If you want to manage your food cravings and develop healthier eating habits, mindful eating may help.
Mindful eating makes us slow down and pay attention to how food makes us feel, both physically and emotionally. When we know what feels good, we can more easily make changes and choices that nurture our bodies.
When we practice mindful eating, we:
- Focus our full attention on the moment.
- Notice our thoughts, physical sensations, and emotions.
- Take our time and stay relaxed.
- Recognize when we’ve eaten enough.
- Identify which foods make us feel better physically.
- Get more enjoyment from eating because we focus more intently on our food.
What the Evidence Says
Some studies show that mindful eating is positively related to weight loss [3, 4], though this finding is less consistent. This inconsistency may be due, in part, to study design, in which researchers may not follow participants long enough to see durable weight changes.
While losing weight might be a welcome side effect of mindful eating, it’s not really the point. Mindful eating is a form of meditation in which you focus on the process (i.e., being fully present while eating) rather than on an outcome (e.g., losing weight).
During mindful eating, you:
- Eat joyfully and without judgment.
- Pay attention to all of your senses.
- Stop when you’re full.
As a result of mindful eating, you:
- Resist eating on auto-pilot so that you get a better sense of what your body wants and needs.
- Learn to ask yourself questions like, “Am I really hungry or just bored?” or “Is food what I want right now or would I feel better if I went for a walk, called a friend, or had a good cry?”
- Learn to pay attention to your emotions and how they affect your appetite and food cravings.
If you tune into your body consistently, you will likely develop healthier eating habits.
Mindful Eating Practice
- If you can, choose a quiet place to eat that is free from distraction. Put your phone away and turn off screens, smart speakers or other electronics that compete for your attention. Sit down and take a moment to breathe deeply and ground yourself.
- Take another moment to appreciate the wonderful energy and care that went into producing this food. If you feel inclined, express gratitude. Evidence shows that regularly taking note of positive things makes people happier.
- Now, engage all your senses and focus on the food in front of you.
- Notice how your food looks—the colors and shapes. What do you see?
- Breathe deeply and regard the smell. Can you smell the individual ingredients? Do you prefer the way certain foods smell over others?
- If you take the food in your hand, how does it feel? Is it warm or cold, hard or soft?
- Close your eyes and put it in your mouth. Before you chew, what’s the first thing you taste? What does it feel like on your tongue? While you chew, notice how tastes and textures change.
- Put your utensils down between bites and notice how your stomach feels. Do you feel hungry? Full? Somewhere in between? Listen to your stomach rather than your plate.
- How do you feel emotionally? Content, sad, anxious, relaxed, guilty, satisfied?
- When you feel full, stop eating.
The first few times you eat mindfully, you might want to eat alone so that you can really pay attention to your experience. After you get the hang of it, you can alter these steps to fit in with your regular routine. Whatever the situation, keep paying attention to your body’s signals as you eat.
Make It Special
Make a date with yourself to enjoy a fabulous mindful meal.
- Prepare some of your favorite foods and set the table as if you were serving a very important guest. A smaller dinner plate and a heavy fork work particularly well, but your nicest tableware will do.
- Put out fresh flowers, light candles, play soft music—whatever feels special and inspires joy.
- Follow the steps of your mindful eating practice and notice whether the luxurious table setting changes your experience of eating.
The point is to nurture yourself and improve your relationship with food and eating through awareness, compassion, and generosity. Be good to yourself.
Mindful Eating in Difficult Situations
If you’re forced to eat on the go or in other suboptimal situations, take a moment to reflect on what you’re putting into your body and why:
- Are you eating because you’re hungry or is something else driving you?
- Is your food nutritionally healthy or emotionally comforting?
- How do you feel after finishing your food? Satisfied, uncomfortable, full, still hungry?
There’s no judgment here of good or bad, right or wrong. Just notice what you’re doing and how it makes you feel.
Tracking How Food Makes You Feel
You may have noticed that you feel better or worse after eating different foods. Food can boost your energy or drain you. It can satisfy you or leave you disheartened. Pay attention to how different foods make you feel by keeping a food diary:
- Write down what you eat throughout the day.
- Take note of how you feel physically and emotionally at different intervals after you eat – 5 minutes, one hour, 2-3 hours. Ask yourself if you feel:
- Better or worse than before you ate?
- Mentally sharp or dull?
- Energized or lethargic?
Keeping track will help you figure out which foods make you feel best.
Eating Your Feelings
You may also start to notice when you eat to feed your feelings rather than to feed your physical hunger. Many of us mistake feelings of stress, boredom, loneliness or anxiety with hunger pangs and use food to try to cope with those feelings. When we do this, we neglect the real problem. Stuffing those feelings with food may briefly staunch the pain, but it doesn’t last and often makes us feel worse.
The more you practice mindful eating, the better you’ll get at tuning into your needs and successfully nourishing them.
If you or someone you love struggles with disordered eating or you’d like help learning to eat mindfully, Contact Athena Care, for mental health care in Tennessee.
One of our friendly associates will help you get the help you need. Take this first step to feel better and take control.
Rachel Swan, MS
Rachel has a Masters of Science in Clinical Psychology from Vanderbilt University, where she spent 16 years as a Research Analyst in the Psychology and Human Development Department.