Most of us are all too familiar with the concept of mindless eating. It’s what we do when we’re sitting in front of the television, engrossed in a project on the computer, scrolling through our phones, or driving. Without thinking—or really even noticing that you’re chewing and swallowing—you manage to eat an entire bag of chips or several cookies. But research is revealing that when we focus on what we’re eating—without distractions—we develop a healthier relationship with food, may lose more weight, and are more likely to keep it off.
“Mindful eating can help reduce the hedonistic drive to eat [regardless of physical hunger], which is characterized by a loss of control, preoccupation with food, and lack of feeling satisfied,” says Jennifer Daubenmier, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of health education at San Francisco State University. When you eat mindfully, you may actually get more pleasure from eating.
Some people may be turned off by the idea of mindful eating, thinking that it requires a 20-minute meditation session before each meal or that you must stop and give thanks for every bite of food. “But really it can be as simple as just paying attention to what you’re eating and how you feel while you’re eating it,” says Judson Brewer, M.D., Ph.D., director of research and innovation at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University.
Mindful Eating vs. Dieting
Losing weight is often billed as purely a matter of willpower. If you can muster the self-discipline to eat less and ignore your cravings, you will lose weight. “But traditional diets don’t give people tools for coping with cravings or managing moods that lead them to eat when they’re not hungry,” says Daubenmier. That’s where mindful eating comes in. Instead of trying to subvert cravings, you’re encouraged to explore them and accept them for what they are.
Traditional dieting also focuses on restriction, rules, and—in many cases—judgment. Foods are deemed “good” or “bad,” and dieters tend to label themselves as “good” or “bad” based on the food choices they make. “With mindful eating, there is no value judgment or shame attached to what you’re eating,” says Carolyn Dunn, Ph.D., R.D.N., head of the department of agricultural and human sciences at North Carolina State University. “Instead of being told, ‘no, don’t eat this,’ people are encouraged to eat foods they like with awareness, and enjoy them without judgment.”
The Science Behind Mindful Eating
A 2017 review of studies, published in the journal Nutrition Research Reviews, found that mindful-eating interventions were most effective at addressing binge-eating, emotional eating, and eating in response to external cues. That may be because mindful eating can, to a degree, “rewire” your brain to make it easier to change such ingrained eating habits. “When we hook people up to neurofeedback devices,” Brewer says, “we can see that the part of the brain that gets activated when we’re caught up in cravings and emotional eating is actually deactivated when we’re being mindful.”
Weight loss is often a side effect of such a shift in approaching food. For example, in a study published in 2018 in the Journal of Family Medicine & Community Health, researchers looked at how a 15-week weight-loss programthat included mindful-eating strategies would have an impact on both eating behavior and weight loss. A total of 64 individuals were divided into two groups—one that received the intervention and a control group that did not. Subjects in the intervention group lost six times more weight than those in the control group. In addition, 98 percent of the mindful-eating group reported that they continued to use the techniques at a six-month follow-up, says Dunn, the lead author of the study. “Raising their awareness of the food they eat is a powerful tool for behavior change,” she says.
Even if weight loss doesn’t occur, studies show that there’s still a benefit to eating mindfully. A 2016 study of 194 obese adults, published in the journal Obesity, found that those who got mindfulness training along with diet and exercise guidelines had significant drops in fasting blood glucose and cholesterol levels, compared with the group that got only diet and exercise guidelines. “We found that the mindful-eating group decreased their consumption of sweet foods during the intervention, and maintained those reductions even six months later,” says Daubenmier, the lead author of the study. She theorizes that the reduction in sweets was responsible for the health improvements.
How to Eat More Mindfully
Mindful eating basically boils down to just paying more attention—to your hunger, your cravings, your food, and how your body feels before, during, and after you eat. When you sit down to your next meal, try incorporating some of these simple techniques.
• Assess (and reassess) your hunger. Tuning in to your physical hunger is one of the keys to mindful eating. Before you begin eating, ask yourself how hungry you are on a scale of 1 to 10. After several bites, ask yourself again. As the meal progresses, switch to assessing how full you are on a scale of 1 to 10. “Aim to stop eating when you are moderately full—around a 7—to help avoid overeating,” says Daubenmier.
• Slow down. Eating more slowly allows you to savor each bite as well as to stay alert to satiety levels. It’s no surprise then that a recent six-year study of about 60,000 people found that those who shifted from fast to slow eating had a 42 percent lower rate of obesity during the study period than those who continued to eat quickly.
• Stay focused. Anything that distracts you from concentrating on your food—such as the television, checking social media, reading, or even a lively conversation—can lead to mindlessly overeating.
• Key in to cravings. Rather than trying to talk yourself out of a craving, allow yourself to explore it. “Cravings are simply body sensations,” says Brewer. “And when we try to resist or ignore cravings, they tend to get stronger.” Instead of trying to ignore it, notice what the craving feels like in your body, ask yourself what’s going on that’s triggering it, even spend some time looking at and smelling the food you’re craving. Take a few deep breaths, then look at it again to see if it still seems as appealing.
• Savor the first few bites. If, even in a mindful state, you decide you really do want to eat whatever it is you’re craving, go ahead. “But eat it with a heightened awareness, savoring and appreciating each bite,” says Dunn. “Research has shown that much of the enjoyment of a favorite food is in those first few bites.” If you take the time to focus on the sensory experience of those initial bites, you may find that your craving is satisfied without overindulging.