What is mindful eating? Benefits & how it works (1)

Summary: when we talk about food, we typically focus on what we’re eating. Kale, good. Donuts, bad. But how we’re eating is also important. Are we wolfing down our food while driving or scrolling through Instagram? Are we using food to distract ourselves from unwanted feelings? Or are we eating consciously and gratefully, nourishing our bodies with good food choices? In this article, we’ll explore the challenge – and power – of mindful eating.

If you Google “food you can eat with one hand,” you’ll see more than 2,000,000,000 results, pages with titles like “13 Dishes You Can Eat with One Hand” (TodaysParent.com), “Recipes People Can Literally Eat with One Hand” (TasteofHome.com), and “29 Healthy Meals You Can Literally Eat on the Go” (Greatist.com). Maybe some of these articles are for people who have broken their arms or are for some other reason limited to single-handed eating. But the vast majority of the audience for this topic is composed of busy people who can’t or won’t find time to sit down to eat.

The Greatist.com article begins, “When your days are packed with meetings, appointments, errands, and social time, sometimes the only chance to eat is when you’re on the go.” And by “on the go,” they might be speaking literally. According to a survey on drivers’ eating habits by Insure.com, the best foods to eat while driving are, in order of preference, candy bars, French fries, potato chips, and donuts. And a statistic floating around the internet, attributed to author Michael Pollan, states that 20% of all meals in the US are eaten in a car.

Mindless eating

Is not necessary that we are “on the go” when we eat while doing other actions, however. What’s called “mindless eating” has become the default for many of us these days. How many of us eat lunch at our desks? How often are we too busy to pause what else we’re doing while we eat?

The company that makes Pretzel Crisps conducted a survey in 2019. It found that almost 9 out of 10 people regularly dine while looking at an electronic screen. If you can relate to any of this, you’re certainly not alone. The hectic pace of modern life impacts all of us. Sometimes it can feel like you have to multi-task just to keep up.

Our culture has shifted from “three meals a day” to “all food, all the time.” And never before has food been so readily available: co-workers routinely bring donuts and other sweets to work. In towns around the world, you can find junk food for sale on every corner. Convenience stores and gas stations offer an abundance of easy-to-eat, “one-handed,” packaged and fast food. And in many downtown areas, food trucks peddle greasy and unhealthy takeout dishes to hurried workers and students.

And it goes even further when eating meets entertainment. What movie theater would be complete without audiences eating popcorn drenched in butter while gasping and shrieking at the latest thriller? And what sports stadium doesn’t offer hot dogs, tacos, cheese fries, and local specialties.

Disconnected from our food

It’s not just that the food itself is often unhealthy. Sadly, if we bring little awareness, we are unlikely to find lasting satisfaction or nourishment. When we eat while focused on other aspects, it’s more difficult to feel a connection to the sources of that food – where it came from, what’s in it, how it got to us, whose labor contributed to its production and distribution. And it’s also harder to pay attention to how our food makes us feel while we’re eating it. Only later, after indulging, might we notice nausea, bloating, gas, lethargy, fogginess, and the other myriad maladies caused by overeating stuff that isn’t really even food, but actually manufactured food-like substances, usually called “junk-food”.

That’s a pretty grim picture. It reminds us of the movie “Wall-E”, in which sedentary, obese humans who have lost the ability to walk, float around on antigravity deck chairs, and mindlessly consume “lunch in a cup” while watching screens advertise all manner of consumption. But luckily, there are many ways to reconnect with our food, choose healthier options, and enjoy them more. And one of them is mindful eating.

What is mindful eating?

Mindfulness is a practice inspired by the contemplative practices of many schools and faiths, including Christianity. It involves bringing attention and awareness to what you are doing in the here and now. Anything can be the subject of mindful contemplation, including your breath, physical sensations, an object in the environment (such as a candle flame, or a tree), a mantra, or in the case of mindful eating, all the sensations related to the food that’s in front of (and inside of) you. Studies have shown that mindfulness can lead to better focus, less stress, and lower rates of depression.

