When it comes to losing weight, you know that eating cleaner and moving more are non-negotiable. But eating mindfully? Yes, it can help make losing weight easier instead of stressful, and it can help you stay fit once you’ve slimmed down.
Sure, it might sound a little woo-woo, but mindful eating means:
- eating or drinking while being aware of each bite or sip, says Dr. Lilian Cheung, co-author of Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life
- noticing when you’re starting to get full instead of eating everything that’s on your plate out of habit
- not obsessing about what you “should” or “shouldn’t” be eating at every meal, says weight-loss expert Caroline Cederquist, M.D., who practices in Naples, Florida.
With mindful eating, you purposefully pause to pay attention to the food and your hunger level. It’s a small action, but when it comes to seeing your body weight number on the scale, it can make a big difference to many people. A recent review of nearly 20 studies suggests there may be a connection between using mindfulness during mealtime and weight loss. The benefits of mindful eating can include greater enjoyment of the way food tastes, and decreased intake of junk food.
Still not sure how it works? Here’s how mindful eating can help you make better food choices — and have a positive impact on your weight.
5 Ways Mindfulness Can Help You Lose Weight
1. It can help you avoid eating on autopilot
“Mindfulness is what’s often lost when you’re multitasking while eating,” says Cederquist. So instead of staring at your phone or the TV, or noshing while you drive, you only eat. It might feel odd at first, but it’ll help you pay attention to what your food tastes and smells like, and how you feel eating it. Food becomes more satisfying and this method can help you have the awareness to stop eating when you’ve had enough.
How to slow down and savor your food: Cheung suggests that people start the transition to mindful eating by honoring their food and engaging all the senses in the act of choosing, preparing, and consuming the food. Make a conscious effort to engage your senses: sight, smell, touch, and taste when you’re selecting your food at the store, cooking your meals, and eating them. When you sit down to eat, notice how the food looks and smells. Take a bite and try to appreciate not only the taste, but also the texture of the food in your mouth.
Then put down your fork (or spoon) between bites so that you can truly focus on the flavors you’re enjoying. Research shows that this simple act can help you consume less food in general: A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association reported that slower eaters ate 10 percent fewer calories and felt more full. They also drank more water during meals. Another study published in The British Medical Journal, reported that eating quickly and eating until full was consistent with being overweight, and the combination of both of these habits tripled the risk of being overweight.
To further understand the potential effect that slowly savoring — read: tasting and thoroughly chewing — your food can have on your waistline, consider the main findings of a study published in the journal Obesity. The study revealed that chewing food for a larger number of times and longer duration increased dietary induced thermogenesis (DIT), or how much energy you expend processing food for use and storage.
When researchers evaluated the amount of energy expended in study participants who chewed their food slowly (participants were asked to chew the test food for as long and for as many times as they could until no lumps remained) over the course of one month, they found the summed energy expenditure due to DIT reached about 1,000 calories.
2. It can get rid of your “good” and “bad” food mindset
An important part of mindful eating is not being judgmental about food. Sometimes you might want a grilled chicken salad or a sweet potato. But once in a while, you might really want a burger and fries. When a craving strikes, you try to acknowledge it and weigh the pros and cons of indulging in it.
It can be easier said than done, though, to contemplate the craving instead of immediately either giving into it or denying it. Cheung recommends pausing and concentrating on breathing in and out. The simple act of acknowledging that you want cookies or potato chips, then asking yourself if you really need that food can help you think about what you’re about to do. Cheung suggests inhaling deeply and saying to yourself, “I know I’m craving a cookie,” and exhaling slowly and saying, “And I am in control of my craving.” This is mindfulness practice, and it can make you much more aware of your actions so you hopefully stop indulging in the automatic behaviors that keep you from your health and weight-loss goals.
Whether you’re eating good-for-you foods for fuel or you’re blatantly enjoying a double scoop on Sunday afternoon, nourishing yourself means picking the foods that your body asks for in order to stay satiated and fueled for life. And when you work with what your body wants instead of trying to fight it, perhaps you’ll start to see yourself in a more positive light.
