Mindful Eating: 16 New Ways To Eat More Mindfully
These mindful eating tips can help you create a better relationship with food.
I've been interested in mindful eating for years, but never really dove into it recently when I started having digestive issues. "Maybe mindful eating could help!" I thought. After learning more, I quickly realized that mindful eating can do way more than just help us lose weight. Mindful eating can also help us to find a deeper connection to the foods we eat, enabling us to boost well-being in ways we may have never experienced before.
Do you want to learn how to eat mindfully? Then read on.
What Is Mindful Eating?
Before talking about how to eat mindfully, let's first explore what mindful eating is. Mindful eating involves paying attention to the complete experience of eating—that includes what's happening inside your body, inside your mind, and in the world all around you.
It involves paying attention to the entire timeline of eating—for example, where our food comes from, how it is prepared, and how it is digested. And it involves paying attention to the dynamic process of eating—for example, what changes occur in your body when you eat a particular food, a particular amount of food, or food prepared in a particular way.
How Do We Eat Mindfully?
To eat mindfully, you must pay attention not only to your five senses—taste, smell, touch, sight, sound—but also to subtler experiences. For example, you might tune in to different types of hunger, specific nutrient cravings, and food intolerances (more on these things later). The goal is to increase awareness of the full experience of eating and reflect on how this experience interacts with your hunger, digestion, and fullness at each meal.
By honing this deeper level of attention, you'll begin to become aware of how different foods impact your body, mind, and day-to-day experiences, both positively and negatively. You might discover that a certain food always makes you groggy and that another food energizes you. Or you might realize that you only eat a particular food when you're anxious or only overeat when you're sad.
Rather than judging ourselves for any "dysfunctional" relationships we may have with food, mindful eating requires that we aim to instead practice self-acceptance and appreciation of the present moment. We are now becoming more aware of our real relationships with foods. We can finally make informed decisions about what we eat and when we eat it. And that's something we can be grateful for.
What Are Some of the Impacts of Mindful Eating?
First, you may discover that fullness and emptiness are not two ends of one single spectrum. Rather, emptiness can be experienced for one type of hunger while fullness can be experienced for another; emptiness can be experienced for one nutrient and fullness for another, and so on. Thus, we begin to realize that food is more than fuel; it is something we have a multi-faceted and complicated relationship with. And like any relationship, we need to work on it to thrive.
If we are able to fully embrace mindful eating—becoming open, aware, and accepting of our relationship with food—it can become a super power. In a world where where most people are increasingly distracted by technology and overwhelmed by busyness, suddenly we can hear the subtle ways our body speaks to us, telling us what it needs.
Instead of following the standard methods of healthy eating (which science shows doesn't work for many people), we can identify the foods that are healthy for us. As a result, we begin to feel truly nourished, maybe for the first time ever. And eating healthy becomes both easier and more enjoyable because we are finally in sync with our bodies.
To get started with mindful eating (or get more from your current mindful eating practice) try these 16 mindful eating strategies.
1. Mindfully Explore Your Food Issues
Shira Lenchewski, author of the new book The Food Therapist, has found that there are 5 dysfunctional habits that many of us have with food. We may have just one of them or we may have them all. These food habits are:
By becoming aware of your food habits, you can better explore the reasons behind these habits and put in place strategies to change them. For example, if you're like me and crave control, you might work on practicing self-compassion or acceptance so that you're not so hard on yourself when you're not perfect with your diet
2. Mindfully Imagine Your Future Self
It turns out that when we imagine things, the brain attempts to simulate the responses that would occur if these situations actually happened. Playing out future scenarios in our minds can help us feel more like this future is real or possible. We can apply this strategy to our food life by imagining how our future self will feel once we're eating mindfully and have a healthier relationship with food.
To use this technique, Lenchewski suggests we start crafting a story in our mind of what this future will be like. Ask yourself: how does your future self feel? What has changed for you? And what can do you do that you couldn't do before (hike, run, wear particular clothing?) Explore what it would be like for your future self to fully be present in that future experience.
3. Reflect On Your Reasons For Mindful Eating
If you decide to pursue a mindful eating practice, first reflect on why you're doing it. Are you doing it because you want to truly understand what your body needs, explore what nourishes you, and make changes that fundamentally change your relationship with food? If so, then you're goals are aligned with powerful benefits of mindful eating, and you're likely to be more successful using this strategy.
