Mindful eating centres around being present with the sensory experience of food without judgement. It has emerged on the back of the increasing popularity of mindful practices as a whole. More broadly speaking, mindfulness refers to present moment awareness, acceptance and decentring (detachments from one’s thoughts). Mindfulness is used throughout the field of psychology in therapies such as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Mindful eating is frequently noted as a tool for weight loss. However, it is better viewed as a way of approaching eating whereby weight loss may be a by-product. By entering the mindful eating approach with an emphasis on weight loss, its benefits are less likely to be seen. Furthermore, those looking to lose weight are typically dealing with barriers that are likely to make mindful eating difficult. For example, emotions may override natural bodily cues of satiety, making mindful eating very difficult. Having said that, if support is sort from a professional, aspects of mindful eating can be useful for supporting weight loss or management.
What is the difference between mindful eating and intuitive eating?
Often these two terms are used interchangeably but they are quite different. Mindful eating, as noted above refers to presence and non-judgement whilst eating, intuitive eating, however, refers to a set of tools which are centred around moving away from diet culture after years of chronic dieting. Intuitive eating principles include removing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ labels on food, honouring hunger signals and making peace with them. Therefore, mindful eating is likely to overlap with these principles, for example, being present with your food means you are more likely to honour your feelings of fullness.
Are you eating mindfully?
In order to establish whether you are eating mindfully you need to ask yourself the following questions.
- Am I aware of the food choices I make daily?
- Do I consciously eat my food without distraction ie at the desk whilst working, in front of the TV, whilst scrolling on my phone?
- Am I eating out of habit or boredom, or due to a physical signal of hunger?
It is likely that the majority of us eat whilst we multitask, and of course, from time to time that is inevitable with daily life, however, in the long run, it can hamper your relationship with food. By eating more mindfully, food can bring a greater sense of joy and satisfaction to your life.
Want to implement more mindful eating into your life?
Examine the following scenarios and ask yourself if you fall into any of them. If so, start with picking one scenario and ask yourself, how you could change that habit to result in a more mindful eating experience.
Eating late at night
If we are hungry at this time of day, we are likely to reach to higher calorie foods, thus it is a habit that can lead to weight gain. Eating late has been proven to disrupt sleep, so kicking this habit can have a multitude of health benefits. Often this may be as a result of restriction of food during the day. Thus, try and plan to have three balanced meals over the course of the day, to ensure you are not feeling hungry later at night. We also often need to replace habits with a positive alternative to help remove them, so perhaps replace the snack with herbal tea or something else relaxing like a bath or a yoga practice.
Action ⇒ have three balanced meals throughout the day, replace this habit with another e.g. herbal tea / relaxing bath
Using screens during mealtimes
In a world surrounded by screens, more so now post-pandemic with children even requiring screens for their homework, it is understandable that this may be the case. However, when eating in front of the TV or with our phone, we are likely to be far less mindful of what we are eating, and thus not only overeat but more importantly not receive full enjoyment from food. Furthermore, by removing screens during mealtimes it offers a moment of connection with our loved ones – which can bring further joy into our lives.
Action ⇒ Try to place phones in another room during mealtimes and develop a night time routine with TV / homework / dinner at specific times.
Eating on the sofa
Much like the above, this can lead to excess eating and disrupt the lines between eating and relaxing on the sofa. Eating at the table is a practice that is fading quickly in society and one that has a multitude of benefits. Our habits are often associated with specific locations for example our bed is where we sleep. By associating the table with mealtimes and the sofa with relaxing the brain is primed to make better decisions linked to food intake such as flavour sensations and feelings of satiety.
Action ⇒ have a designated place for eating your meals (preferably different from where you work or relax. If not, change the environment in some way, for example, if you work at your kitchen table, then place a cloth on the table to symbolise mealtimes)
Eating quickly without chewing properly
Often, we are busy and can find ourselves eating quickly out of necessity. When eating quickly, our bodily signals are often delayed and or stunted. This often results in us eating more than we need are satiety (fullness) signals are not registered, due to a lack of satisfaction. Chewing is an important part of the digestive process and kick starts the breakdown of food, for example, there is an enzyme called salivary amylase, which starts the breakdown of carbohydrates in the mouth. Therefore, digestion of food is hindered too – often resulting in abdominal discomfort or bowel issues. Try to schedule your meals in your day to allow sufficient time to enjoy your food.
Action ⇒ Schedule eating times into your day, like you would a work meeting, so you can eat more slowly.
Of course, from time to time it is normal to eat in response to our emotions whether or not that is boredom or stress. However, if it is something that becomes a regular habit it can do more harm than good. Emotional eating can become a complex issue when it has been used as a coping mechanism in the long term and it therefore may require some professional help – please explore the following link to book in with our compassionate team who are qualified to support you in this scenario – click here. More generally it is about asking yourself what could genuinely help me deal with this emotion I am feeling – perhaps some movement, calling a friend or a relaxing bath may be more beneficial?
Action ⇒ ask yourself what action would help me deal with this emotion rather than mask it? E.g. exercise, calling a friend, a bath
Skipping meals altogether, typically breakfast, can for some people seem like a quick fix for reducing food intake, or simply be a way of saving time. However, this can result in overeating later in the day leading to feelings of sluggishness, guilt and tiredness. Therefore, opt for a healthy breakfast which promotes slow-release energy, for example, porridge with fresh fruit and nuts, or scrambled egg with avocado and tomatoes on wholegrain toast. These options ought to tide you over to lunch, during which you can opt for more suitable, nourishing options without pangs of hunger. If you blame time if the morning, why not try a smoothie with a frozen berry mix or prepare overnight oats the night before.
Action ⇒ Opt for a healthy nourishing breakfast. Strapped for time? Prepare it the night before (overnight oats 👀)
When you do not have time to cook a proper meal, you may end up grazing all day on often, random, convenience foods. These foods often have a high glycaemic index (GI), resulting in a blood sugar crash later on in the day. Thus, try and opt for three balanced meals containing slow-release carbohydrates such as wholegrain rice/pasta, lentils, pulses and nuts. Including good quality protein sources will also help slow down digestion, keeping us fuller for longer.
Action ⇒ Plan ahead with meals by cooking in bulk and opt for slow-release (low GI) carbohydrates in your meal to prevent blood sugar lows, combining with good quality proteins.
Often people try to be ‘good’ during the week ie. they over restrict the types and amounts of foods they eat. This then leads to an excess intake of food on the weekend, and then the cycle of restriction begins again the next week due to guilt. To begin coming out of this cycle, try and seek balance throughout the week. Start by allowing yourself a small amount of your favourite foods each day and really enjoying it, or it may involve centring your weekend around activities that aren’t food related, for example, a group walk or exercise class, or board games. Overtime as you heal your relationship maybe food-centred plans can return.
Action ⇒ Aim for balance across the week and potentially remove food from the focus of weekend activities.
Mindful eating involves feeling present during the eating experience, without judgement. In order to achieve this several aspects may need to be addressed including how you eat your food and why. Adopting a more mindful approach to eating can leave you feeling more satisfied and fulfilled because you feel in tune with your body.
By Grace Arrowsmith, dietetic student. Reviewed by Reema Patel, Registered Dietitian, MSc
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