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3 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Mindful Eating {Plus, 5 Tips to Get You Started!}

This Thursday, January 28, is the first ever Mindful Eating Day, hosted by The Center for Mindful Eating (TCME). Their website promises to be abuzz with activity, with videos and other educational material on the topic of mindful eating. The headlining event is a live webinar at 3 PM EST (1 PM Calgary time!) Sign up now for a chance to join their exclusive Facebook group, where they’re counting down to the big day with daily Mindful Eating, Mindfulness Exercises.

What’s the Deal with Mindful Eating, Anyway?

I recently asked in a class that I was facilitating what the participants thought “mindful eating” meant – some of the answers included, “Planning what you’re eating ahead of time,” “Making sure you’re eating the right things.” and “Food journalling.” I could definitely see where these people were coming from, as they probably interpreted “mindful” as a synonym of “careful”.

Mind the Gap

Still, I would argue that these answers focus on what to eat, whereas mindful eating is all about how to eat. According to TCME, mindfulness is “deliberately paying attention, non-judgmentally, in the present moment.” So to me, mindful eating is about being present in the eating experience and using all your senses to pay attention to the entire eating experience, from choosing the raw ingredients, to preparing the meal, to sitting at the table and eating it, without judgement. There are no “good” or “bad” foods, no “right” or “wrong” way of eating. It’s about being fully immersed in the experience and using your inner wisdom to help guide you to eating in a way that’s satisfies and nourishes.

Sounds Hippy-Dippy to Me… Where’s the Science?

OK, I know with words like “mindfulness” and “inner wisdom”, you might think I’m reaching for the incense or a pair of Lulus, but this is all a part of my nutrition philosophy. I just try to say it in flashier ways, like “Eat whatever you want”, or “No food should make you feel guilty unless you stole it.” And, just like how I have credentials, there’s some science behind mindful eating too.

3 Scientifically-Proven Benefits of Mindful Eating

1. Mindful eating may help with weight loss.

A recent systematic review found that out of 19 studies that met its selection criteria, 13 of them documented significant weight loss. However, none of the studies showed a relationship between increased mindfulness and increased weight loss; just that people who participate in mindfulness/mindful eating programs might lose weight. This might be due to the fact that it’s difficult to document increased mindfulness.

2. Mindful eating may help manage binge eating.

A systematic review of studies on mindful eating as a treatment for binge eating found that there was a benefit. But because the different studies that looked at binge eating were quite different in terms of methodology and population, the authors of the review concluded that more research is needed.

3. Mindful eating can help people with type 2 diabetes manage their blood sugars and other symptoms.

A recent study found that people with type 2 diabetes who participated in a mindfulness training group did experience an increase in mindful eating, and this increase was associated with decreased intake of sweets and more stable blood sugar levels over the year-long trial. Another study comparing a mindful eating program vs a regular diabetes education program found that both were just as effective in helping people with type 2 diabetes feel more confident and in control of their eating habits, and decrease symptoms of depression.

Weight loss and I can eat whatever I want? Sign me up!

Mastering mindful eating takes time and practice, but it’s never too late to start! While research is looking at how it can help manage certain chronic conditions, more importantly, mindful eating can help you enjoy your food more, and get more joy from the experience of eating.

5 Tips to Get You Started with Mindful Eating

1. Press Pause.

This is a key element to mindful eating as it’s all about doing it right from the start. Remembering to pause helps you to focus and be present. It says, “OK, I’m going to take a break from whatever I was doing before, because now it is time to eat.” So often our eating feels automatic, like, of course we have to have popcorn when we’re watching TV, or of course I have to clean everything on my plate. Allowing yourself to pause before, and even during your meal gives you the opportunity to question those “automatic” responses.

For some, pressing pause may be a whole ritual of setting the table and saying grace. Others find it may be as simple as putting the phone away or stepping out of the office, then pausing for a few deep breaths before taking the first bite.

2. Silence the Judging Voice.

Have you ever done Myers-Briggs personality typing? It’s interesting to note that “Judging” and “Perceiving” are on opposite ends of the spectrum, and I would bet you anything that people who score high in the “Judging” element probably struggle more with mindful eating, because mindful eating is all about “Perceiving” and experiencing without judgement.