On the other hand, you may be pursuing mindful eating solely because you want to lose weight, because you feel ashamed of your body, or because someone else wants you to look a particular way. If these experiences feel true for you, mindful eating can actually end up being self-harm disguised as a self-help, because when you pursue mindful eating with the intent to further restrict what you eat, how much, and when, you wont be fully open to listening to your body and following the guidance your body provides.
Watch this video to learn more about mindful eating:
4. Remove Addictive Foods To Better Hear The Body's Voice
You know that paying attention to anything is harder when you're distracted. Your smartphone makes it harder for you to pay attention to others; your workplace stress makes it harder to pay attention to your family; and it turns out that addictive foods make it harder to pay attention to the subtle voice of your body.
Why? Because our food addictions—especially to sugar, caffeine, and alcohol but sometimes also to dairy, carbs, and chocolate—scream louder than our hunger, nutrient deficiencies, and food intolerances. So when we try to eat mindfully we simply hear—candy, candy, candy, candy! When our addictions are constantly screaming, it's all we can hear. That's why to get the full benefit of mindful eating—and possible any benefit at all—we first need to remove addictive foods, for example with programs like Whole30.
5. Try Food-Focused Mindful Meditation
To start to open the lines of communication with your body, it can be helpful to periodically do a short food-focused mindful meditation.
Then pause to reflect on how that food feels in your body. Because our imagination is so powerful, this practice can give you clues about the foods your body desires and provide guidance about what foods you eat when beginning your mindful eating practice.
6. When Choosing Food, Ask Your Body What It Needs
Eating mindfully involves the entire eating experience; it's not just the time between picking up our fork and putting it back down. So before you're eating or even cooking, ask your body what it needs. You can do this by using your senses when you are selecting food to eat. For example, when you're at the grocery store, take a little extra time to really look at and smell each food you buy. You body might react strongly, either positively or negatively, to the smell, sight, touch, or taste of particular foods (although I recommend you taste food only after you've purchased it).
When communicating with your body, be sure to pay attention to the more subtle, non-sensory experiences too. For example, raw meat may not smell particularly good to you, but maybe you notice that you start salivating when you pick up chicken.
Be sure to also pay attention to mental distractions. For example, you may really feel a pull towards the butter, but because you've been taught (and you believe) butter is unhealthy, you suppress your body's voice when it urges you to eat butter. Figuring out what voice is coming from your body and what voice is coming from your mind can be hard at first, so be sure to pause, listen and reflect if you feel like you're getting mixed signals. Remember, to be successful with mindful eating, you have to actually listen to your body, even if it doesn't make sense yet.
7. Prepare For Each Meal By Mindfully Calming The Body
Often, distractions make it difficult to listen to our body's experience of the food we're eating. In addition, stress makes all of our digestive process go haywire, preventing us from being able to identify the specific foods our body wants and doesn't want. That's why calming the body before eating is so important.
To calm the body before each meal and mellow your nervous system, play some relaxing music. The earlier you start to calm your body before eating, the better. So if you're cooking dinner, make a habit of playing calm music while you cook. Or if you're picking up fast food on the way home, listen to some calming music during your commute.
8. Pause For A Mindful Moment When Beginning Each Meal
When you sit down with your food, take a few long, deep breaths, give thanks for your food, or say a prayer to communicate with your body that it's time to focus on eating.
Then ask yourself which types of hunger you're currently feeling:
The goal is not to judge yourself for the types of hunger you experience—there is nothing wrong with having (or even satisfying) eye hunger, mind hunger, or even emotional hunger. Rather, the goal is to become aware of what leads you to eat, accept the ways in which you experience hunger, be open to exploring how to best satisfy these different types of hunger. When we really experience and begin to understand all of our hungers, we can finally learn how to satisfy them. As a result, we no longer eat mindlessly, unaware that if we just addressed a different type of hunger, we'd achieve the type of fullness we seek.
