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Mindful Eating

Updated September 14, 2020

Megan Jacobson

SDSU Extension Nutrition Field Specialist

Young woman sitting with a plate of salad in her hands.

Written collaboratively by Megan Jacobson and Lily Sanderson.

Food is essential to life. It nourishes our body and mind, and it satisfies our cravings. We all have our own personal attitudes and patterns of behavior around food, whether this is due to genetics, circumstances, or family conditioning. It is woven though all aspects of life, our health both physical and emotional, our culture and traditions, social connections, our environment. As a practice, mindful eating can help us connect to all of those aspects and create awareness around what impacts our eating habits and this will in turn empower us to make informed decisions. It expands upon our knowledge and understanding of what foods nourish us and what foods help us stay healthy. It also encourages a deeper appreciation of food and helps us develop a healthy relationship with eating.

Take a moment to think about the last time your truly paid attention to what you were eating. Can you think about a time when you savored the experience of food? Maybe not, and that’s okay. All too often, we eat on autopilot, eating a meal while our attention is somewhere else.

Mindful eating invites us to remove those distractions. In doing so, we can begin to take our time over a meal and in slowing down, we can savor the flavors, aromas, and textures, allowing us to reconnect with our senses. The focus isn’t necessarily on changing the food we eat, even though it can be a practice that results in different food choices. Mindful eating focuses more on changing our thinking and relationship with food.

Health Benefits

The practice of mindful eating has been researched and proven as a tool to improve eating behavior, appetite regulation, weight loss, blood sugar control, heart health, binge eating, stress, and responding to hunger and satiety cues.

Mindful eating is not a diet. Conventional diet culture has caused much stress around eating, bringing on a lot of added pressure and false expectations. Many of us tend to view food as a reward or punishment. It may be related to feeling like we deserve a certain bite or snack or spoonful of something and regard it as a treat. Mindful eating helps us to undo such thinking and encourages us to let go of the traditional all or nothing mindset.

Mindful eating helps us explore what our desires are at a particular time and provides an opportunity to move away from restrictive eating by relearning how to listen and respond to internal cues. So, how do we get to a place where we have a healthy relationship with food? As previously mentioned, the way mindful eating works is by training ourselves to honor internal hunger cues. Mindfulness inserts a pause to help us be aware of our own decision-making. Only when we stop to notice this chain of events can we start to change our behavior or thinking about food. With increased awareness, we are more likely to see how reactive or impulsive we can be. Once we are able to trace back our emotions around food and acknowledge the dynamics at play, we are better equipped to let go of the notion that some foods are “good” and others are “bad”. In viewing it this way, we can release ourselves from emotions that fuel our habits. The freeing aspect of mindful eating is that it focuses on nonjudgmental awareness.

Getting Started

To practice mindfulness and create awareness during your next meal or snack, here are some questions to reflect on to get to a calmer and more aware state of mind:

  • Why are you eating? Some reasons may include feeling physically hungry or being triggered by a visual cue like something you saw on television or noticed on the counter as you walked through your kitchen.
  • What are you feeling? Maybe you are stressed, tired, or bored.
  • In what way are you eating? Are you rushed, mindful, distracted, or secretive.
  • How much did you eat? This can be dictated by a feeling of physical fullness, portion size, or habit.
  • How did you feel when you were finished? You may feel like you have more energy or maybe you feel sluggish or guilty.

Remember that the practice of mindful eating is a tool that can empower us with knowledge to make informed eating decisions. A key component of mindful eating is learning not to judge our behaviors. For example, if the answer to “why am I eating” is “because I am bored” there are no rules we should have to follow that dictate which foods are okay or how much we should eat. Instead, it should empower us to honor our internal cues and make a decision that we feel in control over and good about.

Practicing Mindfulness

While it may take some practice, mindful eating is easy to incorporate into your regular meals. Here are some ways to start practicing:

  • Start with your grocery list. Considering each item on the list and how it affects your health. Once you decide which items are worthy of your list, make sure you stick to those items while shopping and avoid impulse buys.
  • Unplug. Distractions like a cell phone, television, or computer can hinder your ability to give your full attention to the food you are eating.
  • You should have an appetite when you eat, but not feel starved. Skipping meals will leave you so hungry that your focus with shift from what you are eating to just eating anything.
  • Keep the portions smaller. Limiting the size of the plate to nine inches is helpful.
  • Appreciate your food. Before eating, take a second to notice everything and everyone that was involved with your meal preparation. Give thanks to who and what allowed you to enjoy the food.
  • Awaken all your senses. When cooking, serving, and eating food, notice the color, texture, aroma, and the different sounds the food make while you prepare them. While chewing, try to identify all the ingredients.
  • Take small bites. Tasting your food completely and noticing the less obvious flavors is easier when your mouth is not stuffed. Take a bit, set down the utensils, and notice the flavors.
  • Chew thoroughly. Chew each bite until you can taste the essence of the food. This could be from 20 to 40 times.
  • Eat slowly. Following the steps above, this step should take care of itself. Before dinner conversation, set aside 5 minutes to pay attention to your food.

Practicing mindfulness requires a lot of patience. It is highly likely that from time to time, you may stray away, skip steps, or avoid the whole process altogether. That is okay! It is all part of the process, and if you waver, just keep trying. Eventually, it will become easier and a part of your daily nutrition routine.

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Related Topics

Health, Nutrition