Mindfulness is a hugely popular movement at the moment, as more of us realise that living with stress and anxiety just isn’t healthy.
Mindfulness is designed to help us be aware of and appreciate the present moment, for the benefit of our minds and our bodies too. It can involve many different practices, including mindful eating. But what exactly is mindful eating and why should you give it a try? Let’s take a closer look at how it works and the benefits it can offer.
What does mindful eating involve?
Many mindfulness practices focus on the senses. They teach us to slow down and become aware of what things feel, taste, smell and sound like. This heightened awareness helps to ground us in the present moment, rather than letting experiences slip by.
There’s no big mystery to mindfulness. Anyone can do it, provided they are committed to trying and have the time to practice. And there are scientifically proven benefits, from reducing anxiety and decreasing your risk of depression to improved body positivity, cognition and mental wellbeing.
Mindful eating is just the same. It’s all about being fully present when you’re eating, rather than rushing lunch during a busy day or absentmindedly snacking. Practices of this kind encourage you to pay attention to what you’re eating, what it tastes like and any other sensations. But it goes further than this, as mindful eating also involves an awareness of when you feel hunger, how you choose your food and how you prepare it.
Eating mindfully - how to get started
There are lots of mindful eating practices to try on websites such as Headspace, which promotes mindfulness. But for complete beginners, here’s a quick run-through of the basics of mindful eating.
- Awareness of hunger. When you notice the feeling of hunger, spend some time noticing the sensations that make you feel that way. Take a couple of breaths and explore feelings of hunger, from the physical sensations to thoughts about what you’d like to eat, rather than reaching straight for a snack to alleviate hunger pangs.
- Choosing what to eat. When you’re heading to the fridge or the supermarket, slow down the process of choosing your food. Notice all of the different colours, smells and shapes of food, as well as the packaging, cost and how it is prepared. You can also spend time with the thoughts or feelings that pop up when you imagine eating certain foods.
- Preparation. Preparing food can be an extremely sensory experience, from unwrapping produce to washing, peeling and chopping. Notice the smells, colours and textures, whether you’re preparing a full meal in your kitchen or simply drizzling salad dressing on your lunch at work.
- Eating your food. Before you start to eat, take a look at all the shapes, textures, colours and smells of your meal. You can even try listening to it (don’t worry if you feel silly at first) - gently moving items to see if they make a sound. While eating, go slowly so you can notice all of the flavours on your tongue and the texture in your mouth.
- Digestion. Once you’ve finished eating, you should continue mindful thinking patterns. Be aware of what’s happening in your body, from lingering tastes to a feeling of fullness.
A key thing to remember at all stages of mindful eating, and other mindfulness practices, is that you aren’t trying to change your feelings. You’re just noticing them and taking a little extra time to explore thoughts, feelings and sensations. Mindful eating should be a positive experience, not one that makes you feel guilty about feeling hungry or craving certain foods.
If you have experienced an eating disorder, it’s always recommended to speak to your doctor or a medical professional before trying mindful eating.
What are the benefits of mindful eating?
Mindful eating has a number of benefits, starting with an improved appreciation for the food we eat. By stopping to notice textures, flavours and smells, we can enjoy our food far more. As with many mindfulness practices, it can also help us to slow down and relax, taking a minute for ourselves even during a busy day. Having something to focus on - the meal you’re about to eat - is a great way to get started with mindfulness and really be present in the moment.
Studies have also shown that mindful eating has benefits for our health and digestion. Being aware of hunger pangs, being able to recognise when we are actually hungry and what we’re hungry for is a great help in regulating our appetite. We can calmly make better food choices and be fully aware of all our options. This doesn’t always mean choosing healthy foods - as there’s room for indulgence in moderation if it makes us feel good.
Focusing on your food as you prepare it can get your body ready for eating, which is great news for your digestion. When you eat mindfully, your body is focusing fully on what you’re doing. If you’re absentmindedly eating while worrying about a problem at work or your next meeting, your digestion may not be working as efficiently as it could be.
Lastly, mindful eating can also help with overeating. Think about times when you’ve eaten your dinner in front of the TV of an evening. You’re not really focusing on the meal, as most of your attention is taken up by what you’re watching on the screen. This means you can easily eat too much without realising, as well as not really paying attention to the flavours and textures of your food.
Mindful eating works in a different way. A focus on the act of eating and how your body feels when you’re doing it encourages the right signals to be sent to the brain. This means being able to sense when we’re full. An awareness of that ‘full’ feeling is very helpful in developing healthy eating patterns, as you’ll learn to recognise what it feels like and be able to stop eating when you need to.