Each year, Americans flock to bookstores or log onto their computers in search of the latest diet to help them lose weight and get healthier. And yet, despite good intentions, Americans seem to be gaining weight and getting sicker. (1) In fact, research in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine projects that 51% of all Americans will be considered obese by 2030. (8) What if the missing link wasn’t about carbs or fat or even calories. Instead, what if the key to lasting weight loss and better health was simply being more mindful?
What is mindful eating?
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans spend about two-and-a-half hours eating each day. More than half of that time, they’re eating while doing something else like working, driving, watching TV, or scrolling the Internet. (10) This can lead to prolonged or over-eating without being mindful of how we feel both physically and emotionally. Making matters even worse, research reports that the stress of modern life often leads people to seek out highly palatable yet unhealthy high-calorie foods instead of nutrient-rich options. (18) While these habits may not seem like a big deal in the moment, mindless or stress-induced eating can lead to weight gain and poor health over time. (30) But what would happen if, instead of mindlessly munching, we actually focused on the food we consume? That’s the question a growing number of researchers have begun to ask, leading them to explore the benefits of mindful eating.
Mindful eating is based on the Buddhist concept of being present and acknowledging your emotions and physical sensations without judgement. (15)(29) When you eat mindfully, you bring your full attention to your food. (17)(24) Simply being mindful has been shown to foster a greater awareness of the internal and external triggers that cause you to eat (for instance, your emotions versus that ad for ice cream). And much like intuitive eating, mindful eating also helps you recognize the body’s true hunger and satiety (fullness) signals. (20)
Eating mindfully, however, entails more than simply paying attention to the food on your plate. The process includes:
- Being aware of the health and nutritional benefits when you choose your food
- Being conscious of how the foods you eat make you feel
- Focusing solely on the food you are eating without any distractions
- Noticing the colors, smell, taste, and texture of each food
- Only eating until hunger is satisfied
- Recognizing the difference between true hunger and emotional or external triggers that encourage you to eat (20)
Learning to decipher your body’s hunger signals and fully engaging with your food can help stop automatic, mindless eating and help you make healthier choices.
Did you know? The term “mindfulness” was coined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and is defined as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.” (24)
The health benefits of mindful eating
Although weight loss may be the most well-recognized benefit of mindful eating, it’s not the only one. Because mindful eating encourages portion control and healthier food choices, it can also improve several other health conditions.
One of the biggest draws to mindful eating is its ability to support healthy weight loss. By increasing your awareness of internal hunger cues instead of succumbing to external cues like advertising and peer pressure, research suggests that a mindfulness-based eating approach may help prevent weight gain and reduce binge and emotional eating. (31) In fact, mindful eating has been used to reduce portion sizes and food cravings, which in turn has been shown to lower body mass index (BMI) and body weight. (6)
In one six-week randomized study of 37 overweight teenage girls, researchers at the University of Arizona found that those following a mindful eating intervention experienced a 1.4 kg/m2 drop in their BMI. In comparison, the girls following standard dietary and exercise advice actually saw their BMI increase by 0.7 kg/m2. This led the researchers to conclude that practicing mindful eating could lead to behavioral changes that support better health. (5)
Another small six-month pilot study involving 21 overweight middle-aged men and women found that mindful eating led to an average weight loss of 26 pounds. Better yet, they kept the weight off during the three-month follow-up. (25)
Mindful eating has repeatedly been shown to foster long-term weight loss by helping people recognize internal cues and by improving self-control. (26)(27) It also helps to encourage healthier food choices. (19)
It’s estimated that eight million Americans suffer from an eating disorder, including binge eating, compulsive overeating, anorexia, and bulimia. (7) Mindful eating is believed to reduce compulsive overeating by promoting mental and behavioral flexibility around food. Studies show that being flexible when working toward weight loss leads to less stress and greater immediate results that can help sustain your progress over time. (28)(12) Other research reports that mindful eating also reduces binging and/or purging (also known as bulimia) by empowering people to make positive choices. (3)(14) In addition, there’s evidence that a mindful approach to eating helps those with anorexia nervosa—a condition where someone severely limits the amount of food that they consume to lose weight. (2)(11) If you do suffer from an eating disorder, be sure to consult a qualified health care practitioner.
Type 2 diabetes
Research shows that mindful eating can help people with type 2 diabetes better manage their blood sugar levels just as effectively as a traditional diabetes self-management diet program. (21)(22) Some studies show that mindful eating also improves diabetes-related anxiety as well as weight and HbA1C levels, a common blood test that measures your average blood glucose levels over a three month period. (20)(32) Stress-related digestive disorders
Chronic stress can trigger or aggravate gastrointestinal issues including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). (16) While mindfulness meditation is known to benefit those with stress-related gastrointestinal problems, recent investigations report that bringing mindfulness to your meals can also benefit digestion by reducing stress triggers. (9)(13) According to one study in Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal, mindful eating helps balance the nervous system and this helps to improve digestive function. (4)
How to eat mindfully
Unlike many “diets,” there are no hard and fast rules or long lists of forbidden foods when you eat mindfully. Instead, mindful eating is all about bringing your full awareness to each bite of food without judgment. Here are some of the ways you can incorporate mindful eating, starting with your next meal:
- Instead of automatically reaching for food, stop and check in with your feelings. Are you stressed, bored, or sad? Or are you physically hungry?
- Turn off the TV or computer and put away your smartphone, book, or other distraction.
- Before taking your first bite, consider where the food came from and what it took to bring the food to your plate.
- Eat slowly, chewing your food well before swallowing.
- Consciously savor the aroma and taste of each bite.
- Put your fork or spoon down between each bite.
- After swallowing, check in with your body to see how you are feeling. Is it time to stop or do you need more food? (23)(24)
The bottom line
Eating mindfully is a way to savor your food while being aware of your body’s internal hunger and satiety signals. By fully engaging with your food and the effect it has on your body, mindful eating can encourage better eating habits and healthier food choices. This, in turn, has been found to promote healthy, sustainable weight loss without restriction or feelings of deprivation. Some evidence also suggests that mindful eating may help those with eating disorders, type 2 diabetes, or stress-related gastrointestinal problems.
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