Mindful Eating: The Key to Eating What You Want and Fully Enjoying It

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How to Eat More Mindfully

When was the last time you let food sit on your plate, taking a long deep inhale to smell its flavors, a moment to sense its textures, and a pause to take in the experience of the meal?

Now ask yourself: When was the last time you rushed through lunch at your desk, or your kitchen counter, to quickly get to your next task?

You can probably easily think of an answer for the latter, but may struggle to remember a time when you truly stopped to eat mindfully and enjoy your meal.

If you recently had a snack that disappeared before you realized you were on your last bite, or a meal that you barely tasted because you consumed it so quickly, you may benefit from eating mindfully. If you're struggling with feeling hungry soon after eating—or the opposite, consistently too full from your meals or snacks—you may benefit from eating mindfully.

In fact, we could probably all benefit from more enjoyment and satisfaction in our eating experiences. Mindful eating may help with all of that.

Related: 4 Ways to Ditch the Diet and Eat Healthier

What is mindful eating?

French Ratatouille

Pictured Recipe: French Ratatouille

Simply put: Mindful eating is a practice in being aware of both your food intake and food experiences. It's taking the time to notice and appreciate flavors, textures and sensations of your food. To eat mindfully is to remove distractions—such as smartphones, computers, TV or other tasks—from meals and snacks, and to be more present while consuming these foods.

Mindful eating is also a practice in tuning into, and trusting, your body and its hunger, fullness and satisfaction cues.

What are the benefits to eating mindfully?

Like other kinds of mindfulness, mindful eating teaches us to be present—in this case, in our meal experiences. It may also teach us to enjoy and embrace food, instead of treating it as a nuisance or a means to an end. It may be the antidote to chronic dieting; instead of eating to satisfy a daily calorie or macro count, you can learn to eat to satisfy what your body needs, tune into how it feels (hungry? full? satisfied?) and (re)learn how to enjoy food experiences.

Increasing our mindfulness during meals—which is to say being conscious of our hunger, fullness and satisfaction—may help prevent overeating. It can also help you learn how much of any given meal or snack satisfies you, preventing a hunger crash soon after eating.

Mindful eating is also a focus for some areas of nutrition research, and has been promising thus far. Mindful eating-based interventions are increasingly used in research to provide treatment for and help people manage the following conditions:

  • eating disorders
  • type 2 diabetes and gestational diabetes
  • emotional eating
  • binge eating disorder
  • emotional or stress eating

How you can start eating mindfully

Crispy Oven-Fried Fish Tacos

Pictured Recipe: Crispy Oven-Fried Fish Tacos

Many people begin their mindful-eating journey because they feel mentally, and sometimes physically, fatigued with restrictive dieting. They've lost touch with their hunger and fullness cues, and can't imagine a day where they trust their own food cravings over a set of dietary food rules. Working together, we make small and gradual changes to help them tune into their own physical sensations, food preferences and emotional responses to food.

This is all to say, it's important to take small steps toward eating mindfully. If you frequently eat while distracted, and typically rush through your meals, it may take weeks, if not months, to undo those habits. If you've followed a diet for years, or on and off for decades, this mindful-eating process may take a few months, if not years, to fully embrace. Pick a few of the following tips and implement one at a time for a week or two, until it starts to feel normal to you. Work your way through the list slowly.

First, take an inventory of your current behaviors, food habits and food rules. Assess what feels most important for you to tackle first. Maybe you want to be more present at meals, so you start with removing distractions. Maybe you want to eat slower, and take more time with your meals and snacks. Maybe you want to slowly let go of rigid food rules, and tune into the sensory experience of foods you enjoy, but tend to restrict.

If you think you may need professional support, reach out to a registered dietitian experienced in mindful and intuitive eating practices.

Related: Try this helpful hunger scale to figure out how hungry you really are.

Once you're ready, start with some of these tips to eat mindfully:

  • Set a timer for meals, and allow yourself at least 15-20 minutes to eat (gradually increase that as your schedule allows)

  • As you eat, aim to identify flavors, textures and sensations of the food. Start with something simple like a piece of fruit, and notice the sweet or tartness, crunch or soft texture, etc.

  • Remove one distraction at a time, until you are eating without any additional stimuli (e.g., smartphone, television, computer, reading material, podcast or radio show, etc.)

  • Take note of your hunger levels before and after eating. Give yourself permission to eat more, or less, depending on how hungry you feel.

  • Take note of your fullness level after eating. Give yourself permission to eat more or less, depending on what will satisfy your needs at that time.

  • Take note of your satisfaction with meals or snacks. Did you honor a craving, or try to dismiss it with something "healthier"? Are you able to eat foods you enjoy? If a meal or snack is unsatisfying, we often continue to search for something else to eat.

  • Notice emotions that come up before, during or after meals. Same goes for cravings, or times when you feel compelled to eat but don't feel physically hungry.

  • Incorporate additional mindfulness practices in your weekly routine, such as a morning or evening meditation and yoga.

  • Journal, or talk to someone supportive, for at least 5 minutes before turning to food for comfort during emotional stress.

Bottom Line

Mindful eating isn't meant to be temporary, so make changes slowly. If you try to change too many things about your current eating habits at once, it will likely feel overwhelming and unsustainable. Mindful eating is not a diet; it's not meant to encourage restriction, or create an obsession around hunger, fullness or satisfaction.

Mindful eating is a practice in mindfulness, increasing our awareness of food experiences, emotions and sensations. It is meant to help you tune into your food preferences, and help you eat balanced meals that are both emotionally satisfying and physically satiating. It is also meant to help you learn to trust your body and its cues, instead of rigidly following a diet or meal plan that ignores your unique needs and food preferences.

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How to Eat More Mindfully