Mindful eating is the act of being present while eating or drinking.
You probably eat while working, watching TV, talking on the phone, or doing any number of tasks throughout your day. You may not notice when you’ve eaten a few pieces of candy, poured yourself another cup of coffee, or finished the crust from your child’s breakfast, because eating is second nature to you.
If you’re food secure, you’re eating numerous times throughout the day. You might feel too busy or too stressed to take a break to eat, but how often do you eat without distraction or interruption? How often do you savor the food and drink that you’re consuming? Chances are you’re eating on auto-pilot and not paying any attention to the way food tastes, feels, and impacts your body and brain.
Mindful eating allows you to stop, slow down, and really pay attention.
The Connection Between Food and the Brain
There are countless studies suggesting the impact of food on mental health. Uma Naidoo, MD, Harvard-trained nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, nutrition specialist, and author of This is Your Brain on Food, refers to the connection between diet and mental and neurological health as the “gut-brain romance.”
The same embryonic cells which founded our brain and nervous system also founded the gastrointestinal system, Dr. Naidoo explains, and these systems remain inextricably linked through the vagus nerve which controls our “rest and digest” system.
“The role of the gut microbiome cannot be understated,” Dr. Naidoo says. The gut flora can produce the same mood- and cognition-governing neurotransmitters as the brain, and when the brain is adequately fueled and equipped with the right tools (and nutrients), it can carry out its essential and executive functions and operate in the most optimal way.
You may notice that your inflammation increases after a high-processed meal, or that your body feels more energized when you’re eating more vegetables. The correlation between food and mental health goes much deeper than many realize. Studies have found that diet, along with exercise, can actually counteract neurological and cognitive disorders, such as epilepsy and dementia.1 It is also closely tied to anxiety, depression, and sleep.2
Identify Your Relationship With Food
Certain diets may be more beneficial to your mental health than others, but mindful eating encourages you to look beyond the foods you eat and focus on how you eat. Do you eat at your kitchen counter, while preparing your childrens’ after-school snacks? Do you heat up leftovers and devour them while scrolling through your news feeds?
As you begin to practice mindful eating, it’s important to recognize your relationship with food. How do you feel about food? Do you eat when you’re stressed? Do you replace meals with snacks when you’re busy? Does sugar make you anxious? Do certain foods help you focus?
Asking these questions can be difficult, especially for those who experience or have experienced disordered eating or an eating disorder, but it can help you establish healthier eating habits which, in turn, can support your mental and behavioral health.
According to Dr. Naidoo, the concept of mindfulness, or nonjudgmental, present-moment awareness, ties in seamlessly with one of the six pillars of nutritional psychiatry, which focuses on food as medicine for mental health: body intelligence.
“As we take moments with ourselves to listen to our body and mind through the process of eating our daily meals, we develop a keen awareness of the elements of our diet which benefit us most,” she says. “In doing so, we are empowered to consciously select those foods which best enable our happiest, healthiest selves.”
How to Practice Mindful Eating
Life can move quickly, and stopping to eat without distraction and interruption can feel impossible at times, but mindful eating doesn’t have to be time-consuming. All you have to do is slow down and pay attention.
Here are some ways to practice mindful eating on a daily basis:
- Be conscious of the activity. Follow a single bite from start to finish, Dr. Naidoo recommends, and pay attention to the sounds of cutting the food, the smell as it wafts up to your nostrils, the texture of the food as it reaches your mouth, the flavors that change as you chew, and the feeling as you swallow your food.
- Recognize your body’s signals. We’ve all experienced that deep, growling feeling in our stomach when we’re hungry. This is a signal. Cravings are also signals, but they don’t necessarily mean you need food. Sometimes we experience cravings when we’re feeling stressed or anxious. As you begin mindfully eating, journal what you’re eating and how you feel before, during, and after.
- Slow down your eating so your body and brain can communicate. When you eat quickly, you don’t usually experience fullness as quickly, and this can lead to overeating.3 In the process of slowing down, you allow your body and brain time to communicate.
- Socialize over food. “The act of preparing and sharing meals with others is a social activity that has withstood the turbulent test of time, and we know that social engagement is a pivotal factor in our well-being,” says Dr. Naidoo. Joining a friend for dinner or cooking with a loved one can help you practice more mindful eating, all while supporting your mental health.
- Focus on the sensory details. With each new food, Dr. Naidoo suggests paying attention to one sensory aspect, such as the smell of an orange as you unpeel it, the sound of your lunch bag unzipping, or the sight of the bright carrots and beet hummus.
- Practice mindfulness throughout your day. If you want to work on mindful eating, it will help to incorporate mindfulness into other areas of your life. Dr. Naidoo suggests adding affirmations to your morning routine, practicing yoga, exercising, or trying guided meditation. Mindfulness, in any form, can help you stay grounded and present.
Mindful eating is not a diet. The purpose of mindful eating isn’t to lose weight or cut back on calories; the purpose is to improve your relationship with food and overall eating experience.
“Dieting or restricting, in any form, doesn’t work,” says RanDee Anshutz, registered dietitian nutritionist, licensed massage therapist, certified Body Trust® Provider, and founder of Synergy. “The pursuit of weight loss or controlling the size of our body causes more harm than good.”
Knowing the negative impact of certain foods on your body doesn’t mean you have to remove those foods from your diet. With mindful eating, you can learn to enjoy the taste and feel of a single chocolate chip cookie, for example, as opposed to eating half a dozen without realizing it.
A Word From Kenud
“The practice of mindfulness has helped thousands of people live more intentionally and develop the skills necessary to manage chronic pain, disease, depression, sleeping problems, and anxiety,” says Dr. Naidoo.
Mindful eating is an ongoing practice. When you cook your next meal or pick up takeout, pay attention to the food and how it tastes and feels. You don’t have to necessarily sit at a kitchen table and eat over an extended period of time; you just have to be willing to focus on the experience as it unfolds.
Gomez-Pinilla F. The combined effects of exercise and foods in preventing neurological and cognitive disorders. Preventive Medicine. 2011;52:S75-S80. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2011.01.023
Arenas DJ, Thomas A, Wang J, DeLisser HM. A systematic review and meta-analysis of depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders in us adults with food insecurity. J GEN INTERN MED. 2019;34(12):2874-2882. doi:10.1007/s11606-019-05202-4
Ferriday D, Bosworth ML, Godinot N, et al. Variation in the oral processing of everyday meals is associated with fullness and meal size; a potential nudge to reduce energy intake? Nutrients. 2016;8(5):315. doi:10.3390%2Fnu8050315