Dr. Pamela's Blog
Mindful Eating: The Nourishing Practice of Being Fully Present While You Eat
As January comes to a gentle close, many of us are finding that the glitz of our New Year’s resolutions is starting to fade. A recent poll showed that only 7% of U.S. adults were able to stick to their last year’s resolutions.1 Despite our best intentions, our resolutions often become another stressor that we add into our lives. Perhaps there is another way to approach our desire for positive change.
I recently read a narrative written by one of my dear friends and colleagues Dr. Hannah Conry in which she described a beautiful 2000-year-old tradition from India called Sankalpa. Sankalpa means an intention formed by the heart and mind where we resolve to focus on a specific goal. Sankalpa is a wonderful way of standing in a place of wholeness and envisioning deep personal growth.2 As we look at our relationship to food and eating (the focus of many New Year’s resolutions!), I propose reframing the stressful “should” of losing weight or eating “right” into a deeply nourishing practice of eating mindfully. This allows our focus to be less on what we eat to more on how we eat. I firmly believe that a bowl of ice cream eaten in awareness and joy is healthier than a bowl of broccoli eaten in haste, stress, and self-judgement.
What is Mindful Eating?
Mindful eating comes out of the practice of mindfulness. “Mindfulness” has been described by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leader in mindfulness-based-stress reduction, as nonjudgmentally and purposefully paying attention in a particular way in the present moment. Mindful eating then is paying attention to our food, on purpose, moment by moment, without judgment.3 It is an approach to eating that focuses on our sensual awareness and direct experience of the food we eat. The intention with mindful eating is to help us savor the moment and the food we eat, as well as to encourage our full presence while we eat.
During my undergraduate years in Boulder, I had the opportunity to do a five-day meditation retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist. While there were many transformative moments throughout the five days, one of my favorite times was the meditation before meals. We would sit with simple bowls of rice and vegetables as he led us through a gentle litany of gratitude. Thank you to the farmers who planted and tended this food, he would say in his measured and gentle voice… thank you for the earth that nourished this food… thank you for the sun shining in the sky that gave this food vitality… thank you for the hands that created this bowl… thank you to people who transported this food to me, and so on.
This gratitude practice allowed me to recognize a beautiful web of connection of which I was an integral part. By mindfully eating the hard work of so many hands, I honor their efforts. Thich Nhat Hanh then guided us to close our eyes and deeply inhale the rich aroma of the food. We would place each bite in our mouths, chew, savor, and relish—swallow, breathe, and repeat. I could feel my mouth rejoice and my body easily receive the nutrients from the food.
Mindful Eating in Everyday Life
While this is a beautiful ritual, I can’t always, or even usually, take an hour to eat a small bowl of rice in my everyday life. How then can we capture the essence of a mindful eating practice and integrate it into the reality of our demanding and busy lives? The first step is to turn off distractions — close the computer, put your phone in an inaccessible place, turn off the T.V., even close books, newspapers, and magazines. Your mind can only do one thing at a time. It can either write an email or it can focus on the joy of eating. Next, put your feet on the ground (I like popping off my shoes) and take three deep, even breaths. Just that one simple action will shift your inner landscape.
Let’s Look at What Science Says
Of course, this sounds lovely, but what does science have to say about it? First off, seeing, smelling, and even thinking about food starts the first, or cephalic, stage of digestion. Afferent signals from the olfactory system stimulate oral and gastrointestinal secretions to increase nutrient uptake and improve digestion.4 Plus, taking a moment to appreciate the aroma from food is one of life’s treasures. I love the bright tang of grapefruit and how smelling soup simmering makes me feel nurtured.
The next thing to consider is what happens to our physiology under stress. We have two general states, the first is rest and digest (parasympathetic) and the second is fight, flight, or freeze (sympathetic). The sympathetic response is how our bodies adapted to the stress of running from a saber tooth tiger. In that hunter-gatherer scenario, our ancestors needed to increase cardiac output, shunt blood-flow from the digestive track to muscles, and stop unnecessary functions. They could digest after they got away!5 The trick is, our bodies haven’t caught up to the digital age, because they interpret the stress of running around and being busy to that of running from the tiger.
For the most part, whether our bodies are in sympathetic mode or parasympathetic mode is automatic—hence the name autonomic nervous system. The one place where we have control is our breathing pattern. Deep even breaths activate the parasympathetic6 state, allowing us to rest and digest, whereas quick shallow breaths push us towards a sympathetic, run from the tiger state. Even a few deep breaths will allow your body to be prepared for your meal.
Now let’s look at what research is saying about mindful eating in conjunction with weight loss. A recent study shows that mindful eating and calorie restriction are equally effective at lowering body weight.7 Another study shows that mindfulness practices reduce impulsive eating and encourage healthier food choices.8 A third study illustrates that mindfulness decreases cortisol levels and subsequent abdominal obesity.9
Mindful Eating Simplified
Here are some tips to help you remember how to practice mindful eating:
- Turn off or put away distractions (phone, TV, reading material)
- Put your feet on the ground
- Take three deep, even breaths
- Give thanks
- Inhale the aroma of the food
- Chew, savor, and relish
May You Be Nourished
Yet again, science corroborates what our ancestors always knew. Sitting down to a meal and taking a moment of gratitude for the food that we are about to eat feeds us on many levels—body, heart and soul. Staying present with what is in our mouths connects us to the delight that is food. And paying attention while we are eating allows us to feel the fullness of our stomachs, which helps us to easily eat the right amount of food. May you enjoy and be deeply nourished by your next meal with these practices of mindful eating!
- Kabat-Zinn J. Full Catastrophe Living. New York, N.Y, Dell Publishing, 1991
- Kitamura A, Torii K, Uneyama H, Niijima A. Role played by afferent signals from olfactory, gustatory and gastrointestinal sensors in regulation of autonomic nerve activity. Biol Pharm Bull. 2010;33(11):1778–1782. doi:10.1248/bpb.33.1778
- Konturek PC, Brzozowski T, Konturek SJ. Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol. 2011;62(6):591–599.
- Jha RK, Acharya A, Nepal O. Autonomic Influence on Heart Rate for Deep Breathing and Valsalva Maneuver in Healthy Subjects. JNMA J Nepal Med Assoc. 2018;56(211):670–673.
- Fuentes Artiles R, Staub K, Aldakak L, Eppenberger P, Rühli F, Bender N. Mindful eating and common diet programs lower body weight similarly: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Obes Rev. 2019;20(11):1619–1627. doi:10.1111/obr.12918
- Hendrickson KL, Rasmussen EB. Mindful eating reduces impulsive food choice in adolescents and adults. Health Psychol. 2017;36(3):226–235. doi:10.1037/hea0000440
- Mindfulness Intervention for Stress Eating to Reduce Cortisol and Abdominal Fat among Overweight and Obese Women: An Exploratory Randomized Controlled Study. J Obes. 2011;2011:651936. doi: 10.1155/2011/651936. Epub 2011 Oct 2.