Mindful Eating: Why and How to Eat Mindfully

Nurturing Mind-Body Connection through Meal

From fad diets to weight loss pills to full-body cleanses—we are bombarded by messages about how to “fix” our bodies. In this context, it makes sense that many people have developed a complicated relationship with food. Unfortunately, the social forces that pressure us to maximize our performance potential and build the perfect physique also systematically undermine our mind-body connection, especially when it comes to eating.
 

Ayurveda is the ancient medicine system of India that aims to reestablish a harmonic balance between the physical body, the mind and spirit, and the environment. One of the main tenets of Ayurveda is that food is medicine and that calm, efficient digestion is a pillar of good health. Mindful eating is an important practice within this tradition because it promotes the role of eating and proper digestion in restoring the mental-physical bond. 


Mindful eating can help you reconnect with your body and create a fresh dynamic when it comes to eating. Read on to learn about why this approach has been used across cultures for centuries and how you can implement mindful eating into your own life.

What Is Mindful Eating?

Mindful eating involves bringing profound focus to the sensory experience of eating and is rooted in a broader, meditative practice called mindfulness. Mindfulness means attending fully to the present moment. Eating mindfully also means shifting emphasis from what you eat toward how you eat it. It is oriented around the process of eating rather than the outcome.

The philosophy of mindful eating provides a stark contrast to diets, which promote specific rules about what foods are “bad” or “good” and are typically tied to weight loss as a desired outcome. Mindful eating encourages nonjudgemental awareness of what you’re eating and how it makes you feel. When eating mindfully, you may notice emotions or judgements arise about your food or your body, but you will simply acknowledge them and let them go rather than letting them take over your experience.

This ancient method has been used and taught by Zen Buddhist monks and Ayurvedic medicine practitioners for thousands of years. More recently, Western psychologists and health care practitioners have been studying mindful eating as a tool for managing issues like disordered eating, diabetes, and digestive stress.1,2,3

By working mindful eating practices into your meals, you can start to have a more conscious, pleasurable, and nourishing experience of food. Some goals of mindful eating include: 

  • Facilitating a more enjoyable and satisfying experience of eating 
  • Strengthening the connection between mind and body and between appetite and consumption 
  • Discouraging “mindless eating,” or eating for reasons other than hunger, such as boredom and stress 
  • Promoting healthy and sustainable food selections 

How to Practice Mindful Eating

To eat mindfully, start by setting up a dining space that is comfortable and free from distractions. This means turning off the TV, putting your phone away, and clearing the table of items that are unrelated to the meal. Be sure to sit down to eat and dedicate at least 15 minutes to the meal. Serve yourself a modest portion; some suggest using a place that’s smaller than 9 inches in diameter.4 This is not in the interest of calorie restriction but rather to encourage yourself to stop eating when you start feeling full.
 
Begin to orient yourself toward the smell and sight of your food, then take a small bite. Chew slowly, set your utensil down, and take at least one deep breath before taking your next bite. While you eat, observe the flavor and your experience of eating. Notice the colors, flavors, smells, sounds, and textures of the meal.
 
As you eat, check in with yourself and your appetite. Consider whether you are still hungry or not. Once you begin to feel satisfied, end the meal even if you haven’t finished everything that’s on your plate. Pack up and save any leftover food.  

Here are some additional tips for practicing mindful eating: 

  • Try using your nondominant hand to eat. 
  • Practice mindful eating with family or friends and share your observations with each other. 
  • Have a sip of water or tea between bites. 
  • If you find reactive thoughts or emotions popping up, observe them and let them go. Bring yourself back to the present. 

Mindful Eating Exercises

If mindful eating is new to you, or if you’re looking for new ways to engage with mindful eating, try these exercises.  

  • Start with a clean slate. Before you begin eating, imagine you’ve just landed on Earth, and this is your first time seeing or tasting this food. Explore how the food looks and smells. After you put it in your mouth, but before chewing, consider what it feels like, its temperature, and its taste. Begin chewing slowly and notice how it changes. This technique allows you to release judgements and expectations about the food and instead experience it with a fresh sense of curiosity and wonder.  
  • Practice gratitude. At the start of your meal, take a few moments to appreciate the journey your food took to arrive at your table. Imagine the plants or animals in their natural environment, any farmers, laborers, or transporters involved, and the process of purchasing and preparing it. Creating space for gratitude translates to a more present and appreciative experience of your food. 
  • Snack with intention. If you find yourself craving a snack between meals, check in with your mind and body. Are you truly experiencing the physical sensation of hunger? Are you experiencing boredom, sadness, frustration, or loneliness? If your craving is not fueled by physical hunger, find something else you can do to address your need. If you are hungry, utilize mindful eating practices while you snack—avoid distractions and attend to each bite of food. 
  • Focus on flavor. As you learn to engage and tune into your individual senses, try tasting individual foods that have a dominant flavor profile. For example—suck on a lemon slice to experience extreme sourness, have a piece of dark chocolate for a very bitter experience, try a chip or an olive for saltiness, and eat a piece of sweet potato for sweetness. Pay close attention to how your tongue reacts to each flavor and begin appreciating subtler versions of those flavors when you eat a balanced meal. 
  • Eat in the dark. Eating in a dark, quiet room gives you the opportunity to minimize your sight and sound perception while elevating your sense of taste, touch, and smell. Alternatively, close your eyes while you’re chewing a bite. These are great ways to highlight sensations in a different way than you may be used to. 

Benefits of Mindful Eating

Mindfulness techniques have been linked with many positive outcomes such as stress reduction, improved sleep, better gut health, and lower blood pressure.5 Researchers are investigating the effects of incorporating mindful eating into meals, and the current evidence points to several advantages of this approach.  

