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How to start a mindful eating practice and improve your relationship with food

Last updated Oct 11, 2021
mindful eating

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Are you tired of second-guessing your eating decisions? Do you want a better relationship with food, but you’re not sure where to begin? You are in luck, because there is a method of eating that can help. It’s called mindful eating, and this blog post will teach you how to start doing it today.

What is mindfulness?

Because mindful eating is an offshoot of the practice of mindfulness, I want to give a quick overview of that term first. Mindfulness is:

Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. 

This is the definition of mindfulness given by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who first defined the term and helped bring the concept into the mainstream. If you are interested in mindfulness, then his book Full Catastrophe Living is a great place to start.1

What is mindful eating?

Mindful eating applies this definition to mealtime by encouraging us to slow down and pay attention to our food and the process of eating. The Center for Mindful Eating website defines it as:

Mindful Eating brings mindfulness to food choice and the experience of eating. Mindful eating helps us become aware of our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations related to eating, reconnecting us with our innate inner wisdom about hunger and satiety.2

As you can see, mindful eating is simple and requires no special equipment. All you have to do is sit down and be present, attuned to the process of eating.

How do I learn to eat mindfully?

The following steps are a guideline for a mindful eating session. Note that there are few mental check-ins before you actually take your first bite.

1. Define where you are (non-judgmental observation)

Check in with yourself, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Some possible questions to ask yourself are:

  • What is your hunger/fullness level? 
  • Are you feeling any other sensations in your body? 
  • What do you see/hear/smell? 
  • What are you thinking about? 
  • What is your current mood?

2. Set an intention

An intention is simply “the exertion of your will to change.”3 It brings your awareness to what you are doing and directs your actions towards a specific purpose. Some sample intentions described by Megrette Fletcher in her book The Core Concepts of Mindful Eating: Professional Edition are:

“May this meal/food/bite reduce the harm I cause myself or others.”

“May this meal/food/bite generate goodwill for myself and others.”

“May this meal/food/bite work to end the suffering in myself and others.”3

3. Use all your senses to enjoy your food

  1. Look at your food – what colors, shapes, and textures do you see? 
  2. Smell the food. What do you notice?
  3. Taste the food, but don’t chew yet. Notice flavors, textures, and any sensations caused by it. 
  4. Chew the food, slowly and deliberately, staying present to enjoy the experience. Pay attention to the characteristics of the food.
  5. When ready, mindfully swallow the food.

4. Continue to pay attention

As you are eating, continue to notice how your food tastes. At what point does your enjoyment lessen? Use this to help gauge when to stop eating a particular food.

5. Continue to check in with hunger and fullness levels

Pay attention to your decreasing hunger and increasing fullness. This will also help you determine when you have eaten enough.4

What are the benefits of mindful eating?

There are numerous benefits to mindful eating, some of which can be realized right away. They include:

  • Greater enjoyment of food – if you’ve ever eaten while driving or watching television, the food just seems to disappear without you noticing. Mindful eating helps us to pay attention to all of the delicious flavors of our food.
  • Determining which foods you actually don’t like – this one may be surprising to you, but sometimes we don’t even realize that we dislike a food until we take the time to eat it mindfully.5 (For me this applies to store-bought brownies!)
  • Determining when we stop enjoying a food – through a phenomenon called “taste satiety” (a.k.a. “sensory-specific satiety”) our tastebuds grow tired of a flavor as we are eating. This causes the enjoyment of our food to go down. If we can notice when this occurs, we can stop eating when we stop enjoying the food.6
  • Learning what our bodies feel like when we are hungry and full – some of us are so used to ignoring our body’s signals that we have difficulty knowing when we are hungry and when we are full. Mindful eating can help us tune in to both. By checking in with our hunger before a meal, paying attention during a meal to when the hunger goes away, and continuing to pay attention to signals that tell us we are full, we can re-learn this vital skill.
  • Helping you switch from outside food rules to internal food cues – many people are used to following diets and external food rules about where/when/what/why/how they can eat. Unfortunately, this is a step in the wrong direction. It is our bodies, not food rules, that we should be listening to. Our bodies are unique and can tell us what they need in any given moment. Mindful eating teaches us the tools to listen.
  • Helping you distinguish between physiological hunger and psychological hunger – this can be a really tough one for people to tease out, myself included. We eat for a variety of reasons, including the physiological (to meet our body’s needs) and the psychological (eating for emotional reasons). If you are not hungry, then no amount of food will make you feel satisfied. Mindful eating can help you distinguish between these two.
  • May lead to weight loss – it is entirely possible for mindful eating to lead to weight loss. If we stop eating when we are no longer hungry or satisfied, it is possible we will eat less food than before. If we learn to deal with psychological hunger in ways other than eating, we will also eat less. 
  • Helps you let go of food struggles – over time, mindful eating can help you make peace with food. Shifting your awareness to your body’s needs, and trusting yourself to honor them, is a powerful tool for letting go of worries surrounding food.6

