What is mindful eating? Everything you need to know
The psychology of eating is just as important as the food you eat.
The process of eating is incredibly complex and it’s not just about knowing what to eat when it comes to losing weight. The psychology of eating is just as important, which is why mindful eating is so popular.
If you’re not across this approach to food, get ready as you’ll be a convert in no time.
What is mindful eating?
Mindfulness itself means focusing on the present moment. Acknowledging and accepting how you feel, what you’re thinking and bodily sensations at that time.
Mindful eating takes this one step further and includes what we eat, the aromas, textures, flavours, and tastes of the food. It's about paying attention to what you like and dislike, connecting you to your experience and being more conscious of what you are eating.
When people think of mindful eating, they usually relate it to nutrient-rich foods and meals that encourage you to eat healthier. However, mindful eating can also be used for your favourite fun foods, a glass of wine, a burger, or your favourite snack.
By slowing down and paying full attention to these foods, you may find it a little easier to not overindulge in them, as you are present in the whole experience.
What are the benefits of mindful eating?
There are many benefits to eating mindfully, both for your physical and mental health:
Increased understanding of your hunger cues
Eating slowly means taking the time to better understand your physical hunger cues. You give your body enough time to register that you're full and let you know that it's time to stop eating.
In turn, you avoid finishing a plate of food just because it's in front of you. In the long run, this helps you create healthier eating habits in a way that you can sustain.
Better relationship with food
Eating mindlessly can easily turn into a cycle of overeating and, in severe cases, the development of eating disorders.
You overeat because you're not listening to your body, which leads to feelings of guilt and shame. You then end up eating emotionally and this turns into a snowball of unhealthy eating behaviours. When you're stuck in this cycle, you may start associating food with negative emotions.
By breaking this cycle and eating mindfully — which we know is often easier said than done — you start trusting yourself more to make healthier choices. You quiet down the 'food noise' that's always playing in the background and instead, allow yourself to appreciate food and turn eating into the positive experience it should be.
Potential weight loss
For some people, mindful eating can be an effective way to lose weight, as it helps them identify when they're full and avoid overeating .
It requires consistency (just like any other weight loss strategy does), but when done correctly, mindful eating becomes a natural process and as you follow your hunger cues, you may notice the number on the scale go down.
Your digestion starts with the cephalic phase, in which your brain tells your stomach to start preparing for a meal and to break down and absorb the nutrients that you're about to consume. This is when you might start to feel yourself salivating .
This shows just how important your brain is in the digestion process, and how beneficial mindfulness can be. By paying attention to what and when you're eating next, you make sure your body and mind are aligned, improving the absorption of nutrients.
Mindfulness, whether it is at the table or not, helps reduce cortisol levels, also known as the stress hormone . When it comes to mindful eating specifically, it forces you to slow down and take a break, which can do wonders for your well-being, especially when you're busier than usual.
How can you practise mindful eating?
Mindfulness can start the moment you begin making food decisions and the easiest way to start eating more mindfully is with your shopping list.
Here are a few tips for a successful visit to the shops:
- Consider the foods you're adding to your shopping list and ask yourself, are you thinking about what meals you're planning to make for yourself and your family, or buying whatever sounds good?
- Think about the health value of your choices and opt for foods that make you feel good, give you energy, and keep you satiated.
- Make sure there is lots of variety and that the choices suit your lifestyle.
The second step is to ensure that you never let yourself get too hungry. If there is a large gap between your main meals, consider taking a snack to tide you over.
If you feel the urge to eat between meals, choose a planned healthy snack, such as fresh fruit, nuts, vegetables with low-fat dip, cheese and crackers, nut bars or unbuttered popcorn. Or try healthier homemade ‘fun’ snacks.
How to measure your hunger
When practising mindful eating, it can be helpful to rate your hunger before diving into a meal. Use the hunger scale below to rate how hungry or full you are and try to stay between levels 3 and 7 at all times:
- 1: Starving, ravenous, lightheaded
- 2: Very hungry, irritable
- 3: Pretty hungry, stomach growling
- 4: Beginning to feel hungry
- 5: Neutral, not overly hungry or full
- 6: Satisfied
- 7: Full, slightly uncomfortable
- 8: Very full, stuffed
- 9: Bloated, stomach ache
- 10: Sickly full, sleepy
How to eat mindfully
There are a number of things you can do to practise mindful eating and you can start incorporating these into mealtimes from today.
