At a fundamental level, we all know what foods to eat and not to eat for living a healthy life or to lose weight. Eat more vegetables, avoid sugar and eat smaller portions. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? And yet, there are still millions of overweight people all over the world.
Reality check: the problem is not always information, it’s compliance.
We make the decision to reach for the donut instead of the apple, eat the entire bag of chips, or to go back for thirds at a buffet instead of having just one plate.
The mind is extremely powerful, and when left untrained it can become powerless in the face of temptations, whether it’s eating an entire pizza, overspending and accumulating debt, or entering a recurring cycle of toxic romantic relationships. The root cause behind all of these self-sabotaging behaviours is the same – mindlessness.
Signs of Mindless Eating
To some degree, we all exhibit signs of mindless behaviour such as mindless eating on a regular basis. However, when occasional mindless eating turns to excessive, it can lead to side-effects such as binge-eating and weight gain.
Below are 8 common signs of mindless eating:
- Eating with distraction – Do you find you eat meals while working in front of a laptop, scrolling through social media, watching television etc?
- Feeling out of control with food around – Do you often have low self-control at a buffet, all-you-can-eat menu, or other social events, and experiencing shame or guilt afterwards?
- Eating fast – How long on average does it take you to finish a meal? Do you gulp down food quickly and always end up being the first person to finish a meal compared to others?
- Feeling stuffed vs. satiated – Do you have a hard time differentiating between the feeling of satiety vs physical fullness? Do you often find you struggle to stop eating before you are physically uncomfortable?
- Grazing throughout the day – Are you constantly snacking, nibbling and grazing throughout the day? Do you mindlessly wander around the kitchen, peeking inside the fridge or cabinets… just because?
- Using food to cope with emotions – Are you frequently reaching for food when there is an emotional shift? Do you eat when you’re stressed, bored, or feeling upset?
- Lack of awareness – Are you often unable to remember sensory details about meals you’ve eaten, such as taste, texture and smell?
- Binge eating – Do you often start off with a few bites, and eventually end up consuming the entire packet, tub or carton of a food item?
Take a moment to recall how many times you mentally nodded your head to each of the above questions. If you resonated with most or all of the signs above, try not to judge yourself or feel guilt, but use this as fuel to start cultivating more self-awareness and shift from mind-LESS eating to mind-FULL eating.
What Is Mindful Eating?
To understand what mindful eating is, we must first understand the definition of mindfulness as a foundational concept. Mindfulness at its core is deliberating paying attention and being present in the moment with non-judgment.
Mindful eating refers to being fully present while eating a meal and paying attention to:
- The taste, texture and smell of food
- Your current emotional state at the time of eating
- Your body’s hunger and satiety cues
Unfortunately, the art of mindful eating and enjoying a meal at a dinner table with full presence has become increasingly more difficult as our eating environments have become more and more distracting. As Harvard Nutritionist, Dr. Cheung puts it, “the rhythm of life is becoming faster and faster, so we really don’t have the same awareness and the same ability to check into ourselves”. (1)
The Science Behind Mindful Eating
Cultivating mindfulness – whether through meditation or other mindfulness-based training – has the power to physically alter the brain.
For example, mindfulness has been shown to strengthen the neural connections in the brain related to emotional control and logic, and weaken those related to more impulsive, fear-driven and emotional responses. It also leads to a larger volume of grey matter, a part of the brain that is important for self-awareness and introspection. (2)
Based on this knowledge, scientists have been carrying out research focusing on mindful eating in particular – and the results have been very positive. (3)
For example, a 2018 review conducted at North Carolina State University revealed that mindful eating led to weight loss amongst all five studies that were analyzed, strongly recommends including it as part of weight management programs. It concluded, “increased mindful eating has been shown to help participants gain awareness of their bodies, be more in tune ot hunger and satiety, recognize external cues to eat, gain self-compassion, decrease food cravings, decrease problematic eating, and decreased reward-driven eating.” (4)
Another 2018 report published in the British Medical Journal focused on a specific tool used in mindfulness training – the speed at which you eat. The research team tested what would happen to a 59,000 patients with Type II diabetes if they changed their eating speed. The group that went from fast to slow showed a 42% lower rate of obesity than those who continued to eat at a fast speed. (5)
Given what we know about how long it takes the brain to register fullness, this makes sense.