Healthy Digestion

Mindful eating leads to healthier digestion in a few ways. First, chewing thoroughly breaks food down into components that are easier for the body to absorb.3 Eating slowly also gives the body time to initiate chemical processes that are involved in optimal digestion.3 Furthermore, mindfulness reduces stress levels, helping the body deactivate the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the “fight or flight” system, and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, or the “rest and digest” system.3 The diagram below shows how mindful eating improves digestion directly but also indirectly by reducing stress.  

Weight Loss

Researchers have investigated whether mindful eating may be an effective weight loss approach for people who want to lose weight to improve their health. Some studies have shown that it does promote weight loss, while others show no association. Potential processes through which mindful eating could lead to weight loss are by discouraging mindless and emotional eating, increasing awareness of hunger and fullness cues, and promoting tolerance for cravings without giving into them.6,7 

Binge Eating Disorder Management

Mindful eating may also be an effective treatment for binge eating disorder, a condition that causes compulsive overeating. Reviews of dozens of studies have found that learning mindful eating techniques is associated with reduced binge eating, increased awareness of hunger/fullness, and weight loss.8,9,10 Some of these studies showed that the benefits are not sustained after the study comes to end, but long-term research is needed.8 

Diabetes Management

Early evidence suggests that mindfulness may help people with type 2 diabetes manage their condition and the metabolic markers associated with it such as A1c.9 For example, one study demonstrated that people with diabetes who received 3 months of mindful eating training and practice made healthier food choices, lost weight, and had better blood sugar regulation.10 

Enhanced Enjoyment and Satisfaction from Meals 

As great as it is to know that there are physical benefits associated with mindful eating, it’s important to remember that mindfulness is, at its core, a practice that is dissociated from outcomes. The main “goal” of mindfulness is simply to experience heightened mindfulness—that is, openness to and awareness of the present moment. For many people who practice mindful eating, this increased attunement is a benefit in and of itself, leading to greater appreciation and pleasure with each meal.  

Mindful eating serves as a dramatic contrast to the typical meal experience. In a society full of high-pressure schedules, constant distractions, and profound weight stigma, engaging in mindful eating requires a radical and empowering shift in how you think about food and the experience of eating it. Don’t try to overhaul how you eat overnight; mindfulness is about the journey rather than the destination. Try some of the exercises we outlined and see how they make you feel. Little by little, over time, you will grow more comfortable with these practices and start to notice stronger connections between your physical, mental, and spiritual self.  

 

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References 

  1. Cleveland Clinic. “What is mindful eating?” 2022, https://health.clevelandclinic.org/mindful-eating. Accessed 17 January 2024. 
  2. Nelson, Joseph B. “Mindful eating: The art of presence while you eat.” Diabetes Spectrum, vol. 30, no. 3, 2017, pp. 171-4, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5556586/. 
  3. Cherpak, Christine E. “Mindful eating: A review of how the stress-digestion-mindfulness triad may modulate and improve gastrointestinal and digestive function.” Integrative Medicine, vol. 18, no. 4, 2019, pp. 48-53, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7219460/
  4. The Nutrition Source. “Mindful eating.” Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, 2020,  https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/mindful-eating/. Accessed 17 January 2024
  5. NIH News in Health. “Mindfulness for your health.” National Institutes of Health, 2021, https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2021/06/mindfulness-your-health. Accessed 17 January 2024. 
  6. Tapper, Katy. “Mindful eating: What we know so far.” Nutrition Bulletin, vol. 47, no. 2, 2022, pp. 168-85. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/nbu.12559
  7. O'Reilly, G. A. et al. “Mindfulness-based interventions for obesity-related eating behaviours: A literature review.” Obesity Reviews, vol. 15, no. 6, 2014, 453-61, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4046117/
  8. Grohmann, Dominique, and Keith R. Laws. “Two decades of mindfulness-based interventions for binge eating: A systematic review and meta-analysis.” Journal of Psychosomatic Research, vol. 149, 2021, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022399921002373
  9. Warren, Janet M. et al. “A structured literature review on the role of mindfulness, mindful eating and intuitive eating in changing eating behaviours: Effectiveness and associated potential mechanisms.” Nutrition Research Reviews, vol. 30, no. 2, 2017, pp. 272-83, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/nutrition-research-reviews/article/structured-literature-review-on-the-role-of-mindfulness-mindful-eating-and-intuitive-eating-in-changing-eating-behaviours-effectiveness-and-associated-potential-mechanisms/351A3D01E43F49CC9794756BC950EFFC
  10. Miller, Carla K. “Mindful eating with diabetes.” Diabetes Spectrum, vol. 30, no. 2, 2017, pp. 89-94, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5439358/. 
  11. Medina, Wilson L. et al. “Effects of mindfulness on diabetes mellitus: Rationale and overview.” Current Diabetes Reviews, vol. 13, no. 2, 2017, pp. 141-147. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/303893501_Effects_of_Mindfulness_on_Diabetes_Mellitus_Rationale_and_Overview
  12. Miller, Carla K. et al. “Comparative effectiveness of a mindful eating intervention to a diabetes self-management intervention among adults with type 2 diabetes: A pilot study.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vol. 112, no. 11, 2012, pp. 1835-42. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3485681/. 

Alexa Fry is a health educator with a certificate in technical writing and 10 years of experience in the medical field. She has held roles as a science writer and clinical trial specialist at the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Information Service. She also wrote, edited, and coordinated content for Testing.com, SleepFoundation.org, and SleepDoctor.com. Alexa is passionate about making meaningful, actionable medical information available to everyone.