What is Mindful Eating? History, Meaning, Benefits, And You
If you spend any time researching health and wellbeing, you’ve certainly come across the idea of mindfulness and mindful eating. Widely believed to improve mental and physical wellbeing, impact mood, and help in managing the symptoms of certain mental illnesses (like depression and anxiety), mindfulness is commonly taught in clinical and educational settings.
But where did it come from? How did it find its place in diets and food, and does it belong there? What are its practical and actionable benefits – and more importantly, how can it impact you?
In this masterpost, we’ll explore everything you need to know about mindful eating, all it entails, and if you have a place in it!
What Is Mindfulness?
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts, mindfulness is awareness that comes from:
- Purposefully paying attention to the present
- Experiencing it without judgment
Of course, this is a clinical definition that doesn’t really encapsulate the entirety of this ancient philosophy – but it is certainly a good start.
To put it simply, mindfulness is a philosophical school of thought and a way of living. It centers on:
- Being aware of the world and oneself
- Being grateful for each moment
- Removing judgment from the immediate experience of living
When we live mindfully, we engage all of our senses and ground ourselves in the world around us as it is unfolding.
Though the concept is very simple, putting it into practice can be complex. After all, it is an entirely new way to live for most people.
Where Does Mindfulness Originate?
The form of mindfulness that the majority of us hear about (and recognize today) springs from the Indian Buddhist tradition. This can be traced back to the Pali words “sati” and “vipassana.” The word sati refers to awareness, while the word vipassana means insight (generally cultivated through the ancient practice of meditation).
Despite this, there are forms of meditation and breath-focused meditation techniques in many cultures. You will find forms of mindfulness in Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Zen meditation. All three of these strands have been woven together over time to create what we recognize as the modern “mindfulness” philosophy.
Traditionally speaking, each of these practices were found primarily among monks and nuns, rather than the wider populace (although certain warrior and noble classes in Japan had similar practices that applied to their daily lives).
What Are The Benefits Of Mindfulness?
Mindfulness transforms the way we experience events and even our social relationships, thus reducing reactiveness and promoting calm. These are the most talked-of benefits, but there are scientifically backed advantages, which can impact every part of our health and wellbeing.
The benefits include:
Stress is ever-present in the modern world, and it has negative impacts upon our lives and health. Mindfulness combats stress by encouraging us to assess our expectations, feelings, and the results of our actions in a non-judgmental way.
Consistently practicing mindfulness can give us a better idea of our capabilities and prevent us from overloading ourselves.
Improved Working Memory
Mindfulness can promote better memory and information retention in a number of ways. By decreasing distraction, improving focus, and managing stress, a person engaging in mindfulness gives each task their full attention.
This leads to increased information retention, and can also lead to higher levels of productivity.
Learning to be present in the moment allows us to focus more fully and clearly on the task at hand. This is not only useful for promoting productivity and minimizing stress, but can be joyful, because it encourages us to be fully present when we work, rest, and play.
Increased Cognitive Flexibility
Many of us are stuck in our ways – and if they work for us, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. For those with destructive or unhelpful patterns, however, it can be a real and ongoing issue.
Mindfulness promotes cognitive flexibility by encouraging habits such as:
- Adaptive thinking
Being mindful of our own feelings and thought processes can really help us to understand and empathize with others in tense situations. It also prevents us from acting rashly in response to another person’s emotional flare-ups or actions.
Promotes Overall Health
Because mindfulness has been shown in many studies to reduce stress, it can also lead to better health overall. Stress is a major factor in mental and physical health, though many people underestimate how destructive it can be.
According to a 2018 study published in Hormones, chronic stress dramatically increases the likelihood of:
- Metabolic syndromes
- Type-2 diabetes
- PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome)
- Autoimmune disorders
For those with long-term health issues, reducing stress can minimize or prevent symptom flare-ups.
Higher Quality Of Life
Consistently practicing mindfulness is linked to a generally higher quality of life. For example, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that mindfulness is linked to lowered instances of mood disturbances.
This is partly as a result of lowered stress, but also because mindfulness discourages knee-jerk emotional reactions. This also creates a greater sense of satisfaction in interpersonal relationships, and can lead to a healthier social life and love life.
In light of this, mindfulness can be a highly beneficial addition to anyone’s life. But how does it connect to mindful eating?
What Is Mindful Eating For You?
Mindful eating is an extension of the overall philosophy of mindfulness. It was created to combat the unhealthy and often toxic relationship that many of us have with food in the modern world. We explore this in-depth in our article, How Mindfulness Repairs Your Relationship With Food.
