March 1, 2024 – You may be familiar with the basic steps: Slow down, notice what you’re eating, and enjoy your food. But mindful eating can be more nuanced, and if done with intention over time, it can change your relationship with food and benefit your health, experts say.

Even if you spend your day rushed – eating breakfast during your morning commute, having lunch at your desk, and heading home to dine in front of the television – you can make it work. 

“Start small. Start with just one bite,” said nutritionist Linn Thorstensson, Dip NT mNTOI, director of the Center for Mindful Eating, a nonprofit organization.

There are many simple ways to get started with mindful eating. Rahaf Al Bochi, RDN, LD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, recommended chewing your foods well and savoring each bite. Also, choose one meal a day to begin where you might have more time to eat mindfully, and then pay attention to how you feel when you’re done.

The practice of mindful eating means listening to your body’s signals about food and honoring them, noted Bochi, owner of Olive Tree Nutrition LLC. “It means eating when hungry and stopping when full. It means to engage in your senses when you eat, such as taste, smell and how it makes you feel.”

Eating more slowly also can make it easier to listen to the body’s satiety cue that you’ve eaten enough. 

Not an Open-and-Shut Case

Like most things, the technique takes time and training. 

“Mindful eating takes practice,” said Anita Reina, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Georgia College of Public Health in Athens, GA. “You don’t just wake up one day and run a marathon. You have to start with walking and build endurance over time.”

It’s not easy for everyone. “Working as a clinician with people recovering from eating disorders and disordered eating, changing our relationship with food can be challenging and often takes time,” Thorstensson agreed. “Bringing curiosity, kindness, and compassion towards ourselves and our eating experiences, through the practice of mindful eating, can help make the journey a little easier.”

Making mindful eating a habit can help people stick with it over time. 

Another helpful strategy is to use mindful eating in an effort to be more mindful overall, said Alice J. Rosen, MSEd, LMHC, a faculty member of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy and a former board member of the Center for Mindful Eating. 

Mindful eating could also help people follow a nutritional program. The technique was tested for the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) program, Reina and colleagues note in a small study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. The researchers found people responded positively to mindful eating as part of a health program called Mind Your Heart. 

“That makes sense, because if you really listen to your body, maybe you don’t really want those nachos. Maybe the nachos are just symbolic of fun and freedom,” said Rosen, who was not involved with the study. Also, if you listen to your body, you may not need as much salt.

A No-Judgment Zone

People can have a complicated relationship with food. A person might feel guilty after snacking or have negative feelings when they “fail” a diet, for example. Whereas many diets focus on restricting or avoiding certain foods, mindful eating is more about developing a positive relationship. 

Mindfulness is about being at peace with food, whereas “diet is about a constant struggle, a conflict with food,” Rosen said. 

The practice is also about quieting the mind so you can pay attention to what you’re eating. It’s about being calm, intentionally being in the present moment, and not judging the experience or focusing on any inner critic dialogue. 

Visualize It

Mindful eating, also known as intuitive eating, is recommended for anyone who is looking to have a healthy relationship with food and wants to find joy in the food they eat, Reina said. 

“Mindfulness is an abstract concept to many people, and though they think it’s a good idea, they have a hard time visualizing it in their busy lives.” That was a theme that emerged from her research.

An easy-to-understand guide or graphic for mindful eating could help. Reina suggested something along the lines of the MyPlate graphic from the U.S. government, which replaced the “food pyramid” to help people more seamlessly add mindful eating to their life. 

Just noticing you’re picking up a utensil, taking a bite, and putting the fork down can be a part of mindful eating. Saying grace is also an opportunity to stop for a few moments before eating and to feel a sense of gratitude. Considering the farmer who grew the food, the trucker who delivered the food, and the supermarket employees who stocked it is another way to increase awareness around food.

The specific food doesn’t matter as much as noticing it. You don’t have to be at a farm-to-table event. With food inequality and food insecurity in the United States, not everyone has the same access to healthy foods. Rosen said that even if all you have is McDonald’s food, you could think, “Thank you so much that I have this.”

Rosen guides a group of people through the practice online through her Conscious Cafe, an offering of the Center for Mindful Eating. The aim is to support people in mindful eating so they are more successful when eating alone, with their families, or in a social situation. 

Not a Weight Loss Plan

There are misconceptions and myths about mindful eating. “The main one is that it is a tool to help you lose weight,” said Thorstensson, a nutritional therapist based in Ireland. It is not about “trying to control your food intake with the intention of trying to control your body size or weight.”

Rosen agreed and said that if someone uses mindful eating as a platform “based upon your hatred of your body or your lack of body acceptance, it can only go wrong.”

Rosen would like to do an experiment similar to the one where a man named Morgan Spurlock ate only McDonald’s food for a month in the movie Super Size Me. If you haven’t seen the 2004 documentary, Spurlock gains weight, feels unhealthier, and his doctors are surprised by how much his health has declined

“But what if you were eating mindful for 30 days?” Rosen asked. “I’ll bet everything I have that all the blood levels and everything would have been different.”