Mindfulness comes from an ancient Indian religion, but has recently become somewhat of a buzz-word. And now we have mindful eating – purported to significantly help people with obesity-related eating disorders. But it is all just hype?
We seem to be in an age where buzz words are all the rage, but you would be forgiven for missing this one: mindful eating.
It’s an expression you will hear said a lot in the weight loss community.
It is sometimes called intuitive eating, but there are subtle differences between the two.
Let’s start with looking at mindfulness, since the root of mindful eating originates here.
Mindfulness comes from the Buddhist meditation practice of “awareness”. According to Shinzen Young, a Buddhist teacher, mindfulness is objectively looking at the world, being “mindful” or “aware” of your environment, your surrounding, your self; as if viewing from a distance from yourself.
This view must be present-centred – that is absence of time (not thinking of the past or future, but being in the present).
It must also be non-judgemental – if judgements do appear, then don’t judge the judgements – just leave them be.
As you can see, mindfulness is quite a complex philosophy to explain, and anyone wanting to delve into this more deeply should listen to Shinzen Young’s explanation themselves and then explore further.
In psychology, mindfulness can be a powerful tool in dealing with mental health. Dr Jonty Heaversedge describes mindfulness as “paying attention”, being “focussed on the moment in hand”, “living in the moment”.
He says that mindfulness is a set of techniques that allows us to focus on the moment without necessarily subscribing to a religious doctrine. In fact, many doctors have now utilised these ancient practices in order to help people deal with stress and anxiety.
Benefits of mindful eating
The benefits of mindfulness and mindful eating is starting to appear a lot more often in the science literature. Usually, anything that is remotely “alternative” is poorly studied.
However, research is starting to show that mind-body practices such as meditation and yoga have an inverse relationship with weight – that is, for people who practice mindfulness and similar techniques are less likely to have weight issues (1).
Mindful eating appears to help people reach satiety faster, and so reduces the risk of over-eating (2).
Furthermore, mindful eating appears to help reduce impulsive eating (3).
So there is some good, mounting evidence that using mindful eating techniques can help us to control our weight and lead healthier lives.
The practice of mindful eating
So if mindfulness is about being aware of the present moment and drawing your attention to the here and now, how does that apply to eating?
Mindful eating is probably best defined by the US-based Centre for Mindful Eating , a not-for-profit establishment run by dietitians, psychologists, scientists and experts in food and nutrition. They focus on the act of not being distracted whilst you’re eating: being aware of the food flavours, textures, sensations.
The problem with modern living is that so many of us eat in front of the TV. Or we are flicking through our mobile phone as we eat. Or we’re somehow otherwise distracted during the process of eating.
The Centre for Mindful Eating suggest that many of us could not describe the flavours, textures or or taste of our last meal. We may remember exactly what we ate, but could not describe it otherwise – particularly the experience of eating it.
This might all seem rather strange, but mindless eating has been linked with anxiety, stress and overeating (4). Mindful eating may even reduce binge-eating (5,6) because it reconnects you back to the sensory experience of eating and changes your relationship with food.
The Centre for Mindful Eating describe the principles of mindful eating as:
- Allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food preparation and consumption by respecting your own inner wisdom.
- Choosing to eat food that is both pleasing to you and nourishing to your body by using all of your senses to explore, savour, and taste.
- Acknowledging responses to food (likes, neutral or dislikes) without judgement.
- Learning to be aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decision to begin eating and to stop eating.
How to eat mindfully
Now that we know what it is, how do we do it? For anyone serious about investigating the practice of mindful eating, seeking out specialist therapists is a good start – many counsellors, dietitians and nutritional therapists have completed additional training in mindful eating, some holding the MB-EAT certification. There are US directories online (in the US, but include UK practitioners) such as the Centre for Mindful Eating and Intuitive Eating.
But for now, why not have a look as some great mindful eating tips published on the Harvard Medical School Health Blog:
Don’t just rush into eating – think first about whether you really want to or need to eat. Are you doing so out of habit? What is your mood?
2. Sit down
Don’t eat on the go – sit and savour.
3. Turn off the TV (and anything else with a screen!)
Do you eat automatically because you’re distracted by technology, and then surprised to see the last mouthful disappear?
4. Serve out your portions
Don’t eat straight for the box, packet etc. Serve it out and put the rest away.
5. Pick a smaller plate
You are more likely to eat less if you fill up a smaller plate than if you under-fill a larger plate.
6. Give gratitude
Take a moment to think where your food has come from and give gratitude to the effort that was made getting it to you. Even if you cooked yourself, someone grew, picked and packed the ingredients.
Chewing on average 30 times per mouthful stops you from over-eating.
8. Put down your fork
Don’t hold onto your fork, put it down between mouthfuls.
9. Don’t worry about eating everything
Many of us are raised to “clear our plate”. Abandon this. Yes, there are many starving people in the world, but over-eating yourself isn’t going to solve the world’s food crisis. Instead, put it aside and eat it another time – perhaps for lunch the following day.
Every now and then, try and eat in silence. This may cause your mind to wander, but it’s a good practice to bring your mind and thoughts to your food and the act of eating, so that you truly experience the taste and flavours without any distractions. For many of us, this will be unpractical with a family or if you live with others, but it’s just something to do now and then when you can.
Mindful vs. Intuitive Eating
Recently, dietitians and nutritionists have started included the concept of intuitive eating into their practices, particularly when coaching patients or clients on weight loss.
One of the forefront thinkers of intuitive eating is a dietitian called Evelyn Tribole, who has written a number of books on this subject.
Intuitive eating is a philosophy based on non-diet weight loss. That’s right – losing weight without dieting! It’s not so much about getting the perfect body shape, but understanding and respecting your natural shape – how nature intended you to be.
Intuitive eating incorporates mindful eating, but is much broader in its message because it encompasses the break from eating for physical rather than emotional reasons, relying more on biological cues of both hunger and satiety, and getting away from guilt felt from eating.
Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat. He writes for www.veggieandspice.com and www.itsaboutnutrition.com