Our environment is constantly prompting us to eat. Stress, social occasions, candy lining the checkout aisle—many factors beyond hunger influence our food intake daily. While food can enrich our experiences and bring us together, eating too often in response to external cues can lead to weight gain and impact metabolic health. Fortunately, there are techniques that we can use to get back in touch with our natural hunger signals.
Mindful eating is the practice of paying full attention to every aspect of the eating experience— food choice, meal environment, and even the physical sensations before, during, and after a meal. It draws on principles from mindfulness practice, which seeks to engage all of the senses to deepen the experience of the present moment. With time, mindful eating can help us observe our physical and emotional responses to food without judgment and enhance our understanding of how food affects our health.
The Impact of Stress and Distraction on Metabolic Health
Can you remember the last time you ate without multitasking? If you can’t, you’re not alone. In a culture that values productivity, making a meal the main event can feel like a luxury. We go from car breakfasts to lunch meetings, barely tasting our food along the way.
However, distracted eating can have consequences; it’s hard to feel truly satisfied when food is an afterthought. Research has shown that distracted eating may impair your ability to accurately estimate how much you’ve eaten, leading you to eat more during that meal and later in the day.
Eating while in a stressful state—like when you’re busy at work or rushing through a late dinner—can also cause you to eat more overall by impacting your hunger and fullness cues. Studies have shown that acutely stressful stimuli can decrease levels of the satiety hormone leptin and increase levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin, making you hungrier between meals and less satisfied afterward. Stress can also alter the reward system and trigger cravings for what researchers call “hyper-palatable” – foods, often highly processed, that contain large amounts of sugar, fat, and salt in combinations that make the food more enticing than any of these ingredients would do alone. Eating hyper-palatable foods can cause neural changes similar to those that occur with drug addiction, further driving cravings in a vicious cycle. The inability to adapt to chronic stress has been associated with long-term weight gain.
Not only can stress lead to overeating and weight gain, it negatively affects your metabolic health. A stressful event like getting an angry email from your boss can impact the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and trigger the release of stress hormones such as cortisol. A frequently evoked HPA axis and chronically elevated stress hormones are linked to elevated blood glucose, impaired insulin sensitivity, and dyslipidemia. They are also associated with increased abdominal obesity and higher levels of pro-inflammatory compounds, which can contribute to metabolic syndrome.
How Mindfulness Can Help
Most of the research thus far examining the health benefits of mindfulness has focused on more well-known forms like meditation. However, more studies specific to mindful eating are beginning to emerge. They show promise for mindful eating’s effectiveness in improving metabolic health, craving-based eating behavior, weight maintenance, stress reactivity, and psychological health.
Mindful eating interventions typically train participants better to understand their physical and emotional responses to food and savor small portions of their favorite foods without self-judgment. One such program provided to adults with obesity in a randomized controlled trial suggested potentially favorable changes in some metabolic markers. Compared to those who received no training, those who received the training had a more than 4 mg/dL decrease on average in their fasting blood glucose levels one year after the intervention had ended. (People in the mindful group also consumed less sweet food in the six months after the study concluded.) Positive weight loss and cholesterol changes were also seen but appeared to be less durable over time. Another study that examined the effects of a 28-day self-paced mindful eating intervention delivered via smartphone found significant reductions in craving-related and overeating behaviors, which also coincided with weight loss.
Mindful eating practice may also help decrease stress and prevent gastrointestinal disturbances that increase intestinal permeability, impair nutrient absorption, and exacerbate conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and functional dyspepsia. Since stress can disturb the balance of gut microbiota, mindful eating may also help fortify the microbiome, which is vital for proper metabolic and immune function. These are areas that will benefit from more research.
Finally, mindful eating may help with mood disorders and mental health. It has been associated with a significant and sustained decrease in depressive symptoms, potentially by improving the ability to focus on and find interest in a task. It also garners interest as part of an effective treatment strategy for eating disorders such as binge eating disorder.
Practical Tips for Mindful Eating
If you’re new to mindful eating, start simple. Take the first few sips of your morning coffee mindfully. Pay attention to the smell of the beans as you grind them, the twisting steam rising from the top of the liquid, the swirl of milk (or alternative) as you add it, the heat of the cup in your hands, and the bitterness of the first sip.
You can also try the following exercise, adapted from this traditional raisin meditation, with a cucumber slice (or any other food you choose):
- Take a cucumber slice and put it on a small plate in front of you. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. How would you describe your mood? Where would you rate your hunger level on a scale of 1-10?
- Hold the slice up between two fingers in good lighting. Look at it as if you’ve never seen a cucumber before. Where does the light hit it? Is it translucent? Opaque?
- Explore the texture of the cucumber. How do the seeds contrast with the flesh? Are the edges smooth or round?
- Smell the cucumber and notice any changes in your body as you do so. Does your mouth start to produce saliva? Does your stomach grumble?
- Taste the cucumber, first with your tongue and then progressing to a small bite. Notice how the flavor changes in your mouth as you chew.
- Swallow the cucumber and see if you can follow the sensation as it passes from your tongue to your throat to your stomach. How does your mouth feel when it’s empty?
- After you’ve eaten the entire slice, sit for a moment and notice how you feel. Are there any remnants of the taste in your mouth? Can you notice any sensations in your stomach? Have any new emotions arisen since the practice started?
- Mindfully put the plate away and move on to your next activity.
You can extend mindfulness to every aspect of the food experience. Mindful grocery shopping and gardening can deepen your appreciation of how your food is grown and procured. Being intentional about your eating environment, including the lighting and dishes, can also help. Research has shown that increasing plate and portion size can boost consumption by as much as 45%.
Another fundamental tenet of mindful eating is non-judgment. We are often our own harshest critics when it comes to our bodies and our food choices. We beat ourselves up for our cravings and “mistakes.” However, this is counterproductive and often harmful to our health, as it can cause increased stress and emotional eating. Practicing self-compassion, which involves approaching personal choices with kindness and understanding, has been linked to healthier eating. Curiosity can also help us understand the root causes of cravings without overly identifying with them.
The RAIN exercise is a helpful tool for combining self-compassion and curiosity to mitigate cravings. It stands for recognize, allow, investigate, and nurture. Next time you notice a craving arise, take a pause. Make a conscious effort to relax your body (breathing techniques can be helpful with this). Accept that the craving has arisen and allow it to be there rather than pushing it away. Investigate the sensations that it brings up, both physical and emotional. Do you notice restlessness or tightness in your stomach? What were you feeling before the craving arose; were you bored, tired, or sad? Finally, offer yourself some kind words or thoughts. You might say to yourself: “I had a hard day at work and was feeling stressed. I noticed that when I have a day like this, I tend to reach for the ice cream in the freezer.”
These steps can help you to recognize the sensations that the craving produces for what they are—sensations—so that you can observe them without judgment. This will better equip you to respond to stress in ways that meet your needs. For example, you might recognize that after a long workday, a warm bath with your favorite music playing can be more satisfying than dessert.
We each have a different genetic makeup and personal history determining how food affects us. It’s essential to pay attention to the foods that truly nourish you, both for your physical and mental health. However, maintaining a healthy relationship with food can be challenging in a world full of mixed nutrition messaging, relentless food marketing, and constant demands on our time. Slowing down and using all of your senses to experience food can help you recognize which foods and food practices make you feel best. With time, mindful eating practices can deepen your connection with your body and give you the power to make sustained healthy behavior change.