This is probably the most difficult part of mindful eating, especially because there is so much judging around food that’s been ingrained since birth. “I’m being so good eating a salad for lunch”, or “I was bad today because I had a piece of chocolate.” Challenge yourself to silence that voice for a moment because there is no right or wrong when it comes to food (unless it’s actually going to make you sick). Instead…

3. Focus on How You Feel.

Mindful eating is all about experiencing the moment using all your senses. Before you even take a bite, use your eyes to observe your food – what does looking at your food tell you about what you’re going to eat? Can you use your nose to smell the aroma of the food? Is it a mild or strong scent? Savoury? Sweet? Spicy?

If it’s a food you can eat with your hands, take a moment to pay attention to what it feels like as you hold it. What more are you learning about your food in terms of its texture or temperature?

Next, go ahead and take your first bite. What’s the texture and the temperature of the food like in your mouth? What does the food taste like? How does the smell of the food combine with the taste to translate into flavour? Challenge yourself to come up with a descriptive word to describe what you’re eating.

Most importantly, how does it make feel to eat the food? Is it nourishing? Satisfying? Do you expect the next bite to be just as nourishing or satisfying? Or was the first bite disappointing to begin with? Take time between each bite to decide if you want another, until you feel satisfied.

4. Ease in with External Cues.

Ideally, mindful eating is all about listening to your internal cues. But so many of us are used to external cues, like a specific meal time or an empty plate, that it’s OK to use them to help you eat more mindfully in the beginning.

For example, you may find that setting a timer might help you slow down to savour your food, as does putting your fork down between every bite, using your non-dominant hand to eat, or making sure you chew each bite a certain number of times before swallowing.

Additionally, keeping a food journal that you have to write in before every meal, or having a note on the fridge that says “Am I really hungry?” may help you create a pause before you dive into that “automatic” behaviour.

Over time, you may find that you no longer need these reminders to help you eat mindfully, but it does take…

5. Practice, Practice, Practice.

Don’t be frustrated if you “catch” yourself eating too fast, or took a bite of something “just because it’s there”. Mindful eating is, in a way, unnatural. Think about it – when our prehistoric ancestors hunted down some big animal, they probably didn’t eat it mindfully, they probably just gorged because they didn’t know when they were going to get their next meal!

I’m sorry, it’s 2016! We’re surrounded by food and marketing messages that tell us to eat more and more. It will take time to practice eating mindfully and being present in such a noisy environment, and that’s normal! Be patient and compassionate with yourself as you learn to master this new skill.

Are you a mindful eater or a mindless eater? What are some tricks you do to help you eat mindfully? Please share your insights in the comments!

5 Comments

  • Miriam on Jan 28, 2016 Reply

    Thanks for the great practical tips here….mindful eating for me is part of a wider effort to stop multi tasking and focus on doing one thing at a time and giving that one thing my full attention…and it’s quite a struggle after years of eating on the run and trying to do multiple things at once but I’m developing awareness around when my attention is split into a myriad parts and I’m not being productive at all. Mindful eating really does help you feel more satisfied with less food so natural weight loss without feeling hard done by.

    • Vincci Tsui on Jan 28, 2016 Reply

      Thank you for sharing your experience with mindful eating thus far, Miriam! Wishing you the best of luck on your journey!

  • Amandine PERROT Diététicienne on Jan 28, 2016 Reply

    Article très intéressant en ce jour de célébration de l’alimentation en pleine conscience! En France notamment, la préoccupation sur “qu’est-ce que je “dois” manger” est très présente. S’intéresser à “comment je mange” est une proposition intrigante qui permet entre autre de sortir de l’excès de mentalisation dans la relation qu’un individu a avec sa nourriture. L’alimentation en pleine conscience a de beaux jours devant elle! Merci!

    • Vincci Tsui on Jan 28, 2016 Reply

      Merci pour votre commentaire, Amandine (quel beau nom!). Je suis d’accord qu’il y a une préoccupation sur “qu’est-ce que je *dois* manger” ou “combien je *dois* manger”. En anglais il y a une phrase: “Stop ‘shoulding’ all over yourself!” Arrêtez les “devoirs”!

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