What’s the best diet? What should you eat? What “good” foods should you be eating more of? What “bad” foods should you be avoiding? How much should you be eating? While relevant and important, if these are the questions you’re most concerned about, you may be overlooking arguably the most important variable of good nutrition. You see, how we eat is just as important as what we eat, and mindful eating could be the missing link to achieving your health and weight-loss goals.
Why the “How” Comes Before the “What”
When it comes to eating for fat loss and improving overall health, everyone wants to know “what” and “how much” to eat. These are important questions, no doubt, as certain foods will fuel your goals better than others. What’s more, portion control is a key player in regulating energy balance, and we all know we have to eat less to lose more.
But, let’s be honest, calorie counting can be annoying and time consuming, and measuring and weighing foods can be even worse. In the short-term, these can be very useful tools to give you a better idea of exactly what you’re putting in your body, but these are unsustainable actions, which means they won’t last.
Very infrequently, however, do we talk about “how” we eat. Do you eat quickly like you have two brothers hawking over your plate? Do you eat while watching TV or checking your email? Do you count the number of times you chew before you swallow? Do you think about where your food originated?
Believe it or not, recent research indicates that how we eat can actually aid, or impede, our progress toward fat loss and overall health goals. Some of the latest findings in nutrition and behavior change suggest that “mindful eating” and “eating attentively” may be among the most valuable tools in winning the battle of the bulge.
What Is Mindful Eating
As the name suggests, mindful eating has roots in mindfulness, a practice based on Zen Buddhism, which has become popular as a way of self-calming. Like mindfulness, defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally,” mindful eating encourages us to gain awareness of our eating experiences. 1
In turn, mindful eating involves paying attention to our food, on purpose, moment by moment, without judgement, and it’s an approach to food that focuses on individuals’ sensual awareness of the food and their experience of the food.
Eating mindfully is about eating intentionally. It’s about bringing a full and deep awareness to each plate or bite of food. It begins with the first thought about food and lasts until the final bite is swallowed. It involves not only how you experience food but also considering what it took to bring the food to you—appreciating all of what it took to bring it to your plate.
Mindful eating involves savoring each bite, and after each bite, checking in with your body to see how you’re feeling. At its very core, mindful eating raises awareness and attention. Mindful eating helps individuals cultivate awareness of both internal and external triggers to eating, interrupt automatic eating, and eat in response to natural physiological cues of hunger and satiety. Through practice, eating mindfully can interrupt habitual eating behaviors and provide greater regulation of food choices.
Unlike diets and most nutritional guidance, which focus on the “rules” of eating, mindful eating has little to do with carbs, fats, or protein, what to eat, how much to eat, and what not to eat.
Rather than being restricted by rules, mindful eating encourages you to appreciate food and promotes eating attentively in a non-judgmental, self-accepting way. And while “diets” have “short-term” (which typically equals long-term failure) written all over them, mindful eating is about behavior change.
Even though the purpose of mindful eating is not weight loss, the emerging body of research suggests that it is highly likely that those who adopt this nutritional practice will likely reap benefits like weight loss and improved health. 1,2
Mindful Eating Is Not Pseudoscience
In one review study published in the prestigious American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers from the University of Birmingham (United Kingdom) analyzed 24 different studies that examined the effect that manipulating memory, distraction, awareness, or attention has on food intake. 3
The researchers found that eating when distracted not only causes you to eat more at that meal or snack but, get this, causes you to eat an even greater amount later on in subsequent meals. On the other hand, the researchers found that being more attentive to meals and using “food memories” (i.e., using visual reminders of meals or keeping food wrappers) led to decreased food intake both immediately and at later meals.
This research provides evidence that the practice of “mindful eating” is increasingly important when trying to lose stubborn fat. As a matter of fact, the authors of the study concluded: “Evidence indicates that attentive eating is likely to influence food intake, and incorporation of attentive-eating principles into interventions provides a novel approach to aid weight loss and maintenance without the need for conscious calorie counting.”
Another recent study published in the journal BMJ Open came to a similar conclusion: how we eat is just as important as what we eat. In this study, Japanese researchers followed almost 60,000 participants and found that the faster someone eats, the more likely it is that they will be overweight. In fact, those who ate the fastest were 42% more likely to be obese than those who ate at a “normal” speed. 4
They also found that people who ate within two hours of going to sleep and snacked frequently were at greater risk for obesity. Of course, this was an observational study, so we can’t be sure that there was a causal relationship between eating fast and gaining weight. Having said that, it makes sense that paying attention to how, what, when, why, and how much you’re eating can be tremendously helpful when it comes to improving your nutrition.
Mindful Eating in Action
One common mindful eating exercise is to eat a single raisin as if for the first time. This exercise is specific to food consumption and involves noticing the appearance, color, texture, and smell of the raisin before placing it in the mouth and then chewing it with deliberate attention to taste and sensory stimuli. By eating a raisin without impulse, distraction, or emotional interference, one can break the automatic cycle of eating.
Of course, the mindful eating practice can be extended to any food or meal. Here are some helpful tips to increase your attentiveness while eating and put mindful eating practices to use right away:
- Remove Distractions. Distractions can cause you to eat more. Turn off the TV, shut down the computer, and set your phone in another room. As a matter of fact, sit at the table and take the time to enjoy your meal.
- Use Smaller Plates. Appearance can be deceiving. A smaller plate that’s full is much more satisfying than a large plate that is half empty because it gives the impression that there is a more abundant amount of food.