Bringing mindfulness to eating can confer all these benefits – and more. When you bring awareness to the act of eating, you become more conscious of what you are putting into your body – and how your body is responding to it. Mindful eating allows you to pay attention to your body’s hunger and satiety signals and allows you to filter out the emotional “noise” that can be mistaken for hunger: boredom, sadness, anger, and even excitement.

When you consciously direct your attention to your food, it allows you to reconnect with your senses of taste, smell, and touch, allowing you to enjoy the food in a much more fulfilling and complete way. And rather than being disconnected from your dining partners, each lost in their own screen, you can create connections with others through breaking bread together.

Mindful eating is also a powerful entry point in addressing your emotional “baggage” around food: guilt about particular foods, anxiety about not getting enough, and strong likes and dislikes that may be colored by past experiences more than current realities. By staying present, you are better able to recognize these emotional reactions without judgment, and thus begin to free yourself from the compulsion to act on them.

Benefits of mindful eating

Are the benefits conferred by mindful eating backed by science? You bet they are! See bellow!

can help with weight loss

Paying attention to the experience of eating has been shown to help obese people avoid overeating and lose excess weight. A review of mindful eating studies showed that the process undermined three of the most powerful forces compelling people to eat when they aren’t hungry: the urge to binge; eating for emotional reasons; and eating based on external cues. Being mindful helps people to heed their body’s genuine signals and avoid giving in to temporary cravings that aren’t rooted in nutritional needs.

may help with treatment of eating disorders

Mindfulness interventions have also been used to treat eating disorders, and binge eating, in particular. In addition to the increased awareness of physical sensations and psychological triggers, mindfulness often increases self-acceptance and dilutes the voice of the “inner critic” that so often triggers a desire to self-medicate with junk or comfort foods. Since mindful eating involves, by definition, focusing on your food rather than splitting your attention between eating and other stimuli, this practice can also reduce the kind of “emotional band-aid” eating that often occurs when we’re simultaneously watching TV or engaging on social media.

may increase enjoyment and gratitude

Being mindful of the food you’re eating while you’re eating it can also increase your appreciation of that food: its aromas, flavors, and textures are more present to your brain and so register more strongly. Eating mindfully evokes and strengthens your gratitude ‘muscle’. Paying attention to the food and the process of eating enhances appreciation for where the food came from, all the people whose labor brought it to you (farmworkers, logistics engineers, drivers, refrigeration mechanics, marketers, retailers, packagers, chefs – the list is almost endless), and the good it can do in your body. When you really think about it, eating is a pretty magical activity; the primary way you and the rest of reality are connected. When you eat, you’re basically turning some portion of the outside world into you. That’s a lot to be grateful for!

may make it easier to make wise food choices

People who have learned to eat mindfully often report that their food preferences transform in the direction of health. Mindful eating makes it easier to choose healthy foods, and avoid unhealthier ones. One study found that adding mindfulness training to a diet and exercise program for obese adults reduced self-reported consumption of sweets, a measure that was supported by a reduction in fasting blood glucose in the experimental group at six months, compared to a control group. While all the mechanisms by which mindful eating modifies eating behaviors are not fully understood, one pathway appears to be by reducing the person’s reactivity to external food cues. That is, someone practicing mindfulness can insert a space large enough for free will between “see cookie” and “eat cookie.”

good for digestion

When you slow down and pay attention to your food, your body digests that food more efficiently. By savoring your food, including smelling, chewing, and letting saliva build up, you’re supercharging your digestion to more efficiently process that food and absorb its nutrients. The process of digestion actually begins before you start eating, as Pavlov’s dogs could have told you. They salivated at the bell in anticipation of chow. When we take time before eating to notice the food in front of us, we also jumpstart the digestive process by bringing more digestive enzymes into our saliva.

provides useful information

When you eat mindfully, you’ll be collecting lots of useful data that you can use to optimize your eating and your life. If you don’t pay attention to what you’re eating, how you’re eating it, and when, you’ll never make connections between food and mood, eating and energy, and other important patterns. Eating mindfully for even a few days can start giving you valuable clues about how to best eat to fuel your work, play, and exercise. You may discover your eating habits transforming, and notice that certain foods leave you feeling light and energetic, while others leave you feeling heavy, hungry, or even with a tummyache.

Read the second part of the article


January 12, 2022


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