9. Eat Mindfully and Kind-Fully
Continue to support a mindful eating experience throughout your entire meal. If you're eating with others, aim to keep the conversation light or upbeat and avoid talking about the stresses of the day, disagreements, or other social problems, at least until you've finished eating but preferably for a few hours afterwards (while you're digesting). And avoid watching anything stressful, exciting, or invigorating on TV (no TV at all is best).
By taking these steps, you ensure your parasympathetic nervous system can focus fully on digestion, enabling your body to move food along at the proper pace, extract the nutrients you need, and digest problematic foods more effectively. And as a result of being kind to your body in these ways, you improve your body's relationship with food. As a result, all the foods you eat can end up being more nourishing and healthy.
10. Take A Mindful Pause After A Few Bites
Stop, and take a mindful pause after you've eaten a few bites of your food—enough food that it has reached your stomach and the digestive process has begun. During this mindful pause, listen to your body to see if you can experience how it's receiving the food. Pay attention to things like tummy rumbling, sweating, tiredness, nasal congestion, tingling, goosebumps, or any other bodily sensation.
Although you may not always have a bodily experience to a meal, other times you'll realize your body is speaking quite loudly. For example, after being a vegetarian for my entire life, I ate a big piece of chicken. I had the most wonderful, energizing goosebumps all over my body—this experience helped me see that my body desperately wanted meat.
On the flip side, when I used to eat eggs I would enjoy the first few bites and then start to feel kind of repulsed by them and get very sleepy. I later learned from a food intolerance test that my body reacts strongly to eggs. Had I just listened to my body's subtle messages, I likely could have improved my health a lot quicker.
11. Be Mindful About Each Bite
To stay mindful as you eat, focus on each bite using all of your senses. Ask yourself questions to more fully experience the meal. For example, ask yourself: Is it warm or cold? Is it savory or salty? Is it crunchy or soft? Explore even further by seeing if you can identify the exact flavors. Ask yourself: What herbs or spices are in this food? Can you tell if the food has any added sugar or salt? Are there other ingredients you can identify? By using you mind to explore the food you eat, you can have a more complete eating experience.
Next, explore the food emotionally. The dynamic process of eating can affect our mood in variety of ways. By tuning into the effects of different foods on our emotions, we can start to have more control over how we use food to regulate and generate the emotions we desire. So ask yourself: Does eating this food evoke any emotions emotions in you—for example, happiness, calmness, excitement, contentment, anxiety, anger, sadness, loneliness, shame, or guilt? If so, dig a little deeper and see if you can figure out why.
12. Take A Mindful Pause Sometime Mid-Meal
About halfway through your meal, pause and reflect. Ask yourself the following questions: How is your body feeling now? Are you feeling nourished? Are you feeling nauseous?
Next, check in on your stomach hunger. Ask yourself: Is your stomach feeling full? Does your body want to keep eating? Or, are your still trying to satisfy other types of hunger? There are no right or wrong answers. Rather, aim to be more aware of what's happening inside of your body so you can better understand the habits, drives, and experiences you have mid-meal.
If your hungers are satisfied, you may decide to stop eating now. But if you have some types of hunger that are not yet satisfied, you might decide to continue eating. The goal hear is to make a conscious decision about what to do next, based on the information you're receiving from your body (including your mind, emotions, hungers, and so forth); the goal is not to judge yourself or control your behavior.
13. Reflect Mindfully At The End Of Your Meal
Once you decide to stop eating, whether this be mid-meal, when your plate is empty, or after you've eaten several helpings and dessert (no judgment!), take a moment to reflect on the entire eating experience. Start by asking yourself out loud or in your head if each of the 8 types of hunger (Eye, nose, ear, mouth, stomach, mind, emotional, and cellular) have been satisfied. Make a mental note or scribble on a piece of paper the hungers that were not satisfied by this meal.
Spend an extra few minutes reflecting on each of the hungers that were not satisfied. Ask your body what is would need to satisfy each hunger. You may not get all the answers you're looking for on the first try, but after eating mindfully for awhile, you'll likely start to notice trends. For example, maybe you realize that your mouth hunger is not satisfied until it gets something crunchy, or your mind hunger is just not satisfied until it eats some vegetables. As you gather these insights, it becomes easier to create eating experiences that are more satisfying and filling.
