mindful eating benefits

It’s no secret that mindful eating — and mindfulness, generally — is hot, hot, hot. But to view mindful eating as the latest trend is to ignore that mindfulness itself has a very long tradition — 2,500 years or so — and has a lot of modern science to back it up, especially from the fields of psychology and neuroscience. If that’s not enough to pique your interest, consider this simple truth: Mindful eating can deepen your connection to your food, to the act of nourishing your body, and the simple pleasures both can offer.

In this, the first in a five-part series on mindfulness and mindful eating, I’ll talk about the true mindful eating benefits, which often aren’t obvious.

A mindful eating definition

Before I define mindful eating, let me define mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of several books on mindfulness and creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which is used in both healthcare settings as well as in research studies, has defined mindfulness as, “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

Most research on mindfulness uses mindfulness meditation. However, meditation isn’t the only way to practice mindfulness.

Almost anything can be a mindfulness practice, as long as it involves practicing nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. Being aware of your posture as you sit or your movements as you go for a walk can become a mindfulness practice. So can being aware, non-judgmentally, of your eating!

Principles of mindful eating

The Center for Mindful Eating defines mindful eating as:

  • Allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food selection and preparation by respecting your own inner wisdom.
  • Using all your senses in choosing to eat food that is both satisfying to you and nourishing to your body.
  • Acknowledging responses to food (likes, dislikes or neutral) without judgment.
  • Becoming aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decisions to begin and end eating.

Now, let’s look at mindful eating benefits, as well as some supposed benefits that not only have no firm basis in science, but also co-opt the spirit of mindfulness.

Mindful eating vs. dieting

As science confirms the many benefits of being mindful, the weight loss industry has jumped on the bandwagon, eager to promote a mindful eating as a weight loss magic bullet. Ironically, this is based more on research suggesting that mindless eating may contribute to weight gain, rather than the quite inconclusive research exploring whether mindful eating can actually contribute to weight loss.

In spite of that, many books, bloggers and commercial weight loss programs offer weight loss as a possible outcome of mindful eating or mindfulness meditation, with some, essentially promising weight loss.

mindful eating benefits
Mindful eating and portion control

While there’s no such thing as a “mindfulness diet,” mindfulness and mindful eating can improve your relationship with food and help you build eating habits that support mind-body health. As with mindfulness itself, mindful eating promotes awareness, which can help you break free of habitual — and possibly unhelpful — ways of eating.

Eating mindfully can also enhance the pleasure you get from food, which may mean being satisfied with one cookie instead of five. If you have been mindlessly overeating, and being mindful helps you make more tuned-in decisions about how much food to eat, then, yes, that could lead to weight loss if your body is above its defended set point range — but there’s no guarantee.

As with other habits that have benefits in and of themselves — eating nutritious foods, engaging in regular physical activity — approaching meditation, mindful eating or other mindfulness practices in the with the idea it will lead to weight loss may lead to disappointment and feelings of failure. When that happens, you’ll likely abandon your mindfulness practice, which would be a shame, because mindfulness has so much to offer!

Mindful eating and emotional eating

Mindful eating’s true value is that it can help you increase the awareness of bodily sensations, formally known as interoceptive awareness. These sensations include hunger, fullness, satiety and thirst — all of which can help you cultivate more healthful eating behaviors. It also includes awareness of other physical sensations, including those that tend to accompany emotional states, such as tension or rapid heartbeat.

Increasing interoceptive awareness may help reduce emotional eating, binge eating* and eating in response to visual cues when you aren’t even hungry. Not surprisingly, mindfulness, and interoceptive awareness, are also key aspects of intuitive eating.

How to start mindful eating

I’ll include a post with more mindful eating tips soon, but to get you started, a classic mindful eating exercise is the “eat one raisin” exercise. If you’ve never done it—or you have, but it’s been ages — here’s a link to a nice recorded version to guide you through it.

* If you struggle with eating disorder symptoms or with anxiety related to food, explore mindful eating with the support of a therapist and/or registered dietitian. Similarly, if you find if very difficult to acknowledge or cope with unpleasant emotions—or feel overwhelmed by any heightened emotion, even “pleasant” ones—consider exploring mindfulness under the guidance of a therapist trained in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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