Ever reached for a box of cookies even though you weren’t hungry, or feeling anxious or a little down? Or sitting at your desk at work, nibbled on a couple of squares of chocolate than before you knew it, you had demolished the whole block?
Eating mindlessly plagues many of us, and unsurprisingly can result in us eating, or drinking, excess amounts of the sweet stuff. Yet, by understanding and practising mindful eating, we can combat these unhelpful habits and our relationship with food.
Mindful vs mindless eating
Eating mindfully is one aspect of mindfulness practice, and can address our relationship with what we eat. Enhanced mind-body connection helps you make healthful choices (or be aware when you aren’t) and to know when you are full, so less likely to overeat.
Focusing on the look, smell, taste and texture of the food we eat, and chewing slowly without the distraction of driving, work or screens, increases awareness of satiety and appreciation of the food itself, and empowers one to feel more in control of their eating and less likely to binge. Past research has shown this, and in addition, meditation practice has been shown to enhance these qualities further, and can also cultivate self-acceptance and ease depression.1 Great!
Mindful eating is eating with intention while paying attention.
A general mindfulness or meditation practice may also assist with other health issues. For example, deep breathing and extended exhalation can activate the parasympathetic nervous system – our rest and digest mode. Meditation itself has been seen to enhance brain plasticity, lower inflammation, and boost stress resilience and mood.2-5 It could possibly slow the ageing process!6
It can also cultivate a greater awareness of our body’s physical reactions and symptoms that previously we may have been oblivious to, so to act on them before they manifest into something worse.
Cultivating body and mind connection
‘Mindful eating’, can quickly become ‘mindless eating’, where one can respond to external cues rather than a response to hunger, e.g. alleviate boredom; as a reward when a task is complete; habit such as having a dessert after every meal; and eating/snacking when watching TV.
While no one is perfect and there will be times that coffee is drunk at the work desk or one collapses at the end of an exhausting day on the couch with a snack, practising mindful techniques can help reduce overeating, eating the wrong foods or delving into unhelpful habits.
The psychology of eating is not about willpower; it is your relationship with food and the habits developed over time.
When that desire for food or drink calls, here are some techniques and tips to consider if we eat and what we eat.
If we eat
Before eating, first ‘HALT’, asking yourself:
H – Am I feeling hungry?
A – Am I feeling angry?
L – Am I feeling lonely?
T – Am I feeling tired?
This can help identify what might be driving you toward that packet of Oreos (or equivalent).
Still keen on eating? Before you reach for the food, also ask yourself if a glass of water (you may be thirsty), a short walk (you may need to get some blood flowing), or a breathe of fresh air (you may need to simply take a break from your task) would give you what you need.7
What we eat
When enjoying some food or drink:
- Eat your meal over 20 minutes
- Chew slowly, taking small bites. The food ain’t going to run away! Using chopsticks or smaller utensils can help.
- Consider quietly the food you are eating for a few minutes, where it came from, how it may be helping you, and what it is like to smell and taste.
- Only eat when eating. Sit down and make the time for it. Try to limit screens or other distractions, and eating on the move.
- Enjoy your meal with others. Meal times can be a lovely shared experience!
Challenge yourself to practice mindful eating over the coming week. Be aware of your eating patterns, asking the following questions so you can explore your eating habits and choices:
- Were your meal choices healthy ones?
- Were your meal choices based on your emotions, energy levels, convenience or influenced by your environment?
- Did you feel satisfied after each meal, or were you still hungry?
A practice of mindfulness can reap great benefits when practised regularly long-term. There are great apps out there to get you started, and a chat to your healthcare practitioner can point you in the right direction of who to undertake guided mindfulness training with.
So get mindful with your eating and tune into your body’s actual needs and desires to help reduce added sugar intake, overeating and regularly reaching for other, equally unhealthy foods.
The mental, emotional and physiological benefits could be profound.
By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med.)
Thanks to Annabel MacKenzie (Dietitian and Nutrition Consultant) for assistance with some of the above content.
- Kristeller, JL & Wolever, RQ 2011, ‘Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training for Treating Binge Eating Disorder: The Conceptual Foundation’, Eating Disorders, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 49-61.
- Creswell, JD, Taren, AA, Lindsay, EK, Greco, CM, Gianaros, PJ, Fairgrieve, A, Marsland, AL, Brown, KW, Way, BM, Rosen, RK, & Ferris, JL 2016, ‘Alterations in Resting-State Functional Connectivity Link Mindfulness Meditation With Reduced Interleukin-6: A Randomized Controlled Trial’, Biological Psychiatry, vol. 80, no. 1, pp. 53-61.
- Davidson, RJ and McEwen, B 2012, ‘Social influences on neuroplasticity: stress and interventions to promote well-being’, Nature Neuroscience, 5, pp. 689–695.
- Rosenkranz, MA, Lutz, A, Perlman, DM, Bachhuber, DR, Schuyler, BS, MacCoon, DG, & Davidson, RJ 2016, ‘Reduced stress and inflammatory responsiveness in experienced meditators compared to a matched healthy control group’, Psychoneuroendocrinology, vol. 68, pp. 117-125.
- Richard, M, Lutz, A, & Davidson, RJ 2014, ‘mind of the meditator’, Scientific American, vol. 311, no. 5, pp. 38-45.
- Luders, E, Cherbuin, N, & Kurth, F 2015, ‘Forever Young(er): potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy’, Frontiers In Psychology, vol. 5, p. 1551.
- Harvard Medical School 2011, ‘Mindful eating may help with weight loss’, Healthbeat, viewed 8 August 2016, <http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/mindful-eating-may-help-with-weight-loss>