Mindful Eating: Focus on Food

Have you ever experienced what I like to call the “cheesecake adventure”? It goes like this. You’re at home watching a movie while you slide your fork into a slice of your favorite chocolate chip cheesecake. It’s the one with the to-die-for crunchy dark chocolate crust and the perfect chocolate slivers swirled throughout the creamy, luscious cream cheese filling. You eat the whole slice and think, “Wow, that was really good. I want some more!” And so you treat yourself to a second helping to make sure it was really that good. Then you feel regretful, annoyed, or angry with yourself for taking that second serving. You resent indulging in the extra calories of the decadent dessert. You may become frustrated and feel unhappy or disgusted and vow never again to eat that much.

Perhaps your “cheesecake adventure” had nothing to do with cheesecake, but instead happened with another favorite food. Most likely, it involved a chain of events that began with the anticipation of eating that food. Perhaps you were making a connection between that food and being with the best friends you often enjoy it with, or you were thinking of the food as a special splurge. But then the experience morphed into unconscious, or “mindless,” eating as the television, conversation with your dining companions, or something else distracted you. It has happened to most of us at some point, but mindless eating doesn’t have to be the norm. In this article, I’ll show you how to become more mindful of what you eat and drink so that you can enjoy your meals more and be in better control of how much you eat.

Mindless eating defined

Mindless eating occurs when you eat without paying attention to what is happening inside and outside your body. It is essentially the act of putting food into your mouth and being unaware of all that food has to offer. You miss out on the pleasure of its aroma, the enjoyment of its texture and taste, and perhaps the positive emotions that you associate with a special food. Mindless eating can also keep you from sensing what your body is feeling. This includes the initial physical sensation of fullness or satisfaction when the stomach signals the brain that it has had enough to eat.

Researchers who study the complicated relationship between the mind and body believe that mindless eating may be one of the things that lead us to make poor food choices and develop bad eating habits. Mindless eating could also contribute to overeating, and may lead to negative health consequences such as unwanted weight gain. In addition, mindless eating has been related to poor success with long-term weight loss and has been implicated in problems with binge eating. If mindless eating makes it difficult to control your weight, it may make it difficult to manage your arthritis as well. Extra weight places extra stress on joints such as the hips, knees, and spine, contributing to pain and decreased mobility. Being overweight may also increase your risk of health problems such as diabetes or heart disease.

The flip side:
mindful eating

It should come as no surprise that the opposite of mindless eating is mindful eating, which is a different way of relating to food. In a nutshell, mindful eating is being consciously aware of your physical and emotional response to what you eat and drink. It involves being in the present, focusing on the food you are eating, and becoming aware of the sensations you feel without assigning an emotion to them.

The theory behind mindful eating stems from the concept of mindfulness. The main principles of mindfulness include paying attention without judgment; knowing what you feel and think physically, emotionally, and mentally in each moment; and learning new ways to act, feel, and think. Historically, mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist meditation, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, has discussed it in his book Full Catastrophe Living. Research into mindfulness has shown positive impacts on a number of conditions, including depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders. In recent years, scientists have found that mindful eating may help to prevent overeating and may help with weight management.

Try mindful eating yourself

For a “taste” of what mindful eating is about, try this experiment. Take two small pieces of a food that you can easily chew and swallow — for example, raisins, nuts, or bite-size crackers — and put them on a plate. Without giving it any thought, take the first piece, pop it into your mouth, chew a few times, and swallow.

Next, take that second piece and put it in your mouth. Don’t start chewing yet. Close your eyes. Make it a point to notice the food’s texture, size, and shape. Really tune into how it feels in your mouth. Chew slowly, 10 to 20 times if you can. Notice the consistency. Is the food smooth, crunchy, or juicy? Notice how it tastes. Is it bland, spicy, or sweet? Observe how your mouth feels while chewing, swallowing, and then afterward. Just be aware of the sensations. Don’t evaluate whether or not the taste or texture is pleasant. Don’t judge yourself for eating it. By paying such close attention, you should be able to notice the different physical, and perhaps emotional, sensations you experience — without letting yourself think they are good or bad.

Now, by suggesting this experiment, I don’t mean that you need to consume everything you eat or drink in such an exacting and scrupulous manner. Instead, you could try something similarly detailed but narrower in scope. For example, you could practice this mindful eating exercise with just the first bite of each course at your meal. Doing so could help set the stage for becoming more mindful about what you eat overall. It could reveal some things about your own eating habits and possibly help you recognize that you feel physically full with less food.

