You grab breakfast on your way to work, wolf down lunch at your desk, and you think you ate something for dinner before you made it to the gym, but you aren’t exactly sure what. All of these are examples of mindless eating. It's a regular part of many of our lives—thanks to distractions like our phones, a plethora of unhealthy food options, and the push we feel to multi-task.
The solution isn’t what you eat, though. It’s how. Enter mindful eating, or mindfulness eating, a food strategy that keeps winning fans because it can help you eat healthier and enjoy your food more. Here's what you need to know.
What is mindfulness eating?
The idea of “mindful eating” ties into the larger concept of mindfulness—focusing your attention on the here and now, not ruminating over the past or worrying about the future.
“Mindful eating helps us be aware of what we put in our mouths, realize the tastes that we probably have never noticed before, and realize when we are full or when we do not need to eat more,” Mónica M. Alzate, PhD, assistant professor of family and community medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Health.
When you pay attention to each bite of food you consume, you’re also able to stop using food as a way to distract yourself from uncomfortable emotions. Studies show that mindful eating can help reduce both emotional eating and bingeing.
But it’s not a diet tool, cautions health psychologist Lynn Rossy, PhD, author of The Mindfulness-Based Eating Solution and president of The Center for Mindful Eating.
When people come to Rossy’s mindful eating classes and announce they’re hoping to lose weight, “I tell them, ‘Weight isn’t the issue. A number on the scale doesn’t define you or your health. This is about your well-being,’” says Rossy.
These steps will help you practice mindfulness eating so it becomes an automatic habit.
First, take a breath
“Before you eat, ask yourself, ‘Am I hungry?’” suggests Rossy. Then, take a slow, deep breath to calm your nervous system. “So many people eat because they’re stressed, bored, or there’s food around. We want to eat because we’re hungry,” Rossy says. “Food doesn’t solve anger or disappointment. It might soothe you for a short period of time but your problem will still be there afterwards.”
Give your food the attention it deserves
Turn off the TV. Close your laptop. Put your phone in the other room. You want your focus to be solely on the food before you. “Ask yourself, ‘What am I putting into my mouth? Is it food that I can recognize? Does it smell good? Do I want to put this into my body?’” says Rossy. “There are no good or bad foods,” she adds. “You’re just eating it consciously and with intention.”
Slow down and chew thoroughly
Most of us are speed eaters by necessity, so it may take some practice to slowly consume your meal, chewing every bite. The reason for this step? It takes 20 minutes for your gut to signal your brain that you’re full, says Rossy. Plus, “if you’ve just gulped down your food, you’ll have a hard time digesting it. Many people notice that when they start practicing mindful eating, their digestive problems clear up.”
When you’re about halfway through with your meal, put your fork down and check in with yourself. Are you still hungry? Or have you eaten enough to be satisfied? “This helps you to stop eating based on your body’s signals rather than what’s left on your plate,” Rossy says. “It trains you to pay attention to your body’s wisdom.”
Savor every bite
Don’t forget to simply enjoy your food. “Find pleasure in it. Make it a celebration, share it with friends, experiment with different dishes and flavors. People have become afraid of food, as well as the kitchen,” says Rossy. “We forget that food is such an important part of our lives.“
How to be mindful in the rest of your life
To make the most out of mindfulness eating, practice mindfulness during other aspects of your daily routine. When you’re trying to stay centered and present throughout your day, not just at mealtime, “mindful eating won’t seem like such a challenge,” says Rossy.
It helps, too, to be honest about your emotions. If you’re eating to self-soothe or distract yourself, ask yourself, ‘What emotion is it that I don’t want to feel?’” advises Lara E. Fielding, a psychologist in Beverly Hills, California who specializes in mindfulness-based therapies and is the author of Mastering Adulthood: Go Beyond Adulting to Become an Emotional Grown-Up. Once you ID that uncomfortable feeling, the next step is to accept it.
“Put both feet on the floor, palms open and up on your knees, shoulders down and soften your belly,” Fielding says. Then, notice how you feel rather than trying to change it. This relaxed physical pose, explains Fielding, sends a strong signal to the brain that you’re going to surf this particular wave of emotion rather than fight it.
Finally, here's a surprising side effect of mindfulness eating: It can increase body appreciation, says Rossy. “And if you love your body,” she adds, “you’re going to treat it well."