All day, we’re making decisions about food — when to eat, what to eat and how much to put on our plates. And we make most of these decisions in just a fraction of a second. Many of us spend more time figuring out which movie to watch than how and when to eat!
That’s where mindful eating comes in. It’s a practice that allows us to slow down and enjoy our food. It teaches us to acknowledge our thoughts and experiences without judgement and to let our eating be guided by our own inner wisdom.
Mindful eating also helps us understand how our surroundings play a role in deciding when and how we eat. For example, do you always eat popcorn when you’re at the movies, or grab a treat whenever you walk past the candy bowl? These cues can influence our eating habits without us even realizing it. Mindful eating, on the other hand, can help us make more conscious and satisfying decisions about food.
How Can Mindful Eating Help Me?
For some, mindful eating can reduce binge eating and emotional eating (which includes eating in response to stress, boredom, sadness or other feelings). Eating mindfully also involves eating more slowly, which can improve digestion and absorption of nutrients from our food. Mindful eating may even encourage us to make healthier food choices overall.
Mindful eating is not a diet— it’s about how you eat, which means you can practice it with whatever foods you want to consume. If you’re ready to give mindful eating a try, just two steps can get you started.
Two Steps Toward Mindful Eating
Step 1: Learn to recognize feelings of hunger and fullness. One of the most important aspects of mindful eating is to connect with your body’s needs, which means becoming more aware of when you feel hungry or full. One way to do this is to rate how you’re feeling on a 0 to 10 hunger scale. A 0 means you’re feeling so hungry you cannot function. A 10 describes that immediately-after-Thanksgiving-dinner-and-dessert feeling. The ideal place to fall on this scale is somewhere in the middle. A 5 means you’re feeling energized and neither full nor hungry. If you’re at a 5, enjoy the feeling of balance.
When we keep ourselves near the middle of the scale, it’s easier to think clearly about food. Extreme hunger can lead us to scarf down whatever we can get our hands on as quickly as possible. But when we eat in the early stages of hunger (like when your stomach is growling but before you feel famished) we can prevent this vicious cycle of under and overeating. Likewise, when we learn to stop eating when we’re no longer hungry instead of getting completely full, we can reduce overeating and the uncomfortable side effects that come with it.
Once you’ve spent some time thinking about where you are on the hunger scale, you can begin to use it before, during and after meals to help you eat just the right amount for your body.
Step 2: Ask yourself two important questions before you eat. The first question is, “Am I hungry?” Taking a moment to consider this simple question puts a pause between what triggers us to eat (like being in the movie theater or walking past the candy bowl) and actually eating. If the answer to your question is no, consider asking a follow up question: “Why am I eating?” This can help us discover some of the reasons we eat when we’re not really hungry. Common reasons include wanting to be polite if someone offers us something, boredom or even stress or anxiety. When we’re aware of the reasons we eat when we aren’t hungry, we can consider more effective ways to change our situations.
6 Bonus Tips for Eating More Mindfully
The first two steps for mindful eating can help you change how you think about and enjoy food. These next six tips are all about avoiding more of those autopilot-eating moments, and getting the most satisfaction from each bite you take.
- Use smaller plates, bowls and cups. We tend to eat more, without even noticing it, when our dishes are bigger. You can use this fact to your advantage by choosing smaller dinner plates. You may find that you feel satisfied with less when you put a reasonable serving on a smaller dish.
- Reorganize your kitchen. What we see is what we eat. Try keeping fruit in a visible place on the counter and place healthier snacks like popcorn and nuts front and center in the pantry.
- When you’re eating with other people, try to match your pace to the slowest eater. Challenge yourself not to be the first one to finish dinner. If you’re eating alone (or with other fast eaters), set a timer for 20 minutes and try to make your meal last at least this long. Eating more slowly allows us to derive more satisfaction from each bite.
- Check in with yourself throughout your meal. Use the 0 to 10 scale. Ask “Am I still hungry?” If the answer is no, stop eating. Notice how you feel a couple of hours after you finish eating. Are you hungry again? Still feeling satisfied? Have more energy? There are no right or wrong answers. It’s all about becoming more aware of your body’s needs.
- Before you begin eating your next meal, take a moment to really notice it. Observe the color. Let the scent of your food gently waft over you. Put a small piece of whatever you’re eating in your mouth. Try to wait 30 seconds before swallowing. Chew slowly and really taste it. Appreciate the texture and flavor. Pay attention to any thoughts and feelings you have when you chew it and (eventually) swallow it.
- Try eating without any distractions. Turn off the TV, sit at the table and put the phone away. It’s OK to play soft music or light some candles. Focus on the experience of eating and enjoy your food.