“It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to catch up with your stomach, so if you’re a quick eater, you may consume more calories,”
explains Cara Schrager, M.P.H, R.D., C.D.E. at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. (6)
How To Get Started With Mindful Eating
Cultivating a mindful approach to eating takes time – you won’t be able to become 100% mindful after reading this article, or never overeat at Thanksgiving dinner again.
The goal is to start incorporating these practices into your daily life as much as possible until certain habits become second nature.
- Sit down at a dinner table – not in front of the TV. Set aside your laptop, phone and any other distraction and eat your meal in silence.
- Make your plate look enticing – lay out a beautiful plate and cutlery so that you train your mind to look forward to and focus on the dining experience
- Eat at a consistent time or with others – this will prevent you from eating erratically and on-the-go in the car or grazing later on
- Slow down – set down your fork in between bites, take breaths between bites and focus on chewing your food
- Be grateful – express gratitude (whether verbal or non-verbal) for having a delicious, warm meal in front of you
- Check-in midway – stop once or twice during your meal to ask yourself, ‘am I still hungry’? If you’re 75% full, stop eating whether your plate is finished or not.
- Meditate – sharpen and train your mind outside of mealtimes, in order to make mindful eating easier. You can begin with our free beginner series in the Muse app.
Lastly, as a good starting point and eye-opening experience, try this simple exercise that is frequently given to people at meditation and mindfulness retreats. It allows you to truly experience what mindful eating feels like:
The Raisin Exercise (7)
What you need: five minutes, a raisin and an open mind
- Holding – take a raisin and hold it between your finger and your thumb
- Seeing – take the time to really focus on the raisin and give it your full attention. Examine the unique texture and colour; where the light shines, the darker hollows, the folds and ridges.
- Touching – close your eyes and focus on the wrinkled texture of the raisin, and how it feels in your hand.
- Smelling – hold the raisin up to your nose and smell the raisin; notice any effect that this has on your stomach and mouth.
- Placing – gently place the raisin in your mouth, and leave it there without chewing. Focus on the sensation of what it feels like in your mouth.
- Tasting – very slowly and consciously, chew the raisin once or twice. Fully experience the waves of taste emanating from the raisin, how these change over time and changes to the raisin itself in shape.
- Swallowing – see if you can detect when you first have the intention to swallow, and then consciously swallow the raisin
- Following – sense how your body is feeling as a whole after eating the raisin
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- Gordinier, J. (2018). Mindful Eating as Food for Thought. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/08/dining/mindful-eating-as-food-for-thought.html [Accessed 30 Apr. 2018].
- Gladding, R. (2018). This is your brain on meditation. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/use-your-mind-change-your-brain/201305/is-your-brain-meditation [Accessed 24 Apr. 2018].
- Burfoot, A. (2018). More and more research points to mindfulness — not certain foods — for weight loss. [online] Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/more-and-more-research-points-to-mindfulness–not-certain-foods–for-weight-loss/2018/03/05/2aa25d48-1c00-11e8-b2d9-08e748f892c0_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.7f0f0b7ac53b [Accessed 30 Apr. 2018].
- Dunn, C., Haubenreiser, M., Johnson, M., Nordby, K., Aggarwal, S., Myer, S. and Thomas, C. (2018). Mindfulness Approaches and Weight Loss, Weight Maintenance, and Weight Regain. Current Obesity Reports, 7(1), pp.37-49.
- Hurst, Y. and Fukuda, H. (2018). Effects of changes in eating speed on obesity in patients with diabetes: a secondary analysis of longitudinal health check-up data.
- Aaptiv. (2018). 9 Signs You’re Unintentionally Overeating – Aaptiv. [online] Available at: https://aaptiv.com/magazine/signs-unintentionally-overeating [Accessed 30 Apr. 2018].
- Ggia.berkeley.edu. (2018). Raisin Meditation (Greater Good in Action). [online] Available at: https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/raisin_meditation [Accessed 30 Apr. 2018].