- Take Your Time. Cara Stewart, Registered Dietitian and member of the Penn Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery team, says it takes approximately 20 minutes for your brain and stomach to register fullness. I don’t know about you, but I can put a lot of food down in 20 minutes. Taking your time allows you to better gauge your level of fullness and satiety.
- Chew Your Food. And if you’d like a nice round number, chew each bite 40 times. Why 40? Chewing 40 times suppresses appetite and increases feelings of fullness. 5 As an added bonus, chewing your food 40 times increases GLP-1 response, which stimulates first-phase insulin response. And that’s important because first-phase insulin response seems to be really important for glucose regulation. 6
- “Hara Hachi Bu.” This ancient Confucian adage literally means “Eat until you are 8 parts (out of 10) full” or “belly 80% full.” Practice this wise teaching when you eat by stopping your meal when you are almost full—not stuffed.
- Chew Thoroughly. I’ve seen people literally swallow pieces of meat whole, like they’re afraid someone’s going to take the food right out of their mouths. Take your time with each bite and try to recognize different tastes and textures. A good guide is to chew each bite at least 20 times. The added benefit of this is that digestion starts in the mouth, so you can also avoid some GI distress by chewing more thoroughly.
- Take Smaller Bites. Cut your food into smaller pieces, which will help increase the duration of the meal. You could even use baby utensils to help decrease the size of each bite. This will also help you feel like you’ve eaten more.
- Put Your Fork Down. Remember, your fork is not a shovel. You can set it down between bites, which will help you focus on the taste, look, smell, and feel of your meal and help you slow down your pace.
- Have a Conversation. Gasp! Yep, I mean actually talk to someone while you’re eating. You’re already sitting at the table, you might as well ask your partner and children how their days were. If you have any manners, you won’t talk and chew at the same time, so this will slow down your eating, as well as enhance the memory of the meal.
- Eat with Your Non-Dominant Hand. Michael Jordan once said that one of the reasons he is the greatest basketball player of all time is because everything that he did with his right hand he also did with his left—from dribbling a basketball to brushing his teeth. Not only will doing this enhance your dexterity, the awkwardness of this task will force you to slow down your eating and take smaller bites.
- Set a Timer. Start with 15 minutes per meal as a basic goal. Work up to 20 or even 30 minutes.
- Break Out the Journal. The food journal, that is. While I don’t think it’s necessary to measure, weigh, and/or record everything you eat indefinitely, food journaling can be a useful tool to raise awareness of what (and how much) you’re putting into your mouth.
- On a Scale of 1 to 5. Notice your hunger and fullness both before and after a meal. Use a perceived rating scale to subjectively assign value to how you’re feeling. For example, before a meal, 5 would mean you’re so hungry you could eat your (or someone else’s) arm off while 1 would mean that you’re not really hungry at all. Along these lines, become aware of how hunger changes over the course of a meal by tuning into the sensations that occur as the meal progresses.
- Know When to Say When. Notice when the flavor and enjoyment of the taste of the food you’re eating begins to wane. That’s a good cue that it’s time to stop eating. Be careful, however, with mixed meals. While we can be pleasantly satisfied with one type of food or taste (e.g., savory), we may have the drive to eat another type of food (e.g., sweet) and continue eating/overeating. This a physiological phenomenon called “sensory specific satiety,” and it’s one reason why it’s so easy to overeat at parties, buffets, restaurants, etc., where there are multiple dishes, tastes, textures, etc.
- Experiment with Meditation. Mindful eating is essentially a form of meditation, and meditation promotes awareness—the very quality on which mindful eating is based. It stands to reason that practicing meditation promotes mindful eating. While there are many ways to practice meditation, identify a time during the day and location for practicing 10 – 20 minutes of sitting meditation (e.g., in the morning in a quiet space in a chair or on the floor on a cushion) to focus on the breath. When your attention wanders, simply notice and acknowledge it, and bring it back to the breath. Gradually increase the time spent in meditation.
- Practice Mini-Meditations. Focus on your breath and become aware of bodily sensations of hunger and satiety before and during meals and snacks.
Of course, on the other end of the mindful-eating spectrum is mindless eating, which goes by many names such as “recreational eating” and “hedonic compensation,” to name a couple. In other words, there are many factors that drive us to eat besides real hunger and metabolic need.
And a major facet of mindful eating is cultivating awareness of both internal and external triggers to eating, which contribute to automatic, inattentive, and/or habitual responses and unnecessary food consumption. Some of these “triggers” include:
- Stress and anxiety
- Emotions (e.g., sadness, happiness)
- Your environment (e.g., if food is there, you’re going to eat it)
- People you surround yourself with
- Social gatherings
- Lack of sleep
This is just a handful of examples of eating triggers, which can be thoughts, feelings, or environmental cues, other than true hunger that can prompt the desire to eat—and subsequently, mindless eating.
The first step to disrupting the cycle is creating awareness and identifying the situation. And when you do, try asking yourself, “Am I truly hungry or do I want to eat for another reason?”
In addition, create a list of coping strategies to use when you notice a trigger to engage in emotional eating. Here are some examples:
- Read a book
- Call a friend
- Write a thank you note
- Take a walk
- Practice yoga
- Do a body-weight workout
- Organize your closet
- Play with your kids
- Engage in a hobby
Change the HOW Before the WHAT
As controversial as it sounds, how you eat is just as important—if not more important—than what you eat. Just like any form of meditation, mindful eating is a practice, and it’s a commitment to behavior change. At its core, mindful eating is about being present and intentional. And while the main benefit or purpose of mindful eating is not weight loss, it is likely that those who adopt mindful eating as a regular practice will find themselves achieving—and maintaining—a healthy weight and reaping overall health benefits to boot.