Mindfulness is being present. We are aware of what we’re doing and what we’re not doing, without interpretation or judgment. You could say it is the mind observing and labeling thoughts and feelings in the body in an unbiased manner. Research has shown how mindfulness benefits patients with cardiovascular disease, depression, chronic pain, and cancer. Many studies report decreased stress levels and increased quality of life through mindful meditation.
Eating mindfully is a type of mindfulness that relates to food and nutrition. Eating mindfully means that you are using all of your physical and emotional senses to experience and enjoy the food choices you make. The thought behind mindful eating is that as we become more aware of our eating habits, we may take steps toward behavior changes that will benefit ourselves and our environment. So, what does current research say about mindful eating?
Though research on the effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) on eating behaviors is still relatively new, the results have been promising. Several studies have examined the effects of employing MBIs on the incidence of binge eating, emotional eating, external eating, and weight gain or weight maintenance.
Researchers have found a positive relationship between mindful eating and healthy eating. Trait mindfulness is associated with less impulsive eating, reduced calorie consumption, and healthier snack choices; further, study results suggest that mindfulness is related to having a preference for healthier foods. Many of the habits that drive operating are unconscious behaviors that people have repeated for years, and they act them out without even realizing it.
Another study found that a mindfulness-based weight loss program led to greater mindfulness, cognitive restraint around eating, and significant decreases in weight, binge eating, depression, perceived stress, and physical symptoms.
Hunger Versus Cravings
Let’s say you have an intense urge to eat a specific food even after eating a meal – how can you tell the difference between physical hunger and cravings? Physical hunger builds gradually, occurs several hours after a meal, and most likely will produce stomach pains. Cravings develop suddenly, are unrelated to time, and usually persist despite being full. Food cravings are programmed by neurotransmitters such as dopamine which drive habit loops that feel rewarding. Currently, I am craving a hot cinnamon bun. I just ate lunch and I am not hungry, but I want something sweet. I am smelling, tasting, and visualizing the cinnamon bun – my wandering mind is triggered! Coping with cravings is important in changing the way we respond to them. In order to minimize making actions based on cravings, we can try to understand what triggers them.
Do we need to get some rest if we are tired, or find other activities to do if we’re bored? Calling a friend or family member would be beneficial; engaging in regular physical activity, hydrating, and eating every few hours can help us control our hunger. This helps us feel satisfied and nourished without feeling guilty, bloated, or full. Choosing solid foods, including lean protein and fiber at meals along with healthy fats are some ways to prevent being hungry and developing cravings throughout the day. Mindfulness can reverse the food craving process, helping us find bigger, better rewards such as improving health and feeling nourished by our food.
Rate Your Hunger
A hunger scale is a scale numbered from 1 to 10, where 1 identifies that you are feeling extreme hunger and 10 being the opposite of the scale where you are feeling very full. The hunger scale can help you learn how to tell the difference between true, physical hunger and psychological hunger. It can help you listen to your body’s natural hunger cues again!
Create a hunger scale for yourself ranging from 0 to 10 (0 being the most hungry and 10 being the least hungry).
- What does a 0 feel like physically when you’re extremely hungry? (Common answers are headaches, irritation, shakiness, and fatigue)
- What does a 10 feel like, when you’re as full as you can imagine? (Common answers are nauseous, bloated, fatigued, swollen, accompanied by feelings of shame or guilt)
- Where are you right now on a scale of 0 to 10? What do you notice about your body that made you choose that number?
- Keep a journal of your hunger rating before, during, and after each meal for three days. Take notes of all physical cues that led to the choice of that rating.
- How do you feel one hour after achieving a hunger level of 6 vs. 8?
Mindful Eating Tips to Practice
- Reflect on how you feel before you eat.
- Sit down instead of eating on the go.
- Turn off the TV, phone, tablet, computer, etc (anything with a screen).
- Serve yourself a reasonable portion instead of eating from a bag or box.
- Pick a smaller plate to help with portion control.
- Take a moment to pause and cultivate gratitude for your food before eating it.
- Chew several times – the default is 30, although some foods may require more or less chewing.
- Put down your fork or spoon between each bite and don’t pick them up again until you have already swallowed the bite you took last.
- Resign from the “Clean Plate Club” and remind yourself that you don’t need to eat it all!
- Try eating in silence; acknowledge when your mind wanders, but bring it right back to eating whenever you notice it.
Check out the Mindful Eating Tracker and Am I Hungry apps that facilitate mindful eating and better decision-making around food. If you want to assess your mindfulness, visit the link below and see how mindfulness can transform and liberate your relationship to eating, exercise, your body, your mind, your emotions, and your very self.
Ready for more nutrition tips and lifestyle recommendations? The YMCA Nutrition Counseling Program helps adults find a healthier way of eating that’s right for them with the help of our Registered Dietitian. Learn more »
—Mattie Lefever, RDN, LDN