How can you tell whether you are a mindful or mindless eater? There are some signals that you are at risk for unconscious eating. These include usually being the first person in a group to finish eating, always cleaning your plate, or eating a lot of convenience or prepared foods (which are typically eaten on the run). Mindless eating is also associated with your eating environment. This includes eating in a hurry, pairing eating with other activities such as driving, or eating at your desk while you work. In addition, the extraordinarily appealing nature of food and large portions offered by many restaurants can contribute to mindless eating. For specific ways to avoid overeating, see Ways to Avoid Overeating.

Tips for eating more mindfully

Mindful eating is all about giving food and the act of eating your full attention and increasing your satisfaction. So, how do you become more mindful about eating? Try one or more of the following suggestions:

Make your meals attractive to help you focus. Keeping focused on what you are eating is easier when your meal looks appealing. It is true that you eat with your eyes. Consider which plate of food you’ll find more attractive: white fish, white rice, and iceberg lettuce, or browned fish, paprika potatoes, and green broccoli? A hamburger wrapped in a fast-food wrapper, or one that is served on a plate with a green salad? An attractive plate will help spur your interest and keep it centered on eating.

Balance your eating schedule to avoid becoming overly hungry. Eat at regular intervals, and avoid skipping meals so you won’t get overly hungry. Your body is like a well-tuned machine and requires regular refueling. When you get too hungry, it is difficult to pay attention to what you are eating. And eating when you are overly hungry can result in the “it was so good that I’m going to have some more” adventure.

Limit activities while eating to focus on your food. Avoid distractions or multitasking. These draw your attention away from eating and tempt you into mindless eating traps, like eating too fast or too much. This means making eating your single activity instead of eating while reading the paper, surfing the Web, or watching television. Make a commitment to eat a few of your meals each week without doing anything else at the same time. Use the time to be mindful and observe the sensations of what you are eating.

Sit down when you are eating. Make it a personal rule to sit down at a table or a designated space when you eat. This creates an environment where you can commit to eating and limits the number of possible distractions. You’re less likely to recall the crackers you grabbed and ate as you walked through the kitchen than the ones you ate consciously in a designated place.

Slow down your eating pace to increase enjoyment. In the early 20th century, an American health and food faddist named Horace Fletcher, who was obsessed with mastication, or chewing, promoted chewing one’s food until it became liquid. Happily, going to this extreme is unnecessary. But chewing thoroughly is one way to slow down your eating speed and help bring pleasure to every bite. Swallowing one bite before taking another or waiting 15 seconds between bites can also be an effective strategy. In addition, eating slowly can help curb overeating by giving the stomach time to tell the brain it is getting full before you have eaten too much.

Altering eating habits
takes time

Becoming a more mindful eater is similar to making many other behavior changes. Don’t aim for quick results. “Slow and steady” is the key to progress. Take small steps and settle on one change at a time. Make your first change the one that you think will be the easiest. Begin by trying out new behaviors just a few times a week, and then build on that. Be sure to consciously give yourself recognition and reward yourself for every success. It is very important to enjoy your mindful eating triumphs as they happen. Rewards need not be food related — for example, you could treat yourself to a small item related to a favorite hobby, or tickets to a show.

It is also important to give yourself time for your new behaviors to become habits. It can take several weeks of consistent practice for a new behavior to become a natural part of your routine. Even then, don’t forget that these new behaviors are fragile and subject to missteps. If you take two steps forward and one back, you are still making progress. The more you practice mindful eating, the more you will get the hang of it and the easier it will get. Eventually, it will become a natural and regular part of your lifestyle. Mindful eating could be one of the key behaviors that help you get the most pleasure from eating.

Research on mindful eating is still in its infancy, but it shows promise. As with many things, we still need to learn a lot more about what works best in terms of mindful eating and who would benefit most from it. It is highly probable that mindful eating isn’t for everyone; there is rarely a case where one size fits all. Mindful eating is not designed to be a quick-fix solution for problem eating, weight issues, or other health problems. But it could be a powerful tool to help alter poor eating habits.

At the very least, mindful eating can remind you of the benefits and importance of genuinely enjoying and appreciating the bountiful array of foods that are available to you. By being a mindful eater, you may even find that you don’t need to go on a “cheesecake adventure” to experience enjoyment and satisfaction from food.

Bonnie Bruce is a behavioral scientist and freelance writer based in California.

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