I want to lose weight – is mindful eating for me?

While mindful eating can help promote weight loss, I recommend caution when starting a practice for the sole purpose of weight reduction. The whole idea behind mindful eating is that you are observing what is, in the particular moment you are experiencing, without trying to change anything. It promotes non-judgement and acceptance. If you are trying to change your body (by losing weight), then it is difficult to have this type of attitude. It is also hard to trust and follow your body’s signals if you are concerned about losing weight. A better approach is to commit to mindful eating, learn to accept your body as it is, and see what happens.

What are some resources to help me eat mindfully?

Because of its growing popularity, there are a lot of resources for learning how to eat mindfully. Here are a few that I am familiar with and recommend: 

  • Organizations: The Center of Mindful Eating is a fantastic resource for developing a mindful eating practice. They have educational sessions and host group mindful eating classes online, which are offered for both the public and health professionals. I highly recommend it as a starting point.

  • Professionals: If you are looking to learn mindful eating in a more structured way, there are a variety of professionals trained to teach mindful eating, ranging from therapists to dietitians. Check out TCME’s professional directory to find a mindful eating professional near you.

  • Books: A few books that I have read on the subject and thoroughly enjoyed are:
    • The Joy of Half a Cookie – this is a fantastic resource for both learning about mindful eating and actually practicing it. In addition to having a wealth of information, it also includes exercises to help you practice. Note that the author does promote using mindfulness as a tool for weight loss.
    • Why Diets Make Us Fat – this one mostly focuses on the science of diets and weight loss/gain, but the last section has some chapters on moving towards a more holistic approach toward eating. This book is very thoroughly researched.

Moving forward

Food is meant to be enjoyed, not to be another source of stress in our lives. Starting a mindful eating practice is a gentle, holistic way to recalibrate your relationship with food. 

What’s one food that you discovered that you don’t actually like when you ate it mindfully? Leave a comment below.

References

1Nelson, J. B. (2017). Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat. Diabetes Spectrum, 30(3), 171–174. https://doi.org/10.2337/ds17-0015
2The Center for Mindful Eating – Home. (n.d.). The Center for Mindful Eating. Retrieved September 17, 2021, from https://www.thecenterformindfuleating.org/
3Fletcher, M. (2017). The Core Concepts of Mindful Eating: Professional Edition (First Edition) [E-book]. Megrette Fletcher.
4Lieberstein, A. (2017). Well Nourished: Mindful Practices to Heal Your Relationship with Food, Feed Your Whole Self, and End Overeating. Fair Winds Press.
5Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2012). Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works (Third ed.). St. Martin’s Griffin.
6Kristeller, J., & Bowman, A. (2015). The Joy of Half a Cookie: Using Mindfulness to Lose Weight and End the Struggle with Food. Perigee.

Helena Ramadan, MS, RDN

Welcome to Spark Change Nutrition! I'm Helena, and I love sharing nutrition info, meal ideas, and strategies for balanced living.
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About the Author

Helena is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), a health coach, and the mother of two young boys. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay area. Helena loves sharing nutrition tips and meal ideas in the hopes that it will help someone else eat better tonight.

While Helena, the creator of Spark Change Nutrition, is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), she is not providing Medical Nutrition Therapy on this website. Anything found here, including downloads and other content, should not be construed as medical advice. The information provided by her is general nutrition/health/fitness information, and is not individualized to your specific medical condition. Helena is not liable for any losses or damages related to any actions you take (or fail to take) as a result of the content presented herein. Please note that the information presented here is not intended to diagnosis or treat any health conditions. Talk to a qualified health professional, such as a doctor or a registered dietitian, about your specific health questions or concerns. 

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