Mindful Eating: What Does It Entail?

By Whitney Graff, Licensed Clinical Psychologist at Wildflower Center for Emotional Health

We have all heard of mindfulness, the newest and latest thing sweeping the national consciousness. Maybe you have even heard that to address emotional eating or overeating, you should really be “eating mindfully.” Let’s talk about what that really means.
    
First, a brief primer on mindfulness. Most simply put, mindfulness is about paying attention. Some common misconceptions of mindfulness include that it is about relaxation (it’s not! You can be mindful of being tense or any other sensation); that it is about clearing your mind (it’s ok or even preferred to notice your thoughts); or that it will cure all that ails (this seems overreaching and unrealistic). Rather, to be mindful, all that is needed is that you are paying attention fully. Taken one step further, that you are paying attention without judging something to be good or bad, right or wrong. You are paying attention with openness and curiosity instead. 

You might sit still and pay attention to your breathing (the simplest of mindfulness exercises), and this might be recommended as an easy, do-it-anywhere way to get into the practice of attending to one thing fully, openly, and nonjudgmentally. Practice with a simple exercise like this might help you notice how often you mentally multitask and might challenge you to set aside all of the extra doing for one uncomplicated task. Other times, you might wash dishes, walk, shower, listen, or perform some other task with mindful awareness, paying attention to one thing at a time with your full, open, curious mind.

Given how frequently we feel stressed, pulled in a thousand directions at once, it is no wonder that an antidote like mindfulness has caught on. The mindfulness trend acknowledges that many of us are feeling scattered, overworked, intruded upon, and tortured by our busy minds. We need a practice that will help us cultivate a different kind of experience. We hope that through more practice with mindfulness, we can feel better equipped to handle what life throws at us and maybe sleep better, eat better, or relate better with each other. 

Thus, it is easy to see why we are so often implored to eat mindfully. How many of us will say, I’m eating so badly right now? How frequently do we eat in front of the TV, at our work desks while we answer emails, or while driving? Many people can acknowledge when they have gotten into a mindless (the opposite of mindful) eating pattern. Whether that is through making food choices out of convenience, overeating when emotional, or eating past feeling full due to distraction, mindless eating is common. 

Mindful eating asks us to do the opposite of these behaviors. Eating mindfully might mean eating without distractions, actually sitting at a table in front of your plate. It might also mean savoring your food. It could even go further: you might want to stop and consider where your food came from, how it was grown, transformed, or transported to you. Mindful eating simply means bringing the basic tenets of mindfulness to the activity of eating. So, paying attention to the act of eating with qualities of openness, curiosity, and nonjudgment.

One of the classic mindful eating exercises is called “The Raisin Exercise.” A quick internet search should turn up various scripts, but suffice it to say that in this exercise, the participant is led through a series of extremely slow steps, maybe taking as long as 5 to10 minutes to notice every moment of eating a single raisin. Beginning with feeling the raisin between the fingers, experiencing it with all of the senses, to slowly taking the raisin in the mouth, chewing very slowly, and finally swallowing the raisin, the participant brings full attention to every step. You might consider trying this, as it serves as a great way to experience a full exercise in mindful eating. 

From there, most people would agree it is not realistic to eat an entire meal taking 5 minutes for every morsel. Your food would get cold, and you would have little time for anything else. Instead, you might find small, manageable ways to bring more attention to what you are eating. Rather than set lofty, unachievable goals, choose one or more of these tips to practice. You might start by trying each one once, perhaps at separate meals, before attempting to work them into your routines more and more. Remember, no matter which one you are practicing, to bring an attitude of openness and nonjudgmental awareness. 

  • Pick one meal and eat from start to finish without any distractions, focusing on eating. 
  • Prior to eating, choose one food on your plate and take 2 minutes to imagine how this particular food found its way to you. Where did it originate? What processes might be required to make it palatable? What other ingredients, spices, or flavors are incorporated?
  • Stop to notice the smell of your food. Close your eyes and inhale deeply, noticing what happens within you when you smell this particular food.
  • Prior to eating, notice your feelings of hunger or thirst. Spend 2 minutes paying attention to your hunger and note your level of hunger, from barely peckish to absolutely starving or somewhere in between.
  • Notice your thoughts about a particular food choice. Notice the sort of thoughts that feel automatic or familiar. Do not try to change the thoughts or argue with yourself. Simply be curious about what pops up in your mind at that moment. 
  • Pay attention to differences in texture that you encounter while eating. Notice eating bites that are crunchy, soft, smooth, crumbly, or chewy. 
  • Choose a food you particularly like, even a treat (it is possible to eat chocolate cake mindfully!). Take a moment to decide on a portion size for yourself. Notice your urge to start eating before you actually start. Then, savor each bite, eating slowly and deliberately. Notice the appearance, smell, texture, and taste of this food. Notice yourself chewing and swallowing. Notice how you feel as you eat this food. 
  • Stop eating 3/4 of the way through your meal. Notice how your stomach feels. Take a moment to notice how you have experienced the food thus far. Notice any urges to continue eating and acknowledge these before you continue with the meal. 
  • Savor the last bite of a meal. Chew slowly and note the characteristics of the bite. Feel yourself swallow and connect for a moment with the ending of the meal. 
  • Pause after completing a meal. Pay attention to the full feeling in your stomach and acknowledge it without judgment.
  • Are there other ways you can bring attention to some part of the eating process? You can pause to notice any aspect of the activity, starting before you even choose a food all the way through and after the meal or snack. Consider what would make sense for you. 

Bringing mindfulness practice to eating can help us slow down and make more conscious, deliberate choices about what and how we eat. If we can create opportunities to take stock of our internal experiences (our thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, urges, etc.), we can choose how to proceed. With regular practice, we can reduce mindless eating behaviors that bring us mental and physical pain and instead reconnect with how our food nourishes, fuels, satisfies, and even delights us.