Mindful vs Mindless Eating
Mindfulness is all about bringing your awareness into the present moment and really paying attention. By being mindful we bring much more richness to each experience in our life.
You may have heard of mindfulness meditation. However, we can also apply the practice of mindfulness to our eating habits. And by doing so we can enter into a calmer state of mind when eating and enrich our experience of eating, which has many benefits such as:
- A calmer and smoother digestive process
- Improved digestion and nutrient absorption
- Fewer digestive symptoms such as heartburn, bloating, gas and constipation or diarrhoea
- Increased satiety from foods because of improved nutrient absorption
- A healthier relationship with food.
Eating quickly, not chewing food properly, eating “on-the-go” and eating when stressed are all signs of eating “mindlessly”. All of these mindless factors impair digestion which has a knock-on effect on all areas of our health.
“If we aren’t digesting well, then we aren’t absorbing nutrients. And we need nutrients for our body to function. Period.”
So how can we eat more mindfully? I’m sharing 7 tips to help you eat mindfully and get more nourishment and enjoyment out of the food you eat. But first, I just want to explain a bit about how stress affects digestion because stress counteracts mindfulness.
How does stress affect digestion?
Stress impacts the gut in many ways such as impairing absorption of nutrients, increasing intestinal permeability (aka “leaky gut”), reducing stomach acid and increases gut inflammation. All this can result in: (1)
- increased nutrient deficiencies (especially vitamin C, the B vitamins, iron, zinc and selenium)
- Increased cortisol, the main stress hormone
- Reduced healthy gut bacteria
- Reduced oxygen supply which we need for digestion and blood circulation
- Reduced gastric emptying which can lead to constipation
- Increased gastric emptying which can lead to diarrhoea
- Increased food allergies
We need to eat in a relaxed state, rather than a stressed state otherwise digestion is compromised. Stress, as we know is linked to IBS and people who suffer from IBS often have a heightened stress response (2).
7 Tips for Mindful Eating
1. Slow down
We need to be relaxed for our digestion to work well and we need to slow down in order to be mindful about what we are eating.
- Take 5-10 slow deep breaths before eating to enter into a more relaxed state
- Pause between bites
- Allow more time for meals
- Don’t rush when eating
- Don’t multi-task when eating
- Sit down to eat, don’t stand up
2. Bring more awareness to eating and chew thoroughly
Awareness before and during eating initiates the secretion of saliva, stomach acid and digestive enzymes which we need to digest food. Awareness also enables blood flow to our digestive organs which is crucial for digestion.
The thought, sight, smell, taste, and chewing of food stimulates 50% of stomach acid secretion (3), so we can see just how important awareness is when eating. Lots of people “sleep eat” and aren’t really aware when they are eating. For example, we are less aware when watching TV whilst eating and this has been found to increase food intake (4).
- So pay attention to what you eat: really savour the smell, texture, taste and sight of the food you are eating – engage all of your senses
- Chew your food thoroughly. Around 10 chews for softer foods and 30 chews for tougher foods. This is the first stage of digestion, so chewing food well is important so that food is partially digested when it reaches the stomach.
3. Focus on the quality of food
Low-quality foods tend to be processed and sugary with artificial ingredients. These foods can increase inflammation in the body. Eating more mindfully means paying more attention to what we put in our body and encourages us to focus on the quality of what we eat. When we focus on the quality of the food, we are more likely to choose better quality.
- Eat fresh fruit & vegetables
- Buy organic fruit and vegetables and free range where possible
- Eat whole grains instead of refined grains
- Choose natural sweeteners like raw honey, stevia and whole fruit. Don’t be tempted by low-calorie artificial sweeteners as these have all sorts of negative health effects including increased appetite, weight gain, reduced insulin sensitivity and gut inflammation (5)
- Limit anti-nutrients in the diet such as hydrogenated fats, refined sugar, white flour, and poor quality dairy and meats
4. Focus on the pleasure
Feeling guilty about eating certain foods can cause an unhealthy relationship with food and therefore disordered eating patterns. Even so-called “treats” can be healthy in the context of a high-quality diet. When having a treat, focus on the pleasure of the food and the experience of eating rather than the guilt.