In summary, this practice encourages an individual to be present, focused, aware, and non-judgmental when it comes to food and their overall diet. Depending on who you speak to, this can be a way to promote happiness and contentment around food and the body, but it is also a way to deal with health issues related to dietary habits.
For example, dietitians might describe mindful eating as focusing on the act of;
- Eating a meal
A psychologist or therapist, however, might describe it as the process of being:
- Non-judgmental about our choices and bodies while eating
This would be a way to deal with self-esteem issues and promote balanced choices.
Both of these definitions are true. The precise benefits of mindful eating depend on you and your needs. Mindful eating is about focusing on your experience when eating. This includes your thoughts and feelings about food and your body, as well as how you feel physically.
Depending on your health and relationship with food, different facets of this process may be more important than others for you.
Where Does Mindful Eating Come From?
Though the core idea of mindful eating is a direct extension of the primarily Buddhist philosophies of mindfulness and meditation, it has been adapted to meet particular modern concerns.
Mindful eating first grew out of research that was carried out in the 1980s. At this time, a range of studies looked into the impact of mindfulness on:
- Stress-related illnesses
- Chronic pain
- Heart disease
Because of this research, mindful eating is considered a complementary alternative medicine (CAM) and has recognized benefits.
What Are The Benefits Of Mindful Eating?
Like the overarching practice of mindfulness, mindful eating has a number of advantages that make it worth examining as a possible addition to your lifestyle. The benefits of consistently practicing mindfulness when eating include:
Recognition Of Satiation Cues
Many of us were told to clear our plates as children (because there are starving children everywhere, because food is expensive, etc.) and this creates an unhealthy pattern.
Mindful eating teaches us to recognize when we are no longer hungry, and encourages us to listen to our bodies. This can lead to a more realistic understanding of what the body needs and a lowering of portion sizes over time.
For those who have been consistently told that they must limit what they eat to avoid being fat, mindful eating promotes recognition of hunger cues and encourages us to act on them. This may lead to weight gain, but it should be healthy and lead to benefits, such as increased energy levels over time.
Healthy Weight Loss
Weight loss is not the purpose of mindful eating; in fact, it’s an antidote to unhealthy diet culture in many ways, according to Diabetes Spectrum. However, those who adopt this approach often lose or gain weight (depending on whether they were over- or underweight to begin with).
This is because mindful eating promotes focus on the experience of eating and an understanding of the body’s needs. When our habits around food are focused on what is best for us, rather than achieving an aesthetic standard, the body often finds a healthy equilibrium.
What’s more, this change in weight tends to be healthier, because it occurs as a result of a consistent lifestyle change. This means that it doesn’t come with the stress and health, digestive, or metabolic issues that fad diets can lead to.
Healthier Relationship With Food
Because mindful eating is so focused on thinking about health, balance, and experience – rather than arbitrary values – it promotes a healthier, less stressful relationship with food.
Eating a range of foods, enjoying them, and ultimately focusing on giving your body what it needs to work well and feel good is a much different viewpoint than thinking about your size and shape as you eat.
What’s more, a study published in Personality and Individual Differences found that practicing mindfulness can actually lead to a preference for more nutritious foods, so there’s a benefit for your overall health too!
Improved Digestive Function
Mindful eating has been connected with improved digestive function, because it discourages distracted, quick eating and overeating. Giving your body time to process what you eat is important; eating too much too quickly puts a lot of stress on your digestive system, and this can lead to stomach upsets and digestive issues.
Lower Likelihood Of Chronic Food Guilt
As discussed with the help of complex studies in our article, What Is Food Guilt, And Should You Overcome It?, food guilt is a destructive sense of shame that’s associated with eating foods we view as ‘bad’ (usually fattening foods).
This lowers self-esteem, and can create a spiral of shame and emotional eating that facilitates, worsens, or mimics the effects of eating disorders (such as bulimia and anorexia). Mindful eating strives to remove the idea of morality from food, and this can lessen or even remove food guilt over time.
Prevention Of Food Fatigue
Food fatigue is a common phenomenon that creates a sense of boredom or apathy around foods, as discussed in What Is Food Fatigue: Do You Know How To Spot It?.
Food fatigue can lower your mood and lead to unintentional weight loss, as it can create a pattern of food avoidance. This is not the same as appetite loss (which is a genuine lack of hunger that can have many causes).
Paying attention to how you eat, why you eat, what you eat, and how you feel when you eat can help to minimize the chance of food fatigue beginning. In fact, it can actually help to resolve it in some cases.
Increased Enjoyment From Meals
Mindless or distracted eating can lead to a number of issues, one of which is a lack of enjoyment. Paying attention to the tastes, smells, textures, and situation around you as you eat can heighten enjoyment and lead to a sense of overall satisfaction.
