Mindful eating is the practice of paying attention to the physical, emotional, and cognitive states of being before, during, and after you eat. It is a holistic experience that includes your relationship to the tastes and smells of food, the physical aspects of hunger and fullness, the effect of food on your body, your thoughts, and emotions, as well as your conditioned behaviors.
Before we go too far into mindful eating, however, let’s talk about the practice of mindless eating—a state familiar to anybody who eats. Examples of mindless eating would be eating while watching TV, eating while working on the computer, eating while reading, eating while talking on the phone, and eating while driving the car. Although we all eat like this from time to time, the results are that we lose some of the experiences of taste, smell, hunger, and fullness. We often eat without even noticing, and it is a lost opportunity for pleasure and satisfaction.
Emotional eating is often mindless as well. People can eat to numb or avoid the difficulty of emotions like sadness, loneliness, anger, boredom, and restlessness. Eating becomes a quick and easy choice for comfort that is often short-lived and with consequences that are less than pleasant. Generally, emotional eating is not done mindfully but as an attempt to avoid being present.
The concept of emotional eating can get conflated with mindless eating, but at the same time, all human beings find food comforting and soothing. Comforting with food is seen as a negative thing when seen through the lens or context of diet culture. When comfort eating is done with intention, it could be a mindful experience. However, when it is done with guilt, anxiety, and rebellion also present at the same time, it could turn into a compulsive eating experience, as it is hard to stay present and connected when one is in a state of stress or fight/flight/freeze. This type of compulsive eating might end up being a mindless eating experience. Ideally, food should be one of the many ways we cope with stress, not the only one. But today when many people are often too busy working to make time for de-stressing and unwinding—as well as having social contact and other forms of comforting cut-off due to the global pandemic—food can become the only source of comfort.
Mindless habits are developed over a lifetime and mindless eating often leads to physical or emotional distress or both. When stressed, we repeat our patterns over and over again. Mindless begets mindless.
Mindfulness as the Antidote
Now, what about mindfulness? In the past 20 years, mindfulness has moved from a largely unknown concept and practice to a highly regarded approach for the many things that create suffering in our lives. “Paying attention in a particular way—on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 4) is a popular definition of mindfulness. Much to the credit of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s development of the mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR), mindfulness and its benefits can be read about in every leading newspaper and magazine. Clinical and scientific applications of mindfulness have been extensively researched and written about in the psychological and medical literature.
Mindfulness, a highly systematic, empirical first-person inquiry at the heart of Buddhist psychology, has been incorporated into many Western modalities for everything from cancer treatment to mindful eating. The benefits of mindfulness range from better psychological outcomes to multiple improvements in physical health status. And mindfulness is being taught in every imaginable setting—from large corporations like Google and Apple to kindergarten.
The Practice of Mindfulness
The practice of mindfulness includes both formal practices, like sitting meditation with awareness on the breath, body scan meditation, lovingkindness meditation, and mindful yoga, to informal practices like walking from place to place, showering, making the bed, driving your car, washing the dishes, and folding the laundry. Mindfulness is a practice that we can train in from the minute we wake up in the morning to the minute we fall asleep at night. In essence, it becomes a way of being.
Mindful Eating—Practice or Technique?
Mindfulness, the practice of being present without judgment, and with curiosity and openness, is a necessary component of mindful eating. To that end, to try and practice mindful eating lacking experience and an understanding of mindfulness may reduce the quality of the experience and undermine the richness and subtleties of mindful eating.
Practicing mindfulness when eating may be something that you are doing now (to one degree or another) but the intentionality to practice mindfulness and mindful eating enhances the skill to pay attention in this way. An intention to eat mindfully will help you to fully reap the benefits.
To call mindful eating a “technique” is missing the way mindfulness can be brought to everything that you experience and everything that you do. For instance, a mindful eater will be aware of their body sensations of hunger, fullness, and taste. They will also be aware of the mood they are in when they sit down to eat, the motivation they had to reach for food, the thoughts that are going through their head that affect the experience of their body and eating, as well as the environment around them. The skill of purposely bringing one’s attention to the present moment and all that it holds without judgment is developed through training.
Mindful Eating is Universal
Often, I will hear professionals ask how to use mindful eating in their work with their clients who have certain types of issues (e.g., chronic disease, diabetes, food sensitivities, etc.). While it is important to be educated about the variety of problems that people face regarding eating and food, mindfulness and mindful eating instructions vary only slightly.
No matter what physical constraint a person may be experiencing, mindfulness teaches us to pay attention in the same way. Seen through the lens of mindfulness, we look at how we are relating to food and our bodies with curiosity and kindness. It’s our relationship to the present (and the food that sits in front of us) that matters.
For instance, when people with food sensitivities or diabetes ask how they can incorporate mindful eating when there is the instruction of “unconditional permission to eat whatever you want,” I use inquiry to explore how they are relating to their restricted foods. This inquiry often reveals they feel uncomfortable after eating food that is hard for their body to ingest or that causes them harm. Further inquiry takes them to the heart of the matter: instead of reacting to being told they can’t eat certain things, they focus instead on how to bring more kindness to themselves, which opens them up to a variety of options that are available. Revealed are choices that can lead to greater or lesser suffering along with the realization of the impact of their behavior.
Start with Mindfulness
The research that I conducted on Eat for Life, a ten-week mindful eating program, highlights the importance of the skill and practice of mindfulness. (Bush, Rossy, Mintz, & Schopp, 2014). In this control group trial, as mindfulness increased, so did intuitive eating and body appreciation, while disordered eating behavior decreased. In my estimation, developing a formal, personal mindfulness practice is the best thing someone who wants to eat mindfully can do. It is also essential for professionals who want to offer mindful eating to their clients.
A general increase in mindfulness weaves its way into every aspect of a person’s life. People in my classes often comment that they are more mindful in their relationship to their body, in their work, in their parenting, and in their communication, as well as when they are eating. They comment that this mindful eating class is about much more than a technique to change their eating habits. I simply nod and agree.
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About the Author
Lynn Rossy, Ph.D., is an author and health psychologist who specializes in offering mindfulness-based interventions for mindful eating and living. After spending much of her career at the University of Missouri, she became the Executive Director of Tasting Mindfulness, LLC. In 2007, she developed an empirically-validated mindful eating program called Eat for Life which helps people have a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. She teaches her class live online over Zoom to professionals and the general public.
Dr. Rossy published the concepts from her program in a book entitled, The Mindfulness-Based Eating Solution: Proven Strategies to End Overeating, Satisfy Your Hunger, and Savor Your Life (New Harbinger, July 2016). Her book was named one of the top ten books of 2016 by Mindful.Org. Her newest book is Savor Every Bite: Mindful Ways to Eat, Love Your Body, and Live with Joy (New Harbinger, May 2021).
Her greatest passion is helping people find delicious ways to eat and move their bodies while discovering greater meaning and purpose in life. She loves to play the piano, do yoga, hike in nature, eat fabulous food, and celebrate life with friends. She can be found anywhere by listening to her infectious laugh.
Sign up for her monthly blog and listen to her mindfulness recordings at LynnRossy.com, be inspired by her posts on Facebook, or sign up for her daily tweets on mindful eating and living on Twitter @DrLynnRossy. You may email her at MindfulRossy@gmail.com.
Kabat Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever You Go, There You Are - Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life: Hachette Books
Bush HE, Rossy L, Mintz LB, Schopp L. (2014). Eat for life: A worksite feasibility study of a novel mindfulness-based intuitive eating intervention. American Journal of Health Promotion; 28(6):380-8.