A growing body of research is in full support of mindful eating. Enjoying your food slowly and consciously improves mood, lowers cortisol levels, and results in healthier diets and weight loss. And that's only the tip of the research.
How do you eat mindfully? Nutritionists, scientists, and psychologists have all proposed several methods. Even a handful of these tips--eating slowly, dining differently, distinguishing hunger from cravings--can transform your mood and health. Here are the most scientifically supported mindful eating techniques for a happier mealtime.
The Basics Of Mindful Eating
Mindfulness is the mental state of focusing on the moment and being aware of your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. According to Transcultural Psychology, the practice extended from Burmese Buddhism and is now used in therapy programs such as dialectic behavioral therapy (DBT).
Eating mindfully entails: distinguishing between real hunger and non-hunger queues to eat; eating without distraction; deciding when you're full; noticing the experience of eating. Not only does mindful eating train you to listen to your body, but it also lowers anxiety and stress surrounding eating.
Why Eat Mindfully?
Not only does eating mindfully reduce stress, but it also helps you feel fuller for longer and prevents health issues. Research in the 2016 American Journal of Preventive Medicine concluded that mindfulness lowered chronic stress, which in turn improves weight loss. Slowing down helps, because it takes at least 20 minutes for the body to understand that you're full.
Another study in the journal Explore found that mindful eating can alleviate temptations of binge-eating disorder, a potential cause of obesity. The study was backed up by research in the journals Eating Disorders (2011) and Complementary Therapies in Medicine (2013).
Eat Slowly And Patiently
Because it takes 20-30 minutes for the brain to release satisfaction hormones, we can easily over-consume if we eat fast. According to the 2010 Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, eating slowly prompts a more pronounced gut peptide response. In other words, it helps us feel fuller.
Another study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association reported that women who ate leisurely felt more satisfied afterward. Not only did they appreciate their food's taste more, but they also drank more water alongside their meal. Dining patiently will help you feel more satisfied overall.
Learn How To Distinguish Hunger From Cravings
Contrary to popular belief, cravings do not tell your body that you need certain nutrients. Several studies, such as in the 2018 issue of Cell Metabolism, demonstrate that cravings form from habit and snacks that we remember the taste of. As a result, cravings don't rely on hunger.
Richard Mattes, Ph.D., MPH, a professor of nutrition at Purdue University, recommends focusing on your body to determine whether you're hungry or craving something. Physical hunger usually accompanies a growling stomach or loss of focus. If you're still unsure, ask yourself if you would eat an apple. Remember: cravings only target specific foods.
Ignore How Your Tablemates Eat
In 2007, research in Obesity explained how eating with others increases a person's food intake. The study expressed that people should "[rely] on internal cues for meal cessation, rather than external cues." If you eat because you're still at the table, or continue eating when your friends or family do, you're not eating mindfully.
Try to focus on how full you feel rather than how your tablemates eat. A study in the Psychological Bulletin discerned that eating patiently will encourage others to slow down, so don't worry about your pace. Rely on internal cues to guide your meal.
The Clock Means Nothing
Relying on time may encourage you to eat when you don't feel hungry. In a 1968 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers analyzed the meal habits of obese and healthy weight people. They noted that obese people always ate based on the time, even when they artificially sped up the clock. Those with a healthy weight did not pay attention to the time.
If you decide to chow down simply because the clock struck noon, you're not eating mindfully. Only eat when you feel hungry, not when it's time for a meal.
Dine With A Challenge
Lilian Cheung, a nutritionist at Harvard School of Public Health and author of Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, recommends some techniques that force people to slow down and focus more on their meal. One of them is to set a timer for 20 minutes and eat one portion during that time.
You can also try using utensils with your non-dominant hand or chopsticks (if you're not used to them.) These small challenges can force you to concentrate more on eating. In addition, try dining in silence. When you're not talking, you'll pay more attention to how your food tastes, feels, and smells.
Remove Distractions During Meals
Whether it's watching TV, listening to a podcast, or playing a game, distractions all impact our meals the same way: they prompt us to over-eat. Since people don't focus on their food, they tend to feel less satisfied afterward. In 2011, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study concluding that participants who ate while playing a game felt hungrier later on.
When people eat while distracted, they tend to finish their meal more quickly and consume more calories. Eat without distractions. Focus on patient mealtimes, the smell, and the texture of your food, and how you feel.
If Watching TV While Eating, Pay Attention To Your Food, Too
Researchers have noted that people tend to eat more when they don't have visual cues to let them know how much they've consumed. In 2007, scientists observed participants who ate chicken wings while watching a sports game. They noted that those who saw bones on the table ate 34% less than (two fewer wings) than those who didn't.
An earlier study in Obesity Research recorded that those who ate from self-refilling bowls consumed 73% more soup, and the people who ate less soup felt just as full. Keep a visual cue of how much you have eaten in front of you to remain mindful.
Keep Your Seconds Out Of Sight
It's hard to focus on your current dinner dish if the seconds are staring at you the entire time. Research suggests that seeing more food prompts over-eating. In 2006, a study in the International Journal of Obesity found that placing candy in a clear bowl resulted in two secretaries eating 71% more often.