So, as you can see, mindful eating can have many benefits if you practice it regularly. Learning how to eat mindfully on a consistent basis takes time and patience, but there are tips you can use to help you as you go!
How to Begin Eating Mindfully
It takes time to change your whole lifestyle, and that’s what mindful eating requires. Of course, you will find it easier if you already practice mindful meditation. In fact, you may even be eating mindfully some of the time without realizing it!
Understanding the principles and tenets of mindful eating can help you get into the right frame of mind. We explore this thoroughly in our article, 7 Ways To Eat Mindfully, but let’s cover what you need to know here:
The Principles Of Mindful Eating
Being able to effectively apply mindful eating to your daily life can be tough, but there are basic principles you can use to guide you. They are:
- Paying attention, deliberately and without judgment.
- Being aware of your internal processes, as well as the external environment.
- Working to free yourself of reactive and habitual patterns in mind, heart, and body.
- Being aware of yourself, your feelings, and the world around you in the present moment, not looking back or ahead.
- Acceptance of what is and understanding of what can change.
- Seeking balance and wisdom in each choice.
These basic guiding principles represent what you should strive for when trying to eat mindfully, but they can be a little vague. So, let’s explore the tenets of mindful eating for a robust idea of what it takes:
The 6 Tenets Of Mindful Eating
The six tenets of mindful eating can act as a guide to help you adjust to this new way of living. They are:
- Engage all of your senses
Pay attention to how your food tastes, looks, smells, and feels. Think about how your body feels as you eat.
- Be aware of your feelings and thoughts while you eat
Do you feel happy, or guilty? Why do you feel the way you do? When strong feelings arise around meal times, ask yourself why – and try to remove moral judgements from your diet.
- Eat until you are around 80% full
Don’t just eat until you feel full. Eat until you are no longer hungry, but do not feel very full yet. This will ward off after-meal energy slumps, and promote a healthier relationship with your body and the food you eat.
- Honor the food and your body as you eat
Think about the work and time it took to grow, produce, and prepare your food. Remind yourself to be thankful for the meal, but also for your body and everything it does for you. Meal times are an opportunity to commune with your body and marvel at its strength, resilience, and beauty.
- Serve small portions and refill your plate if you need to
Leaving a full or half-full plate is a common trigger for guilt, due to various reasons. Step out of the mindset that makes you fill your plate entirely and underestimate what you need to eat. You can always get more food if you are still hungry.
More tips for overcoming food guilt can be found in our article (and the studies within), 5 Ways To Combat Food Guilt.
- Balance your diet and habits
Avoid all or nothing mindsets; they are the antithesis of what mindful eating is. There is no such thing as good or bad food, only balance and imbalance. Take steps to make sure there is more nutritious, healthy food in your diet than processed food or high fat and sugar foods. However, when you crave ice cream or cake, remind yourself that it’s okay to simply eat something because you enjoy it! Balance is key.
These simple tenets give you a good idea of what to aim for when trying to eat mindfully. There are also some practical tips you can use to prevent yourself from eating mindlessly.
Dos And Don’ts Of Mindful Eating
If all of this seems complicated and overwhelming, don’t worry. There are much simpler steps you can take to promote mindfulness while you learn more about the theory behind it and the ethos that it requires for a real change of mindset and lifestyle.
These simple dos and don’ts will help you to reap the early benefits quickly:
- Plan your shopping list to create a balance of nutrition and treats (suggestions can be found in our article, 7 Delicious, Healthy Snacks For Mindful Foodies).
- Take the time to appreciate individual ingredients when you prepare them.
- Put your fork and knife down between bites.
- Chew thoroughly.
- Make a point of thinking about the taste, smell, texture, and appearance of your food – make a note of what you like and don’t like.
- Consider how hungry you are as the meal progresses.
- Stop eating when you are no longer hungry.
- Eat in front of the TV, while working, or while doing things that can distract you.
- Focus on your weight while you eat.
- Force yourself to finish food when you are no longer hungry.
- Label foods as ‘good’ or bad.’
- Drastically change your whole diet overnight.
- Think or say unkind things about yourself if you slip up and over- or undereat.
Mindfulness is about gratitude and compassion, both for your food and the world, but also for yourself. A factor that many people with unhealthy food relationships struggle with is being kind to themselves when they think they’ve made a mistake.
Food should be a source of joy in your life; overindulging is not a moral issue. All you need to do is take stock of how you feel after eating a little too much or eating unhealthily for a few days, and remind yourself that balance is important. Think about why you chose what you did, and consider ways to avoid doing that again. No-one is perfect, after all, and there’s really no need to be. Simply be kind, thoughtful, and do your best.