Can you guess what low carb diets, low fat diets, Keto, Atkins, very low-calorie diet (VLCD) and most other diets have in common? If you guessed that they are all popular options for weight loss which include avoiding or restricting food in some way, then you're spot on. While creating a calorie deficit is the key to weight loss, sometimes placing too much of an emphasis on restricting calories can run individuals into the ground due to the unsustainable rapid changes in dietary patterns. Moreover, over restricting food can have a negative effect on our relationship with food while taking the enjoyment out of something which should be enjoyed. This is where mindful eating comes into play.
What is it?
Although there is no solid definition, there are common themes of mindful eating which are agreed on in the literature. These include making conscious food choices which align with natural hunger cues and eating healthily in response to those cues (Warren, Smith & Ashwell, 2017). In essence, to eat mindfully means to be in the present moment during meal time and taking mental note of how food is effecting the physical and emotional sensations (Warren, Smith & Ashwell, 2017).
Intuitive Eating vs Mindful Eating
The intertwining principles behind both these definitions explains why the difference between them has previously been up for debate. The key principle they share is appropriately responding to internal hunger cues independent of emotional (e.g. had a bad day) or external (e.g. birthday cake in the office) cues. The key difference is that intuitive eating incorporates self-care where health and energy takes priority over physical appearance (Van Dyke & Drinkwater, 2014). On the other hand, mindful eating is simply the act of eating mindfully at mealtime.
Why is Mindful Eating Useful?
Improves relationship with food
Mindful eating ensures all focus is on internal hunger cues and the act of eating in the present moment. This takes out external and emotional cues which contribute to eating past the point of fullness or adding in snacks that don't need to be there (e.g. boredom eating). Emotional cues/stress could be related to work deadlines, poor relationships, anxiety and depression, and/or trauma from a past event. External triggers are things like plate and portion sizes along with the sight and smell of food. A 2017 literature review conducted by Warren, Smith and Ashwell (2017) demonstrated that mindful eating was effective in binge eating, emotional eating and external eating behaviours. In turn, individuals may be more in tune with mealtimes, reduce overeating and make improvements in their mental health. When emotional and external cues are reduced, we also provide ourselves an opportunity to reflect on times where we have eaten out of tune with our internal hunger cues. As a result, we gain a sense of control and understanding around when and why we are eating in order to make more informed choices in the future.
For similar reasons to above, mindful eating can help avoid consuming beyond our needs. This was shown in a cohort of 171 South Australian adults who reported enhanced serving size moderation after a mindfulness intervention (Beshara, Hutchinson & Wilson, 2013). In other words, subjects in the study were able to keep a handle on how much they would eat at one time, therefore, preventing overeating across the day.
May aid weight management
Interestingly, when humans eat in tune with their internal cues and instincts, weight management becomes easier as there is no active food restriction. This is because under normal circumstances, the body naturally lets you know how much food it needs through hunger hormones. If we listen to our body saying "hey, that's enough food for now", then experiencing obesity is unlikely because overeating probably won't happen. It is when we are scrolling on social media, watching TV, or in an emotional state that we lose or ignore our sense of fullness and keep eating until our body says "hey, you have had way too much, what am I going to do with all this food?". Carrière and colleagues (2017) revealed in their systematic review and meta-analysis that mindfulness interventions reduced weight and obesity-related behaviours in overweight and obese populations. This means it might be a handy tool to use if obesity prevention is the goal. On the other hand, there is very little evidence showing the effectiveness of mindful eating on weight loss for those already at a regular body weight.
How to Eat Mindfully
Some practical tips to practice mindful eating include:
Stop to notice the smells, colours, shapes and textures of the food on your plate
Chew slowly and enjoy each mouthful
Place cutlery down immediately after taking a mouthful
Eat at the table with no distractions (yep, that means leaving your phone in your bedroom and turning the TV off)
Imagine a scale of 1 - 10 (1 = very hungry; 10 = very full). Eat when you feel around a 3/10 and stop eating when you feel around an 8/10
Use a smaller plate - using a large plate may act as an external cue which overrides your internal cues.
Join the headspace mindful eating course.
Should everyone practice mindful eating?
Given the overwhelming evidence that mindfulness is great for our mental health given the busy world in which we live, implementing it into our culinary practices is something everyone should consider. This might look differently for everyone. For example, an individual who is classed as overweight or obese would most likely benefit from practicing mindful eating at all meals because the literature supports its efficacy in reducing portion sizes and therefore calorie intake. On the other hand, an elite athlete may not need to practice mindful eating from a weight loss perspective, but might benefit from it at dinner time as a way to wind down and express gratitude in the pursuit of mental health. There are also times where individuals may be required to ignore their internal hunger cues the pursuit of weight gain due to a medical condition or athletic commitments. It is important for these populations to work with a health professional to ensure they are doing the right things to achieve their goals while maintaining a positive relationship with both food and themselves.
Mindful eating is the practice of responding to internal natural hunger cues as opposed to external and emotional triggers. Implementing this practice can work to improve our relationship with food and ourselves whether trying to lose weight or not. In addition, there is some pretty solid evidence suggests that eating mindfully can prevent and sometimes treat overweight and obesity leading to decreased disease risk. If you think mindful eating may benefit you in some way, refer to the practical tips and practice as much as possible.
Bechara, M., Hutchinson, A.D. & Wilson, C. (2013). Does mindfulness matter? Everyday mindfulness, mindful eating and self-reported serving size of energy dense foods among a sample of South Australian adults. Appetite, 67, 25 - 29. https://www-sciencedirect-com.libraryproxy.griffith.edu.au/science/article/pii/S0195666313001207
Carrière, K., Khoury, B., Günak, B.B., & Knäuper, B. Mindfulness‐based interventions for weight loss: a systematic review and meta‐analysis.
Obesity Reviews, 19(2), 164 - 177. https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.libraryproxy.griffith.edu.au/doi/full/10.1111/obr.12623
Van Dyke, N. & Drinkwater, E.J. (2014). Relationships between intuitive eating and health indicators: literature review. Public Health Nutrition, 17(08), 1 - 10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23962472/
Warren, J.M,, Smith, N. & Ashwater, M. (2017). A structured literature review on the role of mindfulness, mindful eating and intuitive eating in changing eating behaviours: effectiveness and associated potential mechanisms. Nutrition Research Reviews, 30, 272 - 283.