Mindful Eating Explained: Definition, Benefits, and Techniques

How often do you really enjoy food, slowly and attentively savoring each bite?

If the answer is “not often,” you’re not alone. In this day and age, many of us eat our meals quickly and mindlessly. We eat while working, watching Netflix, browsing the Internet, conversing with friends, and even while daydreaming.

It’s human to eat quickly and mindlessly at times. But if we eat mindlessly too often, it can lead to overeating, obesity, and other health problems, not to mention emotional and mental health issues. Overall, we lose a sense of satisfaction and enjoyment inherent in eating.

Engaging in a mindful eating practice–slowly savoring our food and paying attention to our body’s hunger cues–can help us transform our relationship with food and lead to better overall health. Recent research shows it can help us create new, healthier habits and even lose weight–all without the use of willpower, strict diets, or forcing behaviors. The practice of mindful eating itself can be very nourishing–even transformational.

Read on to learn what mindful eating is, what benefits we experience from practicing it, and how to start making it a habit.

What is Mindful Eating?

You may have heard of mindfulness–the practice of focusing on the present moment openly and without judgment. Mindful eating is an application of mindfulness that involves paying close, purposeful attention to the sensory experience of eating.

Mindful eating involves:

  • Noticing and enjoying the experience of eating.
  • Listening to our body’s hunger cues (when you’re hungry and when you’re full).
  • Fully experiencing our food, noticing colors, flavors, textures, and smells.
  • Noticing any thoughts, emotions, or bodily sensations that arise before, during, and after eating.
  • Learning to manage any guilt, anxiety, or other emotional response patterns we have around food.
  • Appreciating and enjoying our food.

Practicing mindful eating helps us develop a greater awareness around every aspect of eating, including how enjoyable food is and what triggers us to eat. Sometimes we eat out of habit or to soothe unpleasant emotions, such as stress, anxiety, or anger. We may feel powerless in our ability to control this seemingly automatic reaction, unable to start making healthier choices. But if we struggle with weight gain or other unwanted results of such eating habits, practicing mindful eating can help us dismantle these habit loops and create an entirely new relationship with food and ourselves.

All of our habits are learned, which means they can be unlearned. Research shows that an evidence-based mindful eating program can help us uncover the root causes of our habits and rewire our brain to create new habits that we feel good about. Over time, we replace automatic thoughts and reactive behaviors with conscious, mindful, empowered responses–without the use of willpower or external rules.

Benefits of Mindful Eating

Mindful eating has a number of rewarding effects, many of which we’ll notice very quickly. They include:

  • Increased awareness of thoughts, feelings, and judgments about eating.
  • Reduced stress and anxiety.
  • Increased awareness of our relationship with food, such as habitual behaviors other than physical hunger that lead us to eat.
  • Increased pleasure as we learn to slow down and more fully enjoy the experience of eating.
  • Healthier food choices, due to increased awareness of how different foods make us feel.

If we’re not paying attention when eating, we’re less likely to sense our body’s signals that tell us when we’re full–and we’re less likely to enjoy our food.

By practicing mindful eating, we become more aware of our body’s cues and experience the pleasure of eating more fully. And over time, this increased mindfulness and ability to fully experience what’s happening without judgment may extend to other areas of our lives, so that we become able to more clearly acknowledge and navigate intense emotions, challenging thoughts, or stressful situations. We may also notice improved digestion, among other health benefits.

Mindful eating encourages us to really appreciate food and relate to ourselves in a more accepting, nonjudgmental way–rather than restricting or punishing ourselves. When we begin to embody a sense of patience and curiosity, we can start to experience eating in a whole new way and learn to trust ourselves rather than relying on dietary restrictions. This can help us live more fully and develop a renewed appreciation for life, just the way it is.

But it’s not about pressuring ourselves to find a place of complete and utter self-acceptance. An increase in self-acceptance will happen naturally as we continue to practice mindfulness, including mindful eating.