14. Be Present If You Remain Hungry
Food is not necessarily the solution to all hunger. Emotional hunger, in particular, is very difficult to satisfy with any food. As a result, emotional hunger often leads us to continue eating mindlessly, hoping to stop our sadness, anxiety, or shame. Becoming more mindful can help you identify this eating pattern and others like it.
Once you identify a mindless eating pattern or an insatiable type of hunger, pause and stay present with your experience, even if it's uncomfortable. Sit and just experience the negative emotions (if it's emotional hunger) or other uncomfortable feelings (if it's mouth hunger, ear hunger, or something else). Don't push the feelings away. Just be with them for as long it takes for them to dissipate on their own (the amount of time it takes will decrease with time and practice). Emotions ebb and flow, so eventually, the emotions will subside. But as a bonus, this technique may even help you discover the roots of your hungers.
Once you start accepting and getting comfortable with these uncomfortable feelings, your insatiable hungers won't be as powerful. As a result, you can make more conscious decisions about what and when you choose to eat.
15. Mindfully Explore Cellular Hunger And Micronutrients
When you are just starting to eat mindfully, you may have a hard time satisfying your cellular hunger—you can sense that you're body needs something, you're just not sure what it is. Indeed, the hardest type of hunger to tune in to is cellular hunger. Perhaps this is why so many people are deficient in important nutrients such as Iron, Iodine, Vitamin D, B-12, Calcium, Vitamin A, and Magnesium.
In fact, our cells may be crying out for particular micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), but because the signs have been flashing for a long time, we have an even harder time hearing them—the signs blend into the background like white noise that we've gotten so used to we don't even notice it. And when we continue to eat the same foods we would normally eat, nothing really changes in our body. So even when we are mindful at meals, no detectable changes in our body occur for us to pay attention to.
This is why we need to mindfully explore cellular hunger by eating many different foods, vitamins, nutrients, and so forth. To do this effectively, add one new food or vitamin to one of your regular meals and follow the mindful eating guidance above. If your cells and body are nourished by that food, it will tell you—you may actually feel your body scream "Yes! More of that! Thank You!" Other times, you may not notice delayed changes in the body—for example, maybe you no longer experience an afternoon slump or evening headaches. Whatever the effect are, try to pay attention.
16. Mindfully Explore Cellular Hunger And Macronutrients
In addition to exploring cellular hunger for Micronutrients, it's helpful to explore cellular hunger for Macronutrients—or the main nutrients that make up the food we eat (i.e., carbs, protein, and fat). Personally, I have found this to be the hardest hunger of all to identify. This is in part because the external messages we hear about macronutrients are often very loud, while the internal messages we receive from our cells are very quiet.
The media screams, "Eat low fat!", "Eat low carb!" "Eat high-protein!" As a result, we have formed very strong beliefs about what we "should eat". And whenever we have a strong belief, we are less able to hear contrary opinions, even when those opinions are coming from our bodies. When we become more mindful, we not only become more aware and accepting, we become more open to new sources of information. So hopefully we begin to listen to our bodies a bit better.
To identify your bodies need for different macronutrients, you need to eat different combinations fo foods with different ratios of macronutrients. There are lots of different diets that can guide you and enable you to see what works best for you. For example, you could try Keto (high fat), Atkins (high protein), Paleo (macronutrients from whole foods), USDA food pyramid diet (high-carb), Vegetarian/Vegan (usually high-carb), or raw food diet (high carb from whole foods).
The jury is still out on which diet is the healthiest overall, but research suggests that there are lots of individual different, suggesting the best diet for you maybe completely different from the best diet for someone else. That means one of the only ways to figure out what works best for you is get good at mindful eating (the other way makes use of self-testing to see how your body reacts to your diet over time).
To eat mindfully requires some effort—namely a willingness to be aware, open, and accepting. But the result is that you develop a super power. You can better identify what nourishes your mind, body and soul.
About Dr. Tchiki Davis
Dr. Davis is the founder of The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. After getting her PhD in psychology at UC Berkeley, she started building online courses, apps, and products to boost well-being—products that have reached more than a million people. Now an author at Psychology Today, The Greater Good Science Center, and Shine Text, Dr. Davis's expertise on how to boost well-being reaches people all across the world.