teaches in the program. For more information, check out the website http://www.graduate.umaryland.edu/wellness/ or contact Dr. Pearce at firstname.lastname@example.org