Mindful eating is about focusing on our present-moment experience, consciously and without judgment. Mastering this takes some practice. But the act of focusing curiously on the present moment itself can be very rewarding, both mentally and physically.

Mindful Eating for Weight Loss and Habit Change

Mindful eating can help us create healthier eating habits, especially if we struggle with binge eating, stress eating, or eating in response to external triggers (such as social gatherings, celebrating holidays, or stressful situations that lead us to eat to try to manage our emotions). When we really pay attention to what does and doesn’t feel good, we notice that we enjoy a variety of different foods and that eating certain foods in large quantities may not feel so good.

We don’t have to stop eating all the things we love. And through eating the foods we love mindfully, we get to enjoy the experience of eating and even notice when we’re full, leading us to naturally eat less.

It can take up to 20 minutes for the brain to realize when we’re full. Often, we eat so fast that we don’t notice we’re full until we’ve overindulged. When we eat slowly and mindfully, we’re more likely to stop eating before this happens, which means we’re likely to eat less and perhaps lose weight–without using willpower or dietary restriction.

With more awareness of what triggers us to eat when we’re not physically hungry, over time, we also create a space between triggers and our reaction to them, allowing us to make empowered, mindful choices. We become in control of our behavior–not the other way around. This is how we can change our habits without force. We can break our habit cycles simply by noticing the elements in them and their effects on us.

Using mindful eating to build awareness around our habits, we can rewire and create physical changes in the brain. This can reduce cravings as well as change our old habits without much effort, as was proven in more than one mindful eating study. This is why eating mindfully is a much safer and more effective tool for habit change and weight loss than dieting. And the practice itself can be very nourishing.

Let’s discuss how mindful eating can not only help us lose weight but change the way we relate to food, our habits, and ourselves.

Mindful Eating vs. Dieting

The conventional approach to weight loss and changing eating habits is dieting. When dieting, we often count calories, weigh our portions, or carefully calculate how much sugar we eat each day. Or maybe we disallow what we deem to be “bad” foods entirely. And we may see some results initially, but often these results don’t last. That’s because dieting doesn’t address the root causes underneath our old eating habits, and labeling foods as “good” or “bad” doesn’t help us at all. So those habits can creep back in, and we may regain the weight we lost.

It’s also very challenging to sustain behavioral change before seeing results, which can take some time to become apparent. With mindful eating, instead of focusing on the outcome (perhaps losing weight or improving our blood glucose levels), we focus on the process: the experience of eating.

We can choose what and how much we eat, all while enjoying our favorite foods. Mindfully eating allows us to learn what foods and in what quantities feel right for us. It’s through becoming very aware of how eating feels that we naturally savor food more, eat until we’re full, and start choosing healthier foods because they make us feel good.

This is how we can change our habits permanently with mindful eating. We developed habits due to our brains’ reward-based learning system, and updating the reward value of our habits through mindfulness frees us to step out of our unhelpful habit loops.

How Mindful Eating Helps Us Break Our Habit Loops

Every habit consists of a trigger, behavior, and reward. On a very basic level, we may have formed our eating habits by seeing food that looked good (trigger), eating it (behavior), and feeling good because the food tasted good (reward).

Let’s use sweets as an example to understand habit loops. Perhaps when we were younger, our parents gave us a special dessert when we got good grades or had a difficult day. Now anytime we feel accomplished or stressed, we may get the urge to eat a delicious dessert.

This is because our crafty brain remembers that eating ice cream makes us feel better momentarily. And because sugar overrides the brain’s signals that tell us when we’re full, it’s easy to get “stuck” in a habit of mindlessly binging anytime we’re feeling stressed, sad, fatigued, or even celebratory. The more we repeat these behaviors, the more ingrained they become as habits.

But when we become very aware of the stages of these habits, identify what triggers us, and get present to all of their effects–including how we feel after binging on ice cream, such as  nauseated or sluggish–we begin to rewire our brain, update the relative reward value of the behavior, and become disenchanted with our habits. The spell of our habit is broken, and we become empowered to make new, healthier choices.