Think about the food that's in front of you
Instead of starting to eat as soon as your meal is ready, take a few deep breaths, look at the plate in front of you and consider the nutritional and health value of each ingredient.
You may even set intentions for your meal — perhaps it is to find joy in what you're about to eat, to respect your body's needs and cues, or simply to be grateful for your food.
Try to give yourself even 15 minutes (ideally a little more) to enjoy a meal away from your TV, computer or phone. Avoid eating whilst driving as well. Eating in a distracted state can lead to mindless eating, causing you to consume more food than you need.
Eat at the table
Even if you don’t have a dining table (those of us who live in a small apartment), always eat at a designated eating spot. This could be the dining room table, bench or lounge room coffee table without distractions.
Use a smaller plate
Choose a plate that suits the portions that you wish to enjoy. This way, you won't feel the urge to finish your food even if it's more than what your body needs. Remember, you can always go for seconds if you're still hungry.
If you find yourself eating quite fast, put your utensils down between bites. Before you pick them back up, consider how you feel and ask yourself: "Am I full or does my body still need more fuel?"
Take small bites and chew thoroughly
It’s easier to taste your food when your mouth isn’t completely full. Chew the food so you can taste all the flavours and feel the texture. Chewing anywhere between 10-20 times (depending on the food) will release more flavours and sensations on your tongue.
Don't deprive yourself
When losing weight, it’s so easy to fall into a deprivation mindset and this is not what we encourage during your journey. Healthy eating is important but all foods have their place.
If you restrict your calories too much or avoid foods that bring you pleasure, you will more than likely find yourself in a situation where you will crave them even more. Variety is key so be sure to eat satisfying amounts of whole foods and enjoy occasional fun foods.
What about cravings?
Sometimes, you may wonder if you're actually hungry or just feel like eating because you're bored, stressed or sad. Though easy to mix up, there are ways to distinguish real hunger from cravings.
Hunger comes on gradually with specific physical sensations, such as a grumbling belly, irritability (who has never felt 'hangry' before?), trouble concentrating, and dizziness (if left for too long). Your body is telling you that you need fuel and once you eat, these symptoms disappear.
A craving, on the other hand, is typically a desire for a specific food, texture, or flavour. It comes up suddenly, even if you've recently eaten, and it may be triggered by external factors — the smell of bread outside a bakery or scrolling through 'food porn' on Instagram — as well as internal factors, like your emotions.
What can trigger food cravings?
As mentioned above, there are a number of things that can trigger cravings:
- Lack of sleep and tiredness
- Seeing or smelling food
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Not eating enough calories or balanced meals
- Having a food tied to an experience or emotion — e.g. nostalgia
- Feeling bored, stressed or emotional
- Eating too many highly processed and addictive foods
- Social media and advertising including Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, billboards, buses and in stores
How to manage cravings
There are a few steps you can take to help keep your cravings at bay, including:
- Checking your sleep habits and stress levels
- Drinking enough water
- Eating balanced meals with lean protein, non-starchy veggies and starches
- Incorporating ‘fun’ foods into your diet
- Prioritising healthy snacks like unbuttered popcorn, slices of hard cheese or high-protein or Greek-style yoghurt.
There is also a handy exercise you might want to try when you’re experiencing cravings, which can help you pinpoint if you’re hungry or if it’s simply a pesky craving.
To start, choose a neutral food to test yourself — for example, a piece of fruit for something sweet or rice crackers for savoury. If you are willing to eat it, it might be real hunger. If you’re not interested at all and you’re wanting something else, it’s most likely a craving.
The point of this exercise isn’t to challenge your cravings every single time. If your cravings will not go away, it’s completely fine to give in to them once in a while. Listen to your body, as it knows best.
Mindful eating and weight loss
If you're struggling with weight loss and mindful eating, Juniper’s Weight Reset Program might be for you.
In this program, we combine breakthrough medication, health coaching and ongoing support to help you break habits that might be impacting your weight, hit your weight loss goals sooner, and maintain them. By addressing weight at a biological level, we provide a safe way to lose on average, approximately 7% of your body weight in one year . Take our short quiz to learn if Juniper is right for you.
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