Eating With Mindfulness: the Benefits of Mindful Eating

The next time you’re eating, take a closer look at what’s on your plate. Savoring your food, and not just consuming it mechanically, may have important health benefits. It’s a practice called “mindful eating.”

“Mindful eating helps people rebuild their relationship with food. It makes eating less restrictive and judgmental, and it may ultimately lead to more feelings of satisfaction, less guilt and improved self-trust. It may also help with weight loss and digestion,” says Gabrielle Gambino, a senior clinical dietitian at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

What Is Mindful Eating?

Mindful eating is a bit like mindfulness meditation — a practice of focusing on the input from all of your senses, without judging them, so you can be fully present in the moment. For example, if you go for a bike ride, you can practice mindfulness by taking in details such as:

— The way your legs feel as you’re pedaling.

— The architectural styles of buildings you pass.

— The way the wind feels on your face.

— The sounds you hear along the way.

— The way you feel emotionally on your ride.

Likewise, with mindful eating, you’ll observe your feelings, thoughts, physical sensations and environment during a meal, without judging the information. “That will slow the eating process and get you in tune with how you feel about the food, how much you’re eating and how your body feels as you eat,” Gambino says.

[READ: A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation]

Eating Mindfully

To learn how to eat mindfully, you must focus on the process before sitting down to take a bite.

Here are some steps you can follow:

— Take a few deep breaths and consider how hungry you are.

— As you prepare food, notice its texture, smells and the sounds generated by the meal prep (maybe the chopping of vegetables or opening of packages).

— Put only enough food on your plate to satisfy your hunger.

— Savor your food. Chew slowly and think about how food tastes, how it feels in your mouth, and how much you are enjoying it.

— Try to note your hunger cues along the way. Are you really still hungry after eating a quarter or half of your meal?

— Stop eating when you’re full, no matter how much food is left. Try pushing the plate away from you.

“You want to feel full but satisfied. You don’t want to overdo it to the point of feeling like you can’t eat another bite. That’s how you know you’re overeating. That cue is what we’re aiming for,” Gambino says.

After your meal, take note of how your body feels. Do you feel satisfied? Hungry? Stuffed? Guilty? Happy? Would eating less or eating more at your meal have changed how you’re feeling now? Don’t judge yourself for your feelings. Just recognize them.

[SEE: Best Ways to Practice Self-Care.]

Mindful Eating and Weight Loss

Once you start noticing your body’s hunger and fullness cues on a regular basis, you may get better at controlling your food intake. During a meal, for example, being mindful can make you aware that you’ve had enough to eat — not just because you’re paying more attention to feelings of fullness, but also because you’re focusing on a food’s flavor.

“You can tell when you’ve had enough of the flavor. The taste buds get satiated, and it’s not pleasurable anymore. You’re more likely to stop eating if you know that,” says Jennifer Daubenmier, associate professor in the Holistic Health Studies Program at San Francisco State University. She researches the health benefits of mindfulness practices.

Eating with mindfulness may also help curb your food cravings. “You can learn to become curious about the bodily sensations and urges that make up the experience of cravings, and as you do so, cravings may become less intense, and you may have greater choice in how to respond to them, including letting them pass,” Daubenmier explains.

Mindful eating may also lead to better eating habits. “It may help curb binge eating, emotional eating and hedonic (pleasure) eating,” Daubenmier says. “You’re paying attention to your life more, not just when you’re sitting down and eating, but your patterns around food: when you eat, where you eat and why you eat.”

Do all of those potential benefits lead to weight loss? Studies on the subject are mixed.

“In general, some studies have found that mindful eating is the equivalent of calorie restriction in terms of weight loss, but it’s still just a theory,” Gambino says. “What we do know is that it doesn’t hurt to try mindful eating to lose weight, if that’s your goal.”

[Read: Ways Stress Makes You Gain Weight.]

Other Health Benefits of Mindful Eating

Mindfulness meditation has been shown to help lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol (which contributes to obesity) and lower your blood pressure, heart rate and stress levels. We don’t have definitive evidence that suggests mindful eating has the same effects.

However, Daubenmier’s own research has found that the benefits of mindful eating may help overall health. “Our research has shown that it may lower the ratio of triglycerides to HDL (good) cholesterol, which reduces the risk of heart disease,” Daubenmier says. “It may also help control blood sugar, possibly because of reductions in sugary foods.”

Better cardiovascular health and better blood sugar control can help stave off heart problems and Type 2 diabetes.

Mindful eating may also have the potential to help quell digestion problems. Some studies have suggested a possible link. “It’s not proven, but it makes sense since the central nervous system plays a role in digestion. If we are calmer while eating, our digestion may be more efficient,” Gambino says.

How to Practice Mindful Eating

If you’re interested in learning how to practice mindful eating, Gambino suggests a few approaches. You could consult a mindful eating book or seek the help of a dietitian, therapist or psychologist for training in mindful eating techniques. Be patient, as it takes time to learn how to eat slowly and mindfully.

Other strategies include:

Mindful eating exercises

Try small amounts of food with lots of taste and texture, such as a pear. “Imagine that you’ve never eaten this food before,” Gambino suggests.

“What does it taste like? What does it smell like? How does it feel in your mouth? How does eating it make you feel?”

Mindful eating apps

These apps can walk you through the process of being mindful before, during and after a meal. Choose an app that’s free, has high ratings, has lots of downloads and is simple to use.

Mindfulness meditation

Take a mindful bike ride or walk or do some yoga, which incorporates mindfulness into its practice. “Being mindful throughout the day will help you become more mindful when you eat,” Gambino notes. “This leads to behavioral change that’s lasting and doesn’t just affect food. It can potentially affect your life and how you live it.”

More from U.S. News

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Eating With Mindfulness: the Benefits of Mindful Eating originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 07/22/22: This story was published previously and has been updated with new information.

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