Focusing on one plate at a time will encourage you to eat slowly, which is a key skill of mindful eating. It will also force you to pause before dishing seconds. A key aspect of mindfulness is being able to recognize when you feel full.
Think Before You Eat (Using The Right Method)
Before you eat, reflect. However, don't over-contemplate the food you're choosing. A review of 50 studies in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Review discovered that over-thinking a meal allows people to justify extra calories. Instead, consider how you feel before you take your first bite (but after you cook your meal).
In 2014, researchers asked participants to ponder their emotions and physical sensations before eating. People who introspected before digging in ate less, relied less on emotional cues, and enjoyed their meal more. Recognizing how you feel is the core action of mindfulness.
Always Stock Your Fridge--Even With Sweets
New York psychotherapist Dr. Alexis Conason proposed a different solution to slowing down and enjoying meals. She asserts that people resort to emotional eating when they believe that their food is limited. "We have a 'now or never' mentality, thinking this is our one opportunity to eat this food," she explains.
Dr. Conason recommends frequently replenishing your fridge so you won't feel compelled to scarf down your few available treats. "When we truly believe that food won't be restricted, the food usually loses its emotional power," she said.
Sit Down: Don't Stand And Eat
In recent years, a health misconception spread that tells people to stand while eating to burn extra calories. But a 2007 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics argues otherwise. In the study, participants who ate while sitting enjoyed their meal more slowly and consumed fewer calories.
Sitting down allows you to concentrate on your food's flavor. According to Denny Waxman, a macrobiotic counselor, eating while sitting urges people to keep track of how much they've consumed: another act of mindfulness.
Eat From Small Packages Or Plates
Just as looking at second helpings causes people to eat more, digging into a large plate or container coaxes speedy eating. In 2012, researchers for Health Psychology dyed every 7th Pringles chip red for an experiment. Participants who had their chips sectioned ate 65% less.
The study's author believed that segmenting the chips "[called] attention to and [encouraged] better monitoring of eating." When there's less on our plate, we won't feel tempted to continue chomping after feeling full.
In 2016, researchers tracked around 200 adults who ate either mindfully or not mindfully. After 12 months, the mindful eating group had lower blood sugar levels than the non-mindful group. The study, cited in the journal Obesity, cited some of the researcher's strategies to teach mindful eating.
Author Jennifer Daubenmier, Ph.D., said that they taught the mindful eating group "loving kindness" exercises to avoid self-guilt that often spirals into emotional eating. "When we do overeat, we may feel guilt or shame for doing so," she said, "and overeating can spiral out of control."
Don't Make Your Snacks Accessible
If you have a bowl of candy by your hip, you'll feel tempted to keep reaching for more and more handfuls. The accessibility of sweets can lead to mindless eating, especially if you snack while distracted. To prevent mindless eating, store your snacks and guilty pleasure food out of reach.
In 2002, researchers placed bowls of candy either at an employee's desk or six feet away. The participants rarely snagged candy from the bowl far away even if it contained more goodies. In the journal Appetite, the participants said that the long walk made them think twice about the snack.
Ask Yourself About Your Meal Plan
Michelle May, MD, founded a mindful eating worship called "Am I Hungry?" For it, she lists a series of questions that increase peoples' awareness of how they eat. "Once you're aware, you can change your actions," she said.
Her questions to consider include: Why do I eat? When do I want to eat? What do I eat? How do I eat, or how do I feel when I eat? How much do I eat? Where do I invest the energy that food has given me?
Drop Off Your Cell Phone At The Kitchen
It's all too easy to browse Instagram during lunch. But according to a 2018 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, using your phone while eating lowers your happiness. Researchers from the University of British Columbia deduced that participants used their phone for at least 11% of the meal and appreciated their experience less than those who put their phones away.
The temptation of checking your notifications will distract you from your meal. Leave your phone in another room during dinner, or in the car if you eat out. Enjoy your food and your company instead.
Engage Your Senses At Least A Little Bit
Most people understand that mindful eating involves concentrating on your food's texture, smell, and flavor. Rebecca J. Frey, Ph.D., and Laura Jean Cataldo, RN, narrow down this concept even further. They recommend practicing with one meal--or even part of that meal--and eating in slow motion.
In one technique, you can place your food in your mouth without chewing, and recognize how you feel. Chew slowly--around thirty times. Pause in between bites and smell your food as well. When you really concentrate on your meals, you may realize that you liked them more or less than you initially thought.
Check In With Yourself During The Day
In 2009, scientists at Purdue University had participants record their hunger and thirst levels every hour for a week. Their results, published in the Journal of the American Dietetics Association, concluded that people seldom ate when they were hungry or thirsty. Instead, they waited until when they usually had their meals.
When people wait until they're starving to eat, they'll rush through their meals. Every day, take a moment to check in with your body. Do you need a drink or a snack? Honoring your body's needs is a crucial aspect of mindfulness.