Here’s a sobering stat: Approximately 90% of dieters eventually gain back the lost weight...and then some. Many diets work in the short term due to calorie reduction and the restriction of certain foods, but they don’t address the connection between mind and meal. As soon as the diet is done, lifelong lifestyle and dietary habits creep back in, and the weight creeps back on. Mindful eating is a mind-body technique that can help you lose weight and keep it off for good. And guess what? It goes with absolutely every diet under the sun!
What Is Mindful Eating?
Mindful eating stems from the Buddhist concept of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the state of being fully aware of and engaged in the present moment. When you practice mindfulness, you are not distracted by or judging what is happening in and around you. You are aware of how you feel in body and mind. You are in touch with your emotions but are not reacting to or overwhelmed by them.
Mindful eating applies mindfulness to your relationship with food. Eating mindfully is all about the experience of food. Savoring the taste and texture of each bite, paying attention to your food cravings and your physical cues—when you feel hungry and when you feel full—feeling the effects of your food choices, and developing a stronger awareness of what your body needs.
The Benefits of Mindful Eating
Many of the eating habits we’ve developed, including emotional eating and binge eating, are the result of many years of mindless eating. We eat on the way to work, we scroll through our social feeds at breakfast, we watch dinner in front of the television, and eating becomes entirely automatic.
Rarely do we miss our physical hunger cues, but this distraction can cause us to ignore our body’s full signals and eat far more than is necessary or healthy. In fact, it takes the brain 20 minutes to register fullness. If you’re distracting your brain with emails or entertainment, it becomes even easier to miss the bodily sensations that tell you it’s time to stop eating.
When you eat mindfully and with intention, you become well acquainted with your triggers, both physical and emotional, and develop the self-control to be able to stop responding to them with food.
Mindful eating also helps reduce stress and anxiety by giving you a break from the hustle and bustle of your life. As you eat slower, you get to enjoy the taste of the food more and how it feels filling your stomach. Your digestion improves, and as you start to notice how different foods make you feel, you’ll inevitably start making healthy food choices that support your well-being.
When you give your full attention to the food you’re shopping for, cooking, and eating and how it makes you feel physically and emotionally, something remarkable happens. Your appreciation of food grows and your relationship with food changes. The negative thoughts you may have had about food and your body along with any unhealthy eating behaviors make way for more conscious and healthful choices, and weight loss becomes a natural side benefit of mindful eating.
Mindful Eating and Weight Loss
Several studies show that mindful eating can help support long-term weight loss (1).
A 2010 study provided evidence that mindful eating can help obese individuals lose weight, change their eating habits, and reduce psychological distress. Subjects participated in a 6-week mindful eating program and lost 9 pounds on average during the seminar and 12 weeks after (2).
A more recent study examined the effect of 6 months of mindful eating on overweight adults—an average weight loss of 26 pounds that still stuck 3 months after the seminar’s conclusion (3)!
Mindful eating has shown particular promise as a treatment for binge eating disorder, an eating pattern of mindlessly taking in a large amount of food in a short amount of time. A 6-week mindful eating intervention reduced binge-eating episodes from 4 to 1.5 a week and decreased the severity of the episodes as well (4).
Eating mindfully has also proven effective for emotional eating and external eating, an eating pattern triggered by environmental food-based signals such as the sight and smell of food. Mindful eating helps change these patterns by giving you the awareness and tools to monitor and control your responses, so that you no longer fall prey to overeating.
How to Practice Mindful Eating
Habits take time to learn. Some experts say it takes 18 days to form a habit, while others stand by 254 days. It’s likely somewhere in between, and it can help to have the support of others to form these habits if we want them to stick. Consider taking a mindful eating seminar, workshop, or online course. Your instructor will lead you through mindfulness meditation practices, and it can help to share your progress with other people, whether it’s through virtual or in-person connection.
Many universities, including UC San Diego and the University of Texas at Austin, offer mindful eating programs to students and their communities. These programs are often based on the work of Jan Chozen Bays, MD and Char Wilkins, LCSW. You can explore mindful eating further in Bay’s book, Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food, and we encourage you to check out local universities or health centers that offer mindful eating programs.
To get started practicing mindful eating, follow the tips below.
- Center yourself. Take a few deep breaths to ground yourself in the present moment before you start eating. Activate your senses and become aware of the aroma, colors, and textures of the food on your plate.
- Get rid of distractions. Turn off your cell phone, shut down the television, and get rid of anything that will pull focus from your food. There’s no place for multitasking in mindful eating! Eat in silence so that your awareness can be fully directed onto your food.
- Start small. Fill your plate with small portions. You may just find it’s enough once you start eating mindfully.
- Eat slowly. Mealtime was designed to be enjoyed, so take it slow. Chew each mouthful slowly and purposefully. Aim for 20-40 chews for every bite of food. Put down your utensils after each bite as a reminder to slow down your eating pace.
- Feel it. How does the food feel in your mouth and traveling down into your stomach? Savor it! How do different foods make your body and mind feel? What emotions arise?
- Listen and respond. Your body has an inner wisdom that will tell you what it likes and what it doesn’t. When it’s time to eat and when it’s time to stop. Listen to the physical cues of satiety your body sends and respond appropriately.
The beauty of mindful eating is that bringing mindfulness to the table just a few times a week is enough to shift your relationship with food, and ultimately your relationship with your body.
Transform Your Experience of Eating
Eating was never meant to be fraught with anxiety or distress, but society’s obsession with weight loss and near constant activity has turned eating into a less-than-pleasurable experience for many of us. If you feel as though your relationship with food is off or you’re having trouble losing or maintaining weight, then mindful eating can help.
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