These days we eat on the run, by the clock, or while distracted by screens. Because of this, we end up eating when we’re not hungry, don’t pay attention to taste or calories, eat a lot more than we realize, or forget what we ate.
When you eat mindfully, you slow down and pay attention to everything while you’re eating, including your thoughts, feelings, and senses. This allows you to figure out your body’s signals and helps you decide if you’re hungry, what to eat, and — importantly — when to stop eating.
Why you should eat mindfully
Eating mindfully may help with stress, weight loss, preventing weight gain, and eating disorders like binge eating.
Paying attention while eating helps you make better choices and avoid overeating, stress eating, and reaching for comfort or junk foods. For example, listening to your own hunger signals can help you ignore outside food signals like snacks in easy reach, commercials for food, or how clean your plate is.
One study found that overweight women who had mindfulness-based stress and nutrition training were better able to avoid emotional eating and had lower stress hormone levels, leading to slightly less belly fat over time (belly fat is bad for health). They also didn’t gain more weight. Women in the non-mindful control group had higher stress levels and gained weight over time.
How does it work?
One reason why mindful eating might help is that there’s about a 20-minute delay between the time your stomach is full and when your brain finally realizes it’s full. The idea is that if you slow down and pay attention, you’re less likely to overeat in those 20 minutes.
Another is that we simply don’t pay close attention while we’re eating, and can eat 15 to 20 percent more than we need without even realizing it.
As in everything, our brains play a big role. Sweet, fatty, or salty foods can trigger powerful “wanting” and “liking” circuits in our brains. These days it’s so easy for us to have treats like cake and cookies, and we never get tired of them. Our brains keep telling us, “Go for it!”
How to eat mindfully
If you’d like to give it a try, here are some tips:
- When it’s time for lunch, don’t just eat by the clock or schedule. Do a quick gut check: Are you really hungry? If not, wait and eat a little later.
- When you’re ready to eat, find a quiet spot where you won’t be interrupted. Turn off all screens and devices — distractions could make you overeat.
- Taste your food. Pay attention to your food’s texture and flavor, and savor it slowly.
- If you tend to wolf down your food, make yourself slow down. Take smaller bites, perhaps by using a smaller spoon or chopsticks.
- Enjoy your food without negative, judgy thoughts. Guilt or “fat talk” won’t stop you from eating bad things and could even trigger emotional eating.
- Listen to your body. Eat just until you’re satisfied. Feeling stuffed means you’ve probably eaten too much.
Robinson E, Aveyard P, Daley A, et al. Eating Attentively: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Effect of Food Intake Memory and Awareness on Eating. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. April 2013. [Link]
Wansink B and Chandon P. Slim by design: Redirecting the accidental drivers of mindless overeating, Journal of Consumer Psychology. July 2014. [Link]
Berridge, Kent C. et al. The Tempted Brain Eats: Pleasure and Desire Circuits in Obesity and Eating Disorders. Brain Research. September 2010. [Link]