3. It can take the emotion out of eating
When you stop looking at food in terms of good or bad, you don’t feel guilty or mad at yourself when you decide to indulge in a treat. That can help you avoid feeling like you blew it. What’s more, you’re eating when when you are actually hungry — and not just because you’re bored, stressed, lonely, or anxious.
Ryan Casada, a licensed mental health counselor from Orlando, Florida, works with clients who struggle with binge eating. She employs mindful eating training with her clients, and reports that, “They feel more equipped to be in the present moment and, over time, are less and less likely to binge because they begin to learn how to listen to their bodies and what their bodies need.”
By taking small bites and chewing thoroughly, you’re inevitably going to eat slower, which should help you avoid overeating. You can also try putting your fork or spoon down after every third bite just to make sure you’re slowing your eating cadence. Eating slower will help you notice when you are satisfied, whereas, according to Casada, “Binging dulls this awareness and keeps you desensitized to what you’re eating, how much you are eating, and how you are feeling as you eat.”
4. It can help you make healthier choices overall
You might think that listening to your body means you’ll end up inhaling pizza and ice cream every night. But when those foods are no longer off-limits, you might actually find yourself wanting them less often. Sure, it might sound hard to believe now. But when you give yourself permission to pick any food that you want, most of the time, you’ll find that what you really crave is something that leaves you feeling light and energized — not sluggish and weighed down.
So, just how can mindful eating encourage you to make healthier food choices? According to Cheung, part of eating more mindfully includes choosing more plant-based foods, because doing so is not only healthier for you, but also for the planet.
Another less obvious component to mindful eating, as Cheung defines it, includes thinking not only about what and how much you eat, but also where your food comes from. Thinking more deeply about the journey of the food we put on our plates — and how that impacts the world around us — may seem tangential, but this practice can make you think more holistically about your individual health as well as the health of the planet.
For example, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) reported in 2012 that meat production releases greenhouse gases, which can contribute to climate change. The report stated that an analysis of 27 countries in the European Union found that beef had by far the highest greenhouse gas emissions when compared to pork, poultry, or milk, but researchers concluded that it’s more climate-efficient to produce protein from plant sources. Researchers reported that consumption of just over two pounds of beef represents the same greenhouse gas emissions as driving 99 miles.
5. It can help you eat less
Ever taken a second helping of dinner just because it’s sitting there, or polished off an entire bag of chips in front of the TV — only to end up feeling uncomfortably stuffed? When you check in with your hunger instead of just eating whatever is on your plate, you’ll be satisfied with a more normal-sized portion, says Cederquist. The Clean Plate Club might revoke your membership, but by eating mindfully, you might find that you’re content after eating three-quarters of your chicken stir-fry, or three or four bites of that slice of apple pie. Another strategy to try: Cheung advises serving modest portions.
Start small and, before getting up and going back for seconds, give yourself time (at least 15–20 minutes) to get the signal from your belly to your brain that you’re satiated. Keep in mind that we have a tendency to fill our plates to the rim with food, so choosing a smaller plate may help you succeed at this step. If you’re dining out, ask for a to-go box as soon as your meal arrives, and put half of it away. Challenge yourself to leave food on your plate, even when dining at home. You’ll be amazed at how this simple practice can help trim your portions.
How Present Can You Be Around Food and Mealtime?
The best thing about mindful eating is that you can start doing it now. Take a moment to gauge your current mindfulness level with these questions:
- Do you regularly eat while watching TV?
- Do you regularly eat while driving?
- Do you regularly eat at your desk as you work or browse the internet?
If you answered yes to any questions, these may be subtle signs that you could be eating more mindfully, says Cederquist.
Cheung’s definition of mindful eating focuses on what to eat, how to eat it, how much we eat, and understanding why we eat what we do. And, it’s about being fully aware of the environment or conditions in which you eat. Cheung encourages eating without distractions — no phone, no computer, no TV, no arguing at the dinner table — so that you can focus all of your senses on your food. By doing so, Cheung theorizes that people can honor their food and the labor it took to arrive on their plates.
Start by putting your meals and snacks on an attractive plate, and sitting down to eat at the table. Chew slowly and thoroughly, enjoy the taste and texture of the different foods on the plate, and pause every so often to check in with your need for more food. By removing the distractions, your focus will naturally start to shift toward your food — and allow you to start eating more mindfully.