You may have heard of mindful or conscious eating. It is a technique that is meant to help put YOU in charge of your own eating. For many people it has been an effective tool for weight loss, binge eating and improving health.
What Exactly is Mindful Eating?
The concept has origins in the Buddhist mindfulness practice. It is a form of meditation that helps people deal with their emotions and physical sensations.1,2,3,4 Like any form of relaxation it can dampen feelings of stress, depression and anxiety. But it also has proven effective in combating disorders and other behaviors related to food.5,6,7 By becoming mindful of your experiences, cravings and food-related cues, you become more able to control them.8 The basics of mindful eating include the following:
- Eat slowly
- Eat without distraction
- Pay attention to hunger cues
- Eat ONLY until full
- Notice the difference between actual hunger and triggers to eat
- Pay attention to your senses by noticing colors, textures, sounds, smells and flavors
- Learn to deal with any anxiety or guilt related to food
- Eat for your health and well-being
- Pay attention to how food affects your feelings and your body
- Be grateful for food
By practicing these concepts, you are better equipped to replace basic reactions to food with a more conscious and healthy response.9 For instance, you might normally feel anxious and eat a chocolate bar. Instead, you recognize your feelings and instead choose to eat something else, like an apple.
Is Mindful Eating Worth a Shot?
The simple answer is probably yes! Our society is wired opposite to this approach, which has a lot to do with the fact that poor eating habits are so common. First of all, we have an amazing abundance of food choices. Plus, distractions galore, like cell phones, TV, tablets and so on have all made eating a mindLESS act. Often, we eat quickly. By doing so, it becomes easy to overeat before our brain even “tells” us we’ve overeaten. Mindful eating teaches you to slow down so that eating becomes a purposeful act rather than an automatic reaction. Furthermore, it allows you to learn the distinction among hunger, fullness and emotional eating.10 You are able to recognize the triggers that cue you to eat, even when you aren’t hungry. Then you can choose a healthy reaction rather than just acting from impulse.
Mindfulness for Weight Loss
You may be one of millions of people that have learned the hard way that most diet programs fail. Although they may be effective in the short term, most are not reasonably sustainable. In fact, some 85% of obese people who lose weight, gain it all back or become even fatter.11 That is because they return to binging, emotional eating and reacting to cravings. Of course, all of these have been linked to weight gain, weight loss and then regain.12,13,14,15 Stress can also be a big player, but mindful eating changes all this. 16,17 It helps you to alter your behavior and stress level by making you more aware.18 It isn’t just a weight loss technique, but a change in thinking. Thus, it is sustainable because you see eating in a different light. Here are a couple examples of it working:
- In one study, a group of obese individuals lost an average of 9 pounds over 6 weeks. In a follow-up 12 weeks later, they had kept the weight off.10
- Another study for 6 months resulted in an average weight loss of 26lbs. In the follow-up 3 months later, no one had regained any weight.19
Mindfulness eating changes the way you think about food entirely. Your bad emotions associated with food are replaced with awareness, self-control and good feelings17,20,21,22,23
Mindful Eating vs. Binging
A binge eater is someone who eats a lot of food in a short time. It is a mindLESS activity. Such a person just can’t control themselves and simply eat everything in sight.24 Then they usually feel guilty afterwards. It isn’t a whole lot different than binge watching a TV series. We have all done it. We sit down and watch an episode of a show and more than likely our intent is just to watch the one episode. But it ends with a hook. So, we decide to watch one more. Just one more. And before you know it, you have spent hours and hours watching. It is much the same scenario with binge eating. Simply substitute TV for food.
As you might expect, binge eating is linked to all sorts of eating disorders and of course weight gain. In fact, some 70% of binge eaters are obese. 25,26,27 Not overweight, obese. However, mindful eating can be an effective tool against binge eating. In fact, studies have found that it reduces the severity and frequency of binge eating instances for patients.17,20,28,29 For example, one study followed obese women for 6 weeks and found mindful eating reduced binge eating significantly. The average daily binge eating episodes decreased from 4 to only 1.5. Additionally, the amount they ate at each episode went down.30
Mindfullness for Eating Disorders
Binge eating is not the only disorder that mindful eating can help with. It is also effective against emotional eating and external eating.
- Emotional eating – This is when someone eats because of the way they feel.31 You might feel stressed and your natural response is to eat. It usually isn’t a plate of veggies either. Many people choose chocolate, candy, breads and other foods high in calories and low in nutrition. It is pretty obvious how this only leads to greater and greater weight gain.
- External eating – This is eating in response to cues. For example, the smell of food is a common one.32 So instead of eating when you are hungry, you eat when you smell food. As you might expect, this behavior leads to weight gain too.
While you may not be obese, it is likely that you are guilty of emotional or external eating, at least at times. In fact, this is why so many Americans are overweight. We often see food for something other than it is. But again, mindful eating helps us take control of eating rather than being a slave to food. You gain the skills necessary to deal properly with your impulses so they don’t control your actions. You are in charge rather than your whims telling you what to do.
How to Get Started on a Mindful Diet
Mindful eating requires some exercises and meditation.33 It is difficult to really illustrate how to do it in an article, so attending a seminar, online course or workshop is a good follow-up plan. However, there are some tips to get you started. And quite honestly, these tips alone can get you a long way toward eating better:
- Purposely eat SLOWLY. Never rush.
- Chew thoroughly.
- Eliminate distractions when eating. No phone. No TV.
- Eat in silence.
- Pay attention to how the food is making you feel.
- When you are full, STOP
- While eating, think about whether you are really hungry.
- After you eat, consider whether you chose healthy food or not.
You might start doing these things with only one meal per day. Add a meal after some time until you are mindful eating every time. As you continue this practice, it will soon become a habit.