Have you ever practiced mindful eating? Applying mindfulness practices to your eating behaviors can help you overcome damaging habits such as emotional eating — which have a profound impact on your stress levels and overall health.
Diet, health, and stress are all intricately linked. Unmanaged stress not only increases your risk of depression and makes you more likely to make unhealthy food choices, it also directly impacts your physical health by increasing blood pressure, weakening the immune system, contributing to digestive issues, and causing hormone imbalances. Getting a handle on stress, then, is crucial both for mental and physical health.
Mindful eating is a practice that has been found to help reduce stress and improve related behaviors such as emotional eating. By incorporating mindful eating practices into your daily routine, you can gain more insight into your own behaviors and begin to react to your personal triggers in more constructive ways.
What does mindful eating mean?
Mindful eating is a practice based on mindfulness, which can be defined simply as the state of being conscious of or aware of something. Mindful eating, then, is bringing more attention and awareness to your own eating behaviors, including cravings and physical cues when eating.
With continued practice, mindful eating puts you in charge of your responses, so that you don’t continue to react to stimuli without thought. It allows you to replace automatic and conditioned behaviors with healthier choices.
In other words, mindful eating helps you distinguish between actual physical hunger and emotional or external triggers.
Emotional eating and external eating
We don’t always eat to satisfy hunger. Many of us also turn to food for comfort or stress relief, or we use food as a reward after we’ve accomplished an important goal or met a major milestone. It’s also very common to eat as a response to external triggers.
When we eat as a response to stress or other emotions, it’s known as emotional eating. Unfortunately, emotional eating doesn’t fix our problems. Consuming some of your favorite foods may feel comforting for a few brief moments, but you’ll soon discover that the feelings that triggered the behavior are still there. In fact, you’ll likely end up feeling worse than ever. The foods most people turn to during times of stress — such as candy, baked goods, ice cream, pizza, and potato chips — can sap your energy, kill your concentration, and leave you feeling bloated. Not to mention, you’ll likely feel guilty for allowing yourself to eat unhealthy foods.
We’ve all had the experience of eating when we’re stressed. However, for some people, emotional eating is an ongoing problem. If you’ve gotten into the habit of opening the refrigerator when you’re sad, depressed, or stressed out, you may be stuck in an extremely dangerous and unhealthy pattern that may devastate your health if not controlled.
External eating is another common cause of binge eating or overeating. External eating refers to eating in response to external cues, such as the sight or smell of food. Being in a social situation where other people are eating can trigger external eating as well. For people who are prone to external eating, simply walking past a bakery or seeing food out on the table can trigger the urge to eat, even if they aren’t hungry.
How can mindful eating be beneficial?
Adopting a mindful eating practice can help you gain control over unhealthy eating behaviors such as emotional eating and external eating. Mindful eating allows you to create an awareness of your eating habits, while taking in all the sensations that you experience while eating.
Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness can promote numerous health benefits and help reduce stress. Mindful eating can help control eating behaviors related to weight gain, including cravings, binge eating, and emotional eating. When negative eating behaviors are changed, the chances of sustainable weight loss are increased.
Mindfulness also helps reduce cortisol, which is the hormone created in response to stress, and which contributes to weight gain in the abdominal region. It can also have a positive effect on behaviors associated with eating disorders and behaviors such as binge eating.
Mindful eating changes the act of eating from an automatic, learned response into an intentional act. It allows you to become aware of cues and triggers that drive you to eat, even when you aren’t hungry. By understanding your personal triggers, you give yourself the freedom to choose a response, rather than responding automatically in a way that may be unhealthy.
How to start mindful eating
There are many ways we can incorporate mindful eating practices into our daily lives.
- To start, eliminate distractions while you’re eating. Turn off the TV, put down your phone, or get away from the computer. Eat at the table, instead of at your desk or in the car. If you eat while you’re distracted, you are more likely to overeat.
- Eat more slowly. Chew your food thoroughly and don’t rush through your meals. It can take 20 minutes for your brain to receive the signal that you’ve had enough to eat. If you eat too quickly, your brain won’t receive that signal until you’ve already eaten too much.
- Stop eating when you’re 80 percent full. It’s not necessary or healthy to eat until you’re completely stuffed. We’ve all had the experience of eating too much and feeling miserable. Learn what being 80 percent full feels like, and stop eating at this point. By eating less, you’ll allow your body to spend less energy on digestion, and devote more energy to repair and rejuvenation.
- Notice how different foods make you feel. Do you feel satisfied after eating? Does your food provide lasting energy, or only a quick boost that’s soon gone? Does your food make you feel tired or sluggish, or does it destroy your concentration? Make an effort to choose foods that have a positive effect on your body and your mood.
- Avoid temptation. You’re more likely to give into cravings if you have junk food, desserts, and unhealthy snacks around. Remove these foods from your home or work environment, and replace them with healthy snacks such as nuts or fresh fruit.
- Track what you eat. Use a food journal or an online calorie counter to track your food throughout the day. Online food trackers often have extensive databases that store useful information about the caloric and nutritional makeup of food. You may find that you are better able to resist a craving if you know you will have to track it and have a visual indication of how many calories or how much sugar you consumed.
- When you find yourself reaching for food, ask yourself why. Are you genuinely hungry? If yes, eat something healthy that will provide sustainable energy, such as nuts or an apple with almond butter. If you only want something like a candy bar or some potato chips, it isn’t true hunger, but rather a craving or an emotional response. Recognize that you have a choice whether to give in to it. Ask yourself what you are feeling in that moment. Are you driven to eat due to an emotion, such as stress or boredom? How else can you respond to that emotion? Try replacing the eating with a different response, such as going for a walk or meditating.
- Keep track of when these impulses occur. Do you notice a pattern? Can you change your schedule to make temptations easier to avoid? For example, if you find yourself tempted by emotional eating every day in the middle of the afternoon, see if you can schedule a workout during that time, then refuel afterwards with a healthy snack. Eliminating bad habits is often easier when you develop healthy habits to replace them with. If it isn’t possible to get away from work during these times, arrange your schedule so that you are working on more mentally stimulating tasks during this time to help eliminate feelings of boredom.
- Try intermittent fasting. It may be uncomfortable at first, but short periods of fasting can help you learn that you don’t have to reach for food at the first sign of a craving or the first twinge of hunger. After a while, you’ll likely find that intermittent fasting becomes easier, and that not thinking about eating can free your mind to focus on other things.
Mindful eating takes practice, but in time, it will become more natural. As you become more accustomed to mindful eating, try adding mindfulness practices to other areas of your life. When you find yourself reacting to a situation in an automatic or conditioned way, ask yourself why. Don’t try to change the behavior at first, just notice why you feel compelled to react in a certain way. In time, this may naturally lead you to choose more constructive responses.
You can overcome this habit, and the earlier you seek support, the better. It is vital that you believe you can change your habits for the better. Trust your heart and instincts, and know that with a little determination, you’ll be able to overcome your detrimental eating behaviors.
To learn more about mindful eating and access more resources, please visit The Center for Mindful Eating.