So even if we often binge on high-sugar, high-fat foods, mindful eating can help us break the cycle of overeating these foods. We can focus on the taste and flavors of our food, notice any thoughts and emotions that come up, and feel the sensations in our body. We might notice that fresh fruits and vegetables are just as (or even more) satisfying than sugary snacks. And over time, we can naturally choose healthier foods and eating behaviors.

Once we’re engaging in healthier eating behaviors, our brain utilizes the same reward-based learning system to ingrain these new behaviors as habits.

We’re now becoming habituated to eating healthier foods. This is how mindful eating can help us create new, healthier habits that last and feel good.

Read on for some tips on how to start eating mindfully. It may take some time and patience, but by maintaining a sense of curiosity and openness, we may find the act of building awareness itself to be very rewarding.

How to Practice Mindful Eating

Eating mindfully is easier than many people think. There are some simple tips for getting started, and they don’t take much effort. It can take some patience as you begin to practice, so ease into this practice gently. This is not about being perfect or attaining a quiet, still mind. It’s simply about increasing our awareness. Even one minute of mindfulness is one minute more than you had before, and every moment like this adds up to major change over time.

See if you can maintain a sense of curiosity, a “beginner’s mind.” In other words, see if you can pretend that you’re experiencing the act of eating for the very first time. This can help you really drop into the moment and explore your direct experience. If you get distracted or your mind wanders, simply note it openly and non-judgmentally, and then bring your attention back to the present moment.

Make sure you’re not ravenously hungry when you try this mindful eating exercise for the first time. Instead, wait until you’re moderately hungry and can be fully present in the moment to practice enjoying the experience of eating.

  1. Make a date with your dinner. Take a little time and space to really taste and experience your food.
  2. Start with a few mindful bites at the beginning of a meal and notice how this feels compared to how you usually eat.
  3. Explore the pace of eating to help you really savor the taste.
  4. See if you can add a few more mindful bites during the meal, noticing how much you are enjoying the food.
  5. Relax your arms and hands between bites, maybe resting your hands on your lap or the table.
  6. Notice any thoughts or emotions that come up. How does this food make you feel?
  7. Tune into your body’s cues the best you can (this will become easier with practice). How does your stomach feel? Is it grumbling, does it feel empty or full? What other sensations do you notice in your body?
  8. After eating, notice how you feel. Do you have more or less energy? How content do you feel?

When we’re first learning mindful eating strategies, sometimes we may feel as though our mind is fighting us, as though it doesn’t want to notice what’s going on in the present moment. That’s totally normal. Mindful eating is a practice–not a destination or something to perfect. It’s about paying attention to what’s happening right now, in this moment. And the more we practice, the easier it becomes.

It may take time and practice to master mindful eating. And noticing how you feel and the results of eating mindfully can help you stick with it, and remember to try to maintain a sense of playful curiosity. Soon, you’ll get to know your body’s hunger cues and relate to your habits–and to food, and yourself–in a whole new way.

How to Master Mindful Eating and Change Your Eating Habits with Eat Right Now

Even if you’ve been eating on auto-pilot or struggling with unwanted eating habits for decades, you can rewire your brain and get off the yo-yo dieting rollercoaster for good. A science-based clinically-proven mindful eating program can help you uncover the root causes of your eating patterns, rewire your brain, and learn to make new, empowered choices regarding food, eating, and coping with difficult emotions in a way that’s very nourishing.

Eat Right Now is an evidence-based program developed by neuroscientist and addiction psychiatrist, Dr. Judson Brewer. It’s a unique mindfulness training program that helps you understand how your mind works and teaches you tools to change unwanted eating behaviors to create an entirely new relationship with food–and yourself.

With daily lessons, craving-specific tools, journaling capabilities, and a supportive online community–complete with live weekly calls and expert facilitators–you can learn to differentiate between real hunger and emotional craving and build new healthier habits that last.

Ready to feel at home in your body? Start the Eat Right Now program today.

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