Count me as a mindfulness convert, but a mindful eating newbie. In any given week, you can find me in a yoga class, meditating through a Downward Dog. Mindfulness is a normal topic of conversation when I grab coffee with friends. I’ve even been known to rely on alternate nostril breathing to cope with anxiety triggers. And yet mindful is not a word I’ve ever used to describe the way I eat. I’ve avoided foods I wanted because I thought they were“bad.” I’ve binged, and I’ve turned to food for comfort when I was bored, sad, or lonely. I’ve cleaned my plate, not because I was still hungry but because that’s the polite thing to do. In other words, I’ve relied on external cues—and confusing, sometimes toxic cultural messaging—to tell me how to behave around food. It’s exhausting. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Imagine, if you can, forgetting all the rules you think you know about eating well, and instead basing your eating decisions on how you feel. Imagine sitting and enjoying your food, one bite at a time, without distraction. That’s called mindful eating.
“Mindful eating involves being fully present with all of the senses during the process of eating and encourages people to use inner cues, such as hunger and fullness, to guide what to eat and when,” says Jessica Jones, R.D., cofounder of online nutrition resource Food Heaven Made Easy. According to Jones, the key elements of mindful eating are bringing heightened awareness to mealtimes (not rushing through a meal or multitasking); paying attention to how food looks, tastes, smells, and feels in your mouth; and adopting a more flexible, nonjudgmental approach to eating (there are no “good” or “bad” foods). The goal is to change your relationship with food, which may lead to healthier behaviors overall. It sounds like exactly what I need—and I imagine I’m not the only one.
The changing definition of healthy eating
When people start eating more mindfully, they often report fewer instances of eating past the point of fullness or snacking when they’re bored. Rebecca Scritchfield, R.D.N., author of Body Kindness, sees this in her own clients. “Any time you enhance attunement skills and you want to avoid feeling uncomfortably full,” she says, “you’re better at noticing when it feels good to stop eating—not that you have to stop, but you want to.” While this can lead to weight loss in some people, it’s important to recognize that not everyone loses weight with mindful eating. Those who have been suppressing their weight through calorie restriction may gain weight when they start listening to their body and meeting its needs, says Scritchfield. In fact, mindful eating has gained popularity with many experts and R.D.s precisely because weight loss isn’t the goal. “Diets want you to be rigid: no sugar!” says Susan Albers, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and author of Eating Mindfully. “But mindful eating helps you be flexible,” she adds. “And have a slice of cake and enjoy it mindfully so you don’t need to go for more.”
In that sense, mindful eating enhances body image and vice versa, Scritchfield believes. In many ways, this makes it the opposite of many weight-loss diets. “Body connection and communication is a key reason to eat mindfully,” she says. “You establish a positive association between eating and enjoying food when you feel hungry, or when you’re interested in eating. You’re fully committed to caring for your body and meeting its needs.
What to do when life gets in the way
Speaking of commitment, eating mindfully isn’t just about recognizing the sharp tang of an apple on your tongue or realizing you’re full before you’ve eaten the entire bag of chips. “Mindful eating happens before, during, and after you eat,” says Lynn Rossy, Ph.D., psychologist and author of The Mindfulness-Based Eating Solution.
Of course, it has to fit into real life, and it’s absolutely fine if, during a busy family dinner or working lunch, you aren’t able to practice the awareness or engagement you might be able to during a leisurely meal or when you just feel less distracted. “With any style of eating, including mindful eating, it’s important to make it work for you,” says Jones. “That means if you have to make a modification or take a different approach, that’s OK.” Jones herself says she tries to be mindful most days, but adds, “There are some days when it’s either eating lunch at my desk in front of a computer screen or not eating at all.” On days like this, when eating in a distracted setting, she suggests “trying your best to eat slowly, chew food thoroughly, and continuously check in with your body.” The main thing, she says, is to stay flexible. “You don’t want to be so rigid with mindful eating that it becomes another set of rules. When you deviate from the rules, you can get stressed out and feel bad about yourself, which isn’t good for our overall well-being. The key with mindful eating is to take it one meal at a time and do the best that you can, when you can.”
Rossy acknowledges that mindful eating can be both liberating and frightening, but insists the journey makes it worth it. And I believe her. We spend so much time, effort, and money on the food we eat, surely it’s time we paid more attention to it. Just like that Downward Dog, it might take a little time to get there, but we’ll feel pretty good about ourselves for giving it a go.