Mindful Eating: What is it and how can it help you lose weight?
Have you ever gone to a restaurant, ordered your favorite meal, and continued eating long after you were full just because it tastes so good? Or got on a scale and asked yourself, “How did I gain 5 pounds in just one week?!”
If you’re guilty of any of these behaviors (I know I am!), you could probably benefit from a practice known as mindful eating.
Mindless versus Mindful
Like the name implies, mindful eating is a technique that helps you become more aware of your eating habits. Eating is more than just a way to fuel our bodies. It has become a social activity, a staple in celebrations and holidays, and even a stress-reliever.
For many of us, eating is often a mindless activity—something we do on autopilot. But when no thought goes into what you eat, or when you eat for the wrong reasons, you can end up overeating. Do this enough, and you’ll start gaining weight.
With mindful eating, however, you start to pay attention to not only what you’re eating, but why. Eating mindfully means you’re in the moment of eating. It means paying attention to things like:
- The reason you’re eating. Are you hungry or just bored?
- The foods you’re eating and the effect they’ll have on your body. Sure, that cheeseburger and fries will taste good, but will it help you power through your spin class in an hour?
- Your feelings while you’re eating. Are you stressed and emotional, or happy?
- Your senses while you eat. You’ll notice the smell, taste, and look of the food.
Benefits of Mindful Eating
When you practice mindful eating, great things start to happen. Some of the benefits of mindful eating include:
It can help you lose weight.
A growing number of studies are showing that mindful eating can actually help you lose weight. One study found that after just 10 sessions of the Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT) program, participants lost 7 pounds. Another study found that after a 6-month mindful eating seminar, participants lost an average of 26 pounds and didn’t regain any in the 3-month follow up.
There are several theories behind the weight loss connection. It takes about 20 minutes for the brain to register satiety, the feeling that you’re full. Mindful eating helps you slow down, so you recognize fullness as it occurs. It also helps with weight loss by making you more aware of—and maybe even changing—your eating habits.
It helps curb emotional eating.
There’s no doubt about it, eating is an emotional thing. It can bring positive emotions, like happiness on a “cheat day” after a long week of dieting or a favorite treat, but it can also bring negative emotions, like regret after overindulging or guilt for having had a piece of cheesecake (albeit small) when you were supposed to be “dieting.”.
But eating as a reward or a way to cope with emotions like boredom, stress, or heartache can lead to weight gain and fuel even more negative emotions. Overeating or gaining weight often leads to feelings of shame or lack of control.
If you have a tendency to eat your feelings, mindful eating can help you identify the real reason you’re eating and whether or not the food can help. You become more aware of triggers that make you want to eat or that lead to mindless eating, allowing you to explore alternate, healthier responses.
It may help control binge eating.
Mindful eating is also used as part of a treatment plan for patients with binge eating disorder. One study from Jean Kristeller, PhD, studied the effects of mindful eating on binge eating treatment. Participants who practiced mindful eating in conjunction with a standard therapy-based treatment program reported enjoying their food and experiencing less struggle with control as a result.
Another study reported the number of binge-eating episodes decreased from over four each week to about 1.5 when mindful eating was practiced. For those who struggle with this type of eating disorder, these results are promising.
It can help you choose healthier foods.
When you practice mindful eating, you become more aware of the ingredients in each food. As you think about these ingredients, where they came from, and the effect they have on your body, you’ll likely be more inclined to choose healthier options.
For example, picture yourself eating a salad full of vegetables. You imagine the vegetables growing in a garden or field, and a farmer harvesting them. As you eat your salad, you know it’s full of the nutrients needed to support your health and allow you to do the things you enjoy like playing with your kids for example. Now picture yourself eating a plate of cookies. It may certainly taste good, but you think of the mounds of sugar and the blocks of butter (the artery clogging kind) that go into each batch. You think of the way you’ll feel after a sugar crash. Which food is more appetizing?
As you get into this habit, you’ll be more likely to reach for healthier meals and snacks.
How to Start Eating Mindfully
Putting mindful eating into practice is actually pretty easy. These tips can help you get started:
It’s hard to change your eating habits overnight. Start small and commit to practicing mindful eating for one meal a day.
Cook at home more often.
Making your own meals rather than resorting to takeout or frozen pizzas is an excellent way to increase mindful eating. You’ll become more aware of the ingredients in your foods and make healthier choices about what you eat.
STOP when you have cravings.
Before you reach for food, practice this meditation by Jamie Zimmerman, M.D., that uses the acronym STOP:
- Stop. Wait before you put anything in your mouth.
- Take three deep breaths. Breathe deeply and focus on your feelings at the moment.
- Observe. What are you feeling? Will acting on this craving help you or solve your issues at hand?
- Proceed. Once you know what you truly need, whether it’s food or something else, you can proceed.
Eliminate distractions when you eat.
For one meal each day (or week), eat alone and in silence. Focus on your food. Observe its tastes, smells, and ingredients. Think about where it came from. Take time to appreciate how it will nourish your body.
Close your eyes with the first bite.
Before you take your first bite of food, close your eyes and focus on the taste, the sound, the texture, and your own feelings. Think of what this food is accomplishing for you (Is it curbing hunger? Or is it an attempt to handle stress?). It may sound weird, but try it—it really works!
Set a timer for 20 minutes before you sit down to eat and try not to finish your meal before that time. Chew slowly and completely. Put your fork down between each bite. You can even eat with your non-dominant hand if it helps you slow down.
Use a plate.
Make it a point to eat every snack or meal from a plate. You can’t be mindful about what you’re eating and how much when you’re eating it directly from a bulk bag. For bonus points, sit at a table whenever you eat.
Keep a food journal.
Jotting down how you feel when you eat, as well as the food you are eating, can help you understand your eating habits and become aware of any emotional triggers.
Mindful eating can change your entire relationship with food. With mindful eating, you never have to ask yourself, “Did I really just eat that entire pint of ice cream in 30 minutes?” As you start to practice mindful eating, remember that it will take some time to master. In the meantime, take a deep breath, slow down, and learn to love your food!
Written By: Jill Overmyer
Reviewed By: Scarlett Full, in-house Registered Dietitian