What’s the best diet? What should you eat? What are the “good” foods you should be eating more of? What are the “bad” foods you should be avoiding? How much should you be eating?
So many questions surrounding food make it almost impossible to finally make a decision about what to actually do to change our diet when we’re trying to make better food choices.
While relevant and important, the above questions may be overlooking arguably the most important variable of good nutrition. How you eat is just as important as what you eat and paying attention to how you eat could be the missing link to achieving your health and weight-loss goals.
When it comes to eating for fat loss and improving overall health, everyone wants to know “what” and “how much” to eat. These are important questions, no doubt, as certain foods will fuel your goals better than others. What’s more, portion control is a key player in regulating energy balance, and we all know that we have to eat less to lose more.
But, let’s be honest, calorie counting can be annoying and time-consuming, and measuring and weighing foods can be even worse. In the short term, these can be very useful tools to give you a better idea of exactly what you’re putting in your body, but these are unsustainable actions, which means they won’t last.
Very infrequently, however, do we talk about “how” we eat. Do you eat quickly like you have two brothers hawking over your plate? Do you eat while watching TV or checking your e-mail? Do you count the number of times you chew before you swallow? Do you think about where your food originated?
Believe it or not, recent research indicates that how we eat can aid, or impede, your progress toward your fat loss and overall health goals. Some of the latest findings in nutrition and behavior change science suggest that “mindful eating” and “eating attentively” may be among the most valuable tools in winning the battle of the bulge.
As the name suggests, mindful eating has roots in mindfulness, a practice based on Zen Buddhism, that has become popular as a way of self-calming. Like mindfulness, was defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally,” mindful eating encourages us to gain awareness of our eating experiences.1
In turn, mindful eating involves paying attention to our food, on purpose, moment by moment, without judgment, and it’s an approach to food that focuses on individuals’ sensual awareness of the food and their experience of the food.
Eating mindfully is about eating intentionally. It’s about bringing full and deep awareness to each plate or bite of food. It begins with the first thought about food and lasts until the final bite is swallowed. It involves not only how you experience food but also considering what it took to bring the food to you.
Mindful eating involves savoring each bite, and after each bite, checking in with your body to see how you’re feeling. At its very core, mindful eating raises awareness and attention. Mindful eating helps individuals cultivate awareness of both internal and external triggers to eating, interrupt automatic eating, and eat in response to natural physiological cues of hunger and satiety. Through practice, eating mindfully can interrupt habitual eating behaviors and provide greater regulation of food choice.
Unlike diets and most nutritional guidance, which focus on the “rules” of eating, mindful eating has little to do with carbs, fats, or protein, what to eat, how much to eat, and what not to eat. Rather than restriction and being restricted by rules, mindful eating encourages you to appreciate food and promotes eating attentively in a nonjudgmental, self-accepting way. And while “diets” have “short-term” (which typically equals long-term failure) written all over them, mindful eating is about behavior change.
Even though the purpose of mindful eating is not weight loss, the emerging body of research suggests that it is highly likely that those who adopt this nutritional practice will likely reap benefits like weight loss and improved health.1,2
Here are some helpful tips to increase your attentiveness while eating and put mindful eating practices to use right away:
Of course, on the other end of the mindful eating spectrum is mindless eating, which goes by many names such as “recreational eating” and “hedonic compensation,” to name a couple. In other words, there are many factors that drive us to eat besides real hunger and metabolic need.
And a major facet of mindful eating is cultivating awareness of both internal and external triggers to eating, which contribute to automatic, inattentive, and/or habitual responses and unnecessary food consumption. Some of these “triggers” include:
This is just a handful of examples of eating triggers, which can be thoughts, feelings, or environmental cues, other than true hunger that can prompt the desire to eat — and subsequently, mindless eating.
The first step to disrupting the cycle is creating awareness and identifying the situation. And when you do, try to ask yourself, “Am I truly hungry or do I want to eat for another reason?”
In addition, create a list of coping strategies to use when you notice a trigger to engage in emotional eating. Here are some examples:
As controversial as it sounds, how you eat is just as important – if not more important – than what you eat. Just like any form of meditation, mindful eating is a practice, and it’s a commitment to behavior change. At its core, mindful eating is about being present and intentional. And while the main benefit or purpose of mindful eating is not weight loss, it is likely that those who adopt mindful eating as a regular practice will find themselves achieving — and maintaining — a healthy weight and reaping overall health benefits to boot.
1. Nelson JB. Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat. Diabetes Spectr Publ Am Diabetes Assoc. 2017 Aug;30(3):171–4.
2. Miller CK. Mindful Eating With Diabetes. Diabetes Spectr Publ Am Diabetes Assoc. 2017 May;30(2):89–94.
3. Robinson E, Aveyard P, Daley A, Jolly K, Lewis A, Lycett D, et al. Eating attentively: a systematic review and meta-analysis of the effect of food intake memory and awareness on eating. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Apr 1;97(4):728–42.
4. Cassady BA, Hollis JH, Fulford AD, Considine RV, Mattes RD. Mastication of almonds: effects of lipid bioaccessibility, appetite, and hormone response. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Mar;89(3):794–800.
5. Miquel-Kergoat S, Azais-Braesco V, Burton-Freeman B, Hetherington MM. Effects of chewing on appetite, food intake and gut hormones: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Physiol Behav. 2015 Nov 1;151:88–96.