Dieting and restrictive eating can increase psychological stress and increase our stress hormones and this may be the reason why diets fail (6). Conversely, gaining pleasure from food stops us overeating. Perfectionism with our food is also a risk factor for eating disorders (7).
- Savour the taste and texture of ALL the foods you eat, even the treats
- Banish any thoughts of guilt
- Focus on enjoyment
- Choose the highest quality version of that food when eating treats e.g. go for a high-quality chocolate bar over a lower-quality version that’s made with artificial ingredients
- Know that “treats” can be healthy too – if you have the right mindset!
N.B. I’m using the word “treats” in inverted commas because we don’t need to think of these foods as morally different from other foods.
5. Eat intuitively
Listening to how our body feels when we eat certain foods is a good indicator of whether that food supports us or not. Some foods may cause us to feel sluggish, bloated, nauseous, congested, irritable, hungrier etc. And this is our bodies’ way of signalling to us that either the food doesn’t agree with us or there’s something going on with our gut that we need to be aware of.
After eating, ask yourself:
- How does my gut feel?
- How are my energy levels?
- Can I concentrate?
- Do I sleep well?
- Do you crave more sugary foods?
Listen to your body and what it’s telling you about the foods you eat. Chose the foods that support you in feeling well, not worse. It can take some time to really get in tune with your body but the more you practice tuning in, the easier it becomes.
6. Plan your meals
Being organised with our food can take the stress out of meal preparation and finding food to eat on the go – which gets in the way of eating mindfully. It also helps us to make healthier food choices.
- Plan your meals and snacks for the week ahead
- Have healthy snacks on hand, even when out and about
- Stick to a routine with your meal times
7. Be positive!
Having a positive mindset towards your diet and food choices affects how you feel about yourself and your body. When we feel good about what we eat, we feel more relaxed around food and we feel better in ourselves.
Negative thoughts when eating are a form of stress.
- Banish negative thoughts around food
- Focus on the benefits and health-giving qualities of the foods you eat (rather than the calories or any negative qualities)
- Be grateful for the wonderful foods we have to choose from!
Just take one step at a time – maybe introduce one of the steps above each week and pay attention to any changes or improvements you notice, whether that’s with your digestion, your energy, your moods, your sleep, your skin health – anything at all!
I’d love to hear how you get and to know which tip has helped you the most. So please do get in touch!
If you’d like to read about mindful eating in more depth, I highly recommend The Slow Down Diet by Marc David (8), from which these tips were adapted. Marc David is the founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating. They run online retreats and programmes and offer practitioner training to be a Psychology of Eating coach. Check out their website if you’re interested in more in-depth guidance on mindful eating or training.
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- Yaribeygi, H., Panahi, Y., Sahraei, H. and Johnston, T.P., 2017. Review article : THE IMPACT OF STRESS ON BODY FUNCTION : A REVIEW. pp.1057–1072.
- Scalera, A., Di Minno, M.N.D. and Tarantino, G., 2013. What does irritable bowel syndrome share with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease? World Journal of Gastroenterology, 19(33), pp.5402–5420.
- Katschinski, M., 2000. Nutritional Implications of Cephalic Phase Responses Nutritional implications of cephalic phase gastrointestinal responses. pp.189–196.
- Ghobadi, S., Zepetnek, J.O.T. De, Hemmatdar, Z., Bellissimo, N., Barati, R., Ahmadnia, H., Salehi-marzijarani, M. and Faghih, S., 2017. Association between overweight/obesity and eating habits while watching television among primary-school children in the city of. (8).
- Swithers, S.E., 2013. Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements. Trends Endocrinol Metab, 24(9), pp.431–441.
- Tomiyama, A.J., Mann, T., Vinas, D., Hunger, J. DeJager, J and Talyor, S.E., 2010. Low-Calorie Dieting Increases Cortisol A. Psychosom Med, 74(4), pp.357–364.
- Peixoto, C. and Jo, M., 2015. Perfectionism and Disordered Eating in Overweight Woman Correspondent Author : NU SC. Eating Behaviors. [online] Available at: <http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.eatbeh.2015.03.009>.
- David, M. (2015) The slow down diet: Eating for pleasure, energy, and weight loss. 1st edn. United